Art Galleries
Girl Power

A new exhibition of photographs and videos by sisters Brigitte and Marian Lacombe featuring female athletes from 20 Arab nations has opened in Manchester, England. Rachel Wolff reports on the inspiring results. Photography by Brigitte Lacombe.

In one of the dozens of short films featured alongside the striking photographs in the exhibition “Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sports,” an impossibly fit Lycra-clad Dana Hussein Abdul-Razzaq takes her mark in the frame, cutting a powerful preparatory figure against a stark white backdrop. Her black hair is pulled away from her face in a simple ponytail; her ears are adorned with small silver hoops. A starting pistol fires in the distance, and she’s off. The camera captures her flight in slow motion, highlighting her strength as she slices through the air, showcasing the perfect form that the young Iraqi runner has been honing for years. “We suffer from wars and we suffer from instability in Iraq,” she says into the camera seconds later. “But despite all of this, we still train. Sport has taught me a lot… love for people, respect, discipline, cooperation, and friendship.”

Abdul-Razzaq’s very existence stands in stark defiance of outside perceptions of the female experience in the Arab world, particularly when it comes to athletics. The 27-year-old participated in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing after training in her war-ravaged country. She competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, as well, after leading her teammates through the opening processional, proudly waving the Iraqi flag. 

Strong, proud, extremely accomplished and thoroughly modern, she is one of 70 women from 20 Arab nations featured in “Hey’Ya: Arab Women in Sports,” a touring exhibition of photographs by the renowned portraitist Brigitte Lacombe and short companion documentaries by her sister, filmmaker Marian Lacombe. The duo traveled around the region together, capturing their subjects during breaks between training sessions and competitions. The resulting portraits and films were exhibited at Sotheby’s auction house in London during the 2012 Summer Olympics. They are currently on view at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

The timing of the Lacombes’ sprawling project was critical, as the mere notion of Arab women participating in sports in any public or professional capacity remains a controversial topic, both in the region and beyond — especially in Olympic years. The 2012 London Games marked the first time Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei allowed women to compete on their behalf. “The project was really about inclusion and participation and inspiration,” Brigitte says — on several different levels. “It resonated because it was about more than just excellence.”

The overarching conceit came from Qatar’s Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who commissioned the project in 2011. (The Lacombe sisters started their work during the Doha-based 2011 Pan Arab Games.) The idea, Brigitte says, was to put forth as much diversity as possible and to introduce these girls and women as individuals who are as varied as the region itself.

For example, on one side of the exhibit is the image of Deena Abdulla Mahboob, a Bahraini taekwondo triple black belt who learned her craft as a way, she says, “to defend myself in any way possible, anywhere.” The results, she says, have been utterly empowering. On another wall is the fiercely independent Fatma Abdulrazaaq, also of Bahrain, who was born with only two fingers on each hand. She competed in the 2012 Paralympics as a shot-putter. Training and competition have allowed her “to meet people, to see people, to leave the house, to not let the disability close the door on me,” she says, proudly looking into Marian’s camera.

Noor Hussain Al-Malki, a sprinter from Qatar, was shy about appearing in front of spectators without her veil, but she found the strength to do so through the encouragement of her brother. He told her she’s an athlete now, that she shouldn't be shy, that she should just be strong. There’s Maryam Al Boinin, the Qatari equestrian who dreams of nabbing a gold medal and, one day, running her own ranch. Mariam Hussein is a basketball player who lives in Canada but participated in the 2011 Pan Arab Games alongside women from her native Somalia; she marvels at the great risk her teammates took simply to be there. And there's Nawal El Moutawakel, the famed Moroccan hurdler who grew up running around Casablanca barefoot and helping her mother cook and clean for her siblings in exchange for a few hours of training in the local stadium. At the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, Moutawakel ran the 400-meter hurdles and became the first Moroccan and the first woman from the Muslim world ever to win a gold medal. 

“It was not a reportage project about sports — I’m not a sports photographer," says Brigitte. “I see everything I do as portraiture.” The New York–based photographer is best known for her work with top Hollywood directors. Her images — many of movie stars and movie sets — appear regularly in publications such as Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, New York magazine, the Financial Times magazine, Condé Nast Traveler and German Vogue.

“Even if it’s not a head-and-shoulders portrait, I see it as trying to get to the essence of something or someone,” she adds. “For this project I wanted to make the portraits extremely pared down and sober, simple and classic.” The format was often wide, and the resulting prints are quite large. Brigitte’s crisp photographs illuminate her subjects’ lean musculature as they stretch, welcome viewers into the camaraderie among teammates and zero in on the joy and intensity in their eyes as they prepare to compete.

All the photographs were shot outdoors. Brigitte set up a makeshift studio that could be easily transported from location to location. It was important, she says, to unite the images in this way, both for aesthetic reasons and not to detract from the power of the subjects themselves. “Almost nobody turned us down for this project,” she says. “If they did, it was a question of timing. I think they all understood that it was important for them and for other women to participate and show that they excel at what they do, that they’re engaged in what they do.”

The video component — Marian’s domain — is where some of the more intimate stories came forth. “What I was really looking for was for people to tell me how it makes them feel to do sports,” she explains. “I would ask them how they started playing sports, why did they choose their sport. I asked about their challenges — if they had the help of their families or if they had to fight their families, if their countries had the infrastructure for their training — and how they overcame them.” She recalls a young Saudi girl she interviewed who persuaded her family to turn their private garden into a basketball court so she could train outdoors. (The country’s strict Sharia law prevents her from doing so elsewhere.) She told Marian that she wants to use her success to someday build athletic facilities in Saudi Arabia for girls and women like herself.

“It’s inspiring even when you’re not an athlete,” Marian says. “You admire them all, and they make you want to try to be a little better at what you’re doing. As one of my interpreters said, ‘When you see all this, it gives you wings.’”

Qatari swimmer Nada Mohammed Wafa Arkaji.