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Photo Essay: The Lost Tradition Of Female Facial Tattoos In North Africa

Inspired by her grandmother, a photographer sought out the last generation of North African women with tattooed faces.

Photographer Yumna Al-Arashi‘s great-grandmother’s face was outlined with geometric tattoos. They were symbols for the seasons and visual clues to the stars, protecting Al-Arashi’s family against evil spirits. But now that her great-grandmother has passed, all Al-Arashi has of this once-powerful tradition are family photographs, passed down as a relic of another age.

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[Photo: Yumna Al-Arashi]
It was this legacy in the London-based photographer’s Yemeni family that inspired her to document the last generation of women with faces marked by tattoos. The resulting photography series, called Face, is an elegy to an older culture in North Africa and Yemen.

“We need to remember that this was a world that existed before the ‘super oppressed’ Middle East,” Al-Arashi says. “It’s a reminder that the life we’re living in now, where we’re bound by our economic world, this wasn’t always there. It wasn’t so long ago that people were existing on a different planet, that people were operating very fruitfully with it.”

The series presents a portrait of a Middle Eastern cultural past that stretches the stereotypes often found in the media. In doing so, it preserves a centuries-old art form, still alive in the bodies of these women, often aged 75 or older, who likely played a central role in their villages decades earlier. Al-Arashi wasn’t able to travel and photograph through Yemen itself because of the political turmoil, so instead she traveled to Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, where elderly women also have facial tattoos.

As part of the project, Al-Arashi spent time researching the history of the tattoos, but found little information. Still, she began to formulate a hypothesis about the tattoos’ role in women’s lives. “I was understanding that the tattoos symbolized women’s power,” she says. “The women who held the power to tell stories through their bodies–about the food that was going to be grown and their beliefs in bad energies or evil spirits–could carry that weight for the entire family.”

[Photo: Yumna Al-Arashi]
As she traveled from village to village in early 2017 accompanied by a translator, looking for women who had the face tattoos, Al-Arashi found that many younger people she came across would dismiss the women as kooky, uneducated old ladies. “Most women who had tattoos didn’t know how to read or write,” Al-Arashi says. “It doesn’t mean they’re not smart.”

Her photographs represent the women’s resilience in the face of a changing culture that sought to discredit them and their power. Some of Al-Arashi’s subjects sit on the ground, swaddled in colorful clothing, their tattoos adding a subtle texture to the landscape of their faces. Some look joyful–one woman raises her hand in a kind of salute, the exuberant expression on her face transcending culture and time.

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[Photo: Yumna Al-Arashi]
“You could see in their faces that they were happy to be photographed by me and they were participating in the photograph just as much as I was,” Al-Arashi says.

For her, the personal lens of photography–where the documentarian or anthropologist comes from the same group as the people that she’s capturing–is vital to giving people dignity, unlike much of the photography that purposefully positions its subjects as an “other” to be gawked at. “I’m from these places and I spent time with these women,” Al-Arashi says. “I wasn’t trying to get an unbiased image. I was trying to show beauty.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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