Islington artist shows true colours of Oman with unique portraits of women

Helen Couchman with Omani women. Photo: Helen Couchman

Helen Couchman with Omani women. Photo: Helen Couchman - Credit: Archant

A Highbury artist is attempting to shed light on a little-known corner of the world with her unique portraits of Omani women.

Five Omani Women. Photo: Helen Couchman

Five Omani Women. Photo: Helen Couchman - Credit: Archant

Helen Couchman said the idea came to her after travelling to Oman for work four years ago. “I wanted to understand a little bit more about what we mean when we refer to the ‘Middle East’,” she said. “It’s just so general and vague.”

It was while she was on an assignment in the desert that she was first inspired: “I was at the edge of what is known as the ‘Empty Quarter’ when I met three women who just appeared over the dunes in the middle of nowhere.”

The women – including a mother and her three daughters – took a shine to her and invited her to their farm. “I was struck by how brightly and confidently dressed the four women were,” Ms Couchman told the Gazette. “After that I began thinking about my expectations of them being more conservatively dressed.”

When she returned to the UK she searched through archives for photos of Omani women, but found only portraits that were anthropological or of eroticised Persian beauty.

Inspired by her own experiences, she returned to the country to start her own photo project.

Of course, convincing strangers to pose for photos wasn’t easy.

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“I realised it might be quite a tricky question for people to consider so I approached people in the street rather than at their homes which I don’t think would have been very polite,” Ms Couchman said.

Most families had at least one member who spoke English or else would invite over a friend who could.

“I would ask them three questions,” she said. “Would they like to be in a portrait? What they would like to wear? And how would they like to present themselves?”

The result is a series of images published in her new book Omani Women.

She will be giving a talk and book-signing at Waterstones in Islington Green on March 9 at 6pm. To reserve a place ring the shop on 020 7704 2280.

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