Last December, Qatar Museums Authority commissioned Brigitte Lacombe, a French photographer known mainly for her work with the film industry, to snap over 70 sportswomen from 20 Arab countries – some with Olympic potential. The project was the brainchild of Sheika Mayassa Al Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), and also the 29-year-old daughter of the emir of Qatar. It’s a great way to encourage more Arab women to turn to sport, and to help draw light on Muslim societies that require headscarves in sport.
The series, Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sport, uses videography by Marian Lacombe and portraiture by Brigitte to depict the powerful feelings provoked by sport. It’s a limited showing from July 25 to August 11, but will undergo continued continued development. Admission is free.
The video elements of Hey’Ya, which is Arabic slang for “let’s go”, explore the women’s personal histories. Partnered with the photographs, they spotlight culture and gender in the Arab sporting world. Brigitte was introduced to the Sheikha by a mutual friend, their first collaboration was a project for the Doha-Tribeca film festival.
Turns out Sheika Mayassa is also passionate about sports.
Qatar has been tagged as the richest, fattest nation on earth. Diabetes and obesity are on the rise.
More negative press rolled in when, along with Saudi Arabia and Brunei, Qatar was criticized for excluding female athletes from their Olympic teams. Unhappy attention for a nation ambitious to be the leading locale for premier world sport (Doha’s Arab Games, Tour of Qatar bicycle race and FIFA 2022, as example). Reaction was quick and muscular.
School sports programs were launched for girls and boys. World-class sports facilities sprouted to train those with competitive dreams. Community outreach programs began to educate people about health benefits of an active lifestyle.
The photo project fit in perfectly with Qatar’s reinvention from stoutest state to “leader of lean”. This clever way to promote Qatar’s endorsement of all-inclusive sport also allowed a look into countries where physical exercise for women is severely restricted by religious tradition, banned outright, and punishable by law.
The project commenced with the Arab Games, held in Doha last December.
According to the exhibit literature, Lacombe wanted to photograph athletes at all levels, like the Jeddah Green Team, a women’s basketball team in Saudi Arabia that is forbidden from public practice. She photographed Woroud Sawalha, a Palestinian runner who qualified for the this year’s Olympics after training in the hills around her village.
“It’s incredible to think that a simple thing of trying to bring women to be equal to men is political, and yet that is the aim of the project: to bring young girls and young women to realize they can and they should participate in sport. This is political, even if it is not meant to be,”, Brigitte said in an interview with The Financial Times.
“It is interesting for us (people in the West),” she said, “who are so used to having everything we want, to see that these girls understand which battles are important to fight. They accept, within the rules that are imposed on them, that they have to be covered. And in a way they embrace that, they try not to make it their fight. I am full of admiration for the way they are able to be clever and see that that is worth the fight, and that can wait and that can come later.
“That’s why it was so emotional for us … to see so many young people from war-torn countries or extremely restrictive cultures….to see that they came through. And it’s not like they have great sponsors. It’s just the most inspiring thing.”
Brigitte told Arab News, “For me everything is a portrait. If I meet someone who is doing something interesting, I want to record them as fully and beautifully as I can. These are very passionate and inspiring women. I know nothing about sports and discovered a lot, they have determination and intelligence to fight the battle.”
The portraits fill the large halls of Sotheby’s exhibition space. Videos of the women telling their own stories are projected onto nearby screens, bringing the portraits to life.
Somali basketballer, Mariam Hussein, grew up in Canada. She talks about the difficulty girls living in Somalia have playing sports. “It’s allowed but there are certain groups that don’t like it. You can get killed if you’re a girl that plays sports there,” she said.
Hayat Lambarki, from the Moroccan athletics team, talks about maintaining her femininity. Her fingernails are painted pink; she first used make-up to mask her fears while running, but learned fear must be dealt with in deeper ways.
Qatari first woman Olympian, swimmer Nada Arkaji, likens herself to a mermaid, describing how the water sets her free.
“They are not talking about nations, they are talking about people, they are talking about their experience and what they do,” says Jean-Paul Engelen, director of Public Art Program at the Qatar Museum Authority told The Financial Times. “So many times in debates about nations you forget that it’s about people.”
“From a museum point of view, we are trying to do two things: educate and stimulate a debate. And what stimulates debates really is breaking down stereotypes, and I think that is what we are doing with this exhibition,” Engelen continues.
It may be a slick element in Qatar’s re-branding scheme, but the passion and sentiments expressed in this show are honest and thought-provoking.
Images via Qatar Museums Authority