Eman Ali creates vivid, captivating, and meticulously detailed photographs that transport viewers into the realm of make-believe, her psyche, and universe. Born in London and raised in Oman, she travels between London, Manama, and Muscat ever so often and does much of her work in the Gulf - her connection to these three cities is embedded in her roots and personal experiences. Driven by questions about gender, religion, and socio-political ideologies, her work primarily examines social norms and women’s representation in the region. The intersection of these preoccupations is central to her artistic practice. Integrated as part celebration and part critique, Eman Ali’s work is fuelled by her curiosity, observations, and personal experiences living in the Gulf.
Growing up, she experimented with photography using a Point & Shoot Canon camera that was handed down to her by her brother at the age of ten. From this point forward, Eman photographed everything around her. Considering that she had little exposure to visual art in Oman, her work draws its inspiration from cinema and popular culture for storytelling and visual aesthetics. In 2004, she moved to her birth city, London, to pursue her studies in Graphic Design - a discipline that continues to influence her artistic practice in terms of compositions and the relationship between text and image. During her undergraduate degree, Eman Ali took extra photography classes where she furthered her experimentation in darkrooms and grasped the technical aspects of photography. She went on to obtain her MA in Photography in 2017.
Shortly after obtaining her undergraduate degree, Eman moved to Bahrain during the 2011 uprising where she produced artworks with an acute fresh perspective. At the outset, her approach to photography was anthropologist and journalistic, whereby she documented quotidian moments where the ordinary becomes extraordinary just by being seen. For instance, The Pearl (2011) documents Bahrain’s PearlRoundabout, which was conceived as a site for peaceful demonstrations occupied by a vibrant community of protesters. Shot in black and white, we see masses of men, women, and children in motion and stillness. They brought along their personal belongings and great hopes, determined to oppose the government’s laws, political arrests, and the ruling family’s grip on power. In contrast, Wendy’s (2012) provides a raw documentation of the LGBTQ+ community that has conceived Wendy’s as the unofficial gay club in Bahrain and a safe space for the community to come together. Produced amidst the 2011 uprising, Eman Ali wanted to juxtapose the news coverage on the political unrest in Bahrain with the celebration of life she was experiencing on the ground at Wendy’s.
Moving away from the macro/universal, Eman Ali turned to the micro/personal where she fixated the lens towards individuals and personal spaces. In the beginning, she casted herself to be photographed because it was difficult to involve other women in the region. In this sense, she is both the protagonist and the director behind the camera. Her self-portrait photographs create a playful fantasy where she is transported to different places and transformed into different characters. Concurrently, she uses her body as a way to reclaim her own narrative and presence as an Arab woman. In many ways, her work is in dialogue with architecture, film, performance, and literature, where she creates a sense of space and time altered through her imagination. Eman Ali’s sense of curiosity led her towards research-driven practice, whereby works of literature became conduite for multiple ideas around history, consumerism, and desire.
In Utendi (2019), Eman Ali refers to the Swahili writer Fumo Liyongo’s ancient erotic poem ‘Utendi wa Mwana Manga’ (In Praise of the Arab Woman).This work in particular pushed her towards an unfamiliar territory, quite literally, whereby she was prompted to travel to Lamu - an island on the northern coast of Kenya, where the Swahili culture is prominent and present. In this series of photographs, many of the figures are not fully visible. Alternatively, Eman Ali resorts to natural elements, such as native seashells and flowers, as an extended metaphor and access point for portraits of the older Swahili women in a ludic and revelatory way. Other photographs portray the Swahili younger women posing in a self-assured way, accompanied by verses of the poem carved into the wooden frames made by local artisans in Lamu.
In Her Holeyness (2017), Eman Ali questions the place of the woman and societal expectations by using the visual languages of advertising and tourism and transposes them on the female body itself. The artist explores the concept of the virgin by recreating commercial presentations of female bodies continually cleaning and purifying in Arabic culture.
She carefully reproduces the colors and lights used in advertising to accentuate the underlying artificiality and eroticism and the absurdity of the concept - embodied by virginity soap, artificial hymen pills, and crystal bottles containing menstrual blood.
In Corridors of Power (2015), Eman Ali responds to her native Oman’s grand development projects that came into fruition as dominating, theatrical, and beautiful spaces. As such, she inserted herself in Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, where she appears opaque, overpowered, and consumed by the grandness and opulence of the space. In this work, Eman Ali borrows questions posed in J.M.G Le Clézio’s futurist novel The Giants: “What do you see? What do you see now? And what else do you see?” She invites local viewers to reflect on these changes in Oman.
Her latest project, Succession, opens a new chapter in her practice. It is a book that was created by collecting visual archives from the 1970s - the first decade of the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s rule, who has shaped the Omani nation and is inseparable from its contemporary history. Eman captured these archives using an iPhone and then reworked them to create a series of carefully cropped images arranged into a dream-like sequence. If the former Omani ruler is visually absent from the book, he is yet omnipresent, visible in every modernization, cultural and national signs that traverse the pages. Likewise, there are no captions, the assemblage of the photographs providing a conversation, manipulated by the artist, that raises the question of the power of the images and the creation of narratives.
Published a month before the passing of Sultan Qaboos, this book highlights the important role photography had in reinforcing a new national identity while expressing the artist’s concerns about her country’s uncertain political future and, metaphorically, for the wider region.
Eman Ali’s artistic practice is an active act of observation and investigation, where she is in sync with her surroundings, history, and community. Her works lead viewers to see, reflect, imagine, and escape into spaces that defy territories and time.