People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words and Zeina Aref’s photos are adamantly of that calibre. The young up-and-coming artist knows what it means to create with spirit as each of her productions will undoubtedly resonate with their audience.
Realising a lack of female voices in her community, the 23-year-old took it up to herself and her creative mind to bring light to the issues and struggles she faces, as well as the inequalities that have been posed onto women throughout history. Relying on conceptual photography to embolden her activism, her latest series of auto-portraits is a well-thought-out attempt at instigating a new wave of change that she is so dearly looking to trigger.
Exploring womanhood through the self while taking aim at patriarchy, her fearless sense of militancy is translated through culture, proving to not only be an artist but also a pedagogue by nature.
Relevant and meaningful, we caught up with the young photographer amidst her latest release to talk equality, identity and change: meet Zeina Aref.
For those who need an introduction to your work, how would you describe yourself?
I’m a photographer and director based in London. I was born and raised in Egypt, so most of my work is driven through social commentary and creating spaces for dialogue and change. It is also very much fueled through the celebration of my culture, and the progression of that as we push to modernise and build on our art, design, and music.
Your latest series touches on the feminine identity through its different forms in Arab society. Why focus on such a delicate matter?
Every single person deals with these subject matters and has these internal battles to do with their sexuality, their body, their identity, and the complexity of these topics in relation to Arab culture. The liberation of the female is far from being just a western concept and it is important for us, as Arab women, to define what that looks like for us.
What does the modern Egyptian-Arab woman look like to you?
I don’t believe that there is a mould to what the modern Egyptian or Arab woman may look like or act like. Women come in all shapes and forms and everyone has a different way of being, thinking, and identifying. To try to categorise all Arab women is to stereotype them, to assume, to think that my way of being is any more valid than anyone else’s which is how we ended up with these issues to begin with. I’ve come to realise that this question has no answer, and I am against pushing for a certain agenda of liberation and modernisation by any definition other than the definition which is relevant to that specific woman.
Who are all these characters that you depict in your latest series?
These characters take inspiration from a combination of different elements. They take inspiration from different facets of my identity and the people that I am exposed to on a day-to-day basis in Cairo. These characters for me were different ways of blurring the lines for what an Arab woman is supposed to look like, act like, and behave like. It was about poking fun at all the stereotypical things that have been ingrained through my upbringing about how women should behave. It was also about challenging gender roles and norms and having fun with how we define femininity and masculinity.
They depict my definition of liberation, of being, of celebrating my body and my identity. My intent with this project was to celebrate all of that, unfortunately, to celebrate all of that is to challenge the patriarchal norm of being. My intent is not to provoke but to create a space where I feel free to exist beyond what society has taught me to exist as, and only make that space bigger for women to represent themselves in whatever way they deem fit.
How can we trigger change? What does the region need to realise for it to change?
I used to think about this all the time. How can we trigger change in places that are dictated by centuries and centuries of men controlling how women are supposed to be, their role in society, fuelled by arguments over culture and religion? I think the pathway for change is through open dialogue and acceptance. It is about women taking up that space and existing unapologetically, regardless of the fear and stigma around it.
This series feels like a deep introduction to your train of thought and overall creative mind. Could you tease anything that is set to come out soon?
My personal work is constantly driven by social commentary. I’ve been working on several projects that challenge this in different ways. My work has shifted to be a lot more focused on film-based projects and experimenting with story-telling. I’ve been collaborating with creatives that push for similar progression so I’m really excited to share with you those projects soon.