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Mashael Al Saie: Ethereal imagery and living in metaphors

Mashael Al Saie’s dreamy perspectives of being in the world and her ability to capture the nuanced essence of the female Arab experience has made the young Bahraini stand out as a photographer and filmmaker in the region. 

Through her lens, humans and mundane things are transformed into what can only be summed up as nostalgic memories filtered through a dream world or a summer day with an evanescent glow. 

“Someone once told me, your work is like people are suspended in water,” she says.

The 25-year-old recently found a calling in filmmaking, and her latest exhibition is a video installation called “Dihin,” exploring love, kindness, and the playful chastising between a grandmother and her daughter. It takes the viewer down a journey of Mashael’s childhood memories, specifically the tradition of hair oiling, a beauty ritual passed down through the generations to tame curly hair.

Layered with voice notes over beautiful visuals, the installation conveys the repetitive and claustrophobic nature of beauty and idealized standards of the self that Arab women are subjected to while also carrying the immense love and affection that can only be provided by a maternal figure. 

“We Arab women live in metaphors. I don’t feel like I can say things flat out – I’ve always been very intent on adding metaphors and having a message with the photograph or film,” says Mashael. 

Growing up, she always had a camera with her, but it was only when she moved to Dubai after university that she began to really experiment with film photography. 

“I started by making portraits of the people in my life that I love, and it kind of just evolved from there. I taught myself how to do film photography,” she says.

Mashael humorously recalls changing her undergraduate major six or seven times before settling on Urban Design because she couldn’t bring herself to study the arts at first. She felt she should be doing something else and fulfill an image of herself that was accepted in a society that didn’t consider art a valuable pursuit. 

“What was so fascinating for me in that space was that we were talking about the psychology of spaces and about how physical forms can manifest skills in individuals,” she says.

The intent behind her work isn’t to capture real-life necessarily, but the focus is to capture a singular moment or feeling in time. 

“I’m trying to take something from my real life, isolate it, and talk about how it hurts me or inspired me. It’s about picking apart why I am the way I am, and creating something to communicate that through,” she says.

To achieve a certain ethereal aesthetic, the key is to take her time with the process. “I really spend time with the person I’m shooting to get them in a place where they feel like they can be represented and can have a conversation. It shows when they are comfortable, they glow and I’m happy I can capture that.”

Since moving to New York in 2018 to pursue her masters in film and photography, Mashael became more focused on quality over quantity compared to previously, when she was making work that was commercially driven. 

“It’s completely different now where I’m making work just for me and my process. It feels more intentional,” she says. 

“I’m not drawn to mediums, I shifted from photography to filmmaking,” she explains. “I’m just using the medium to tell specific stories. The story comes first, then the product.”

Film photography was not the only thing she taught herself. She recently dabbled in making her own clothes and even her own jewelry because she was simply sick of having to buy those things.

“My aunt was a porcelain artist, and when my mom used to drop me off at her studio, I learned porcelain art. It’s a very slow, detailed process,” reminisces Mashael. “My grandmother used to have a dress shop, and on top of that was my aunt’s studio, so I have memories of painting in the porcelain studio, then going to run through all the dresses in the storage room.”

Like many creatives, she is a resident of a certain struggle, experiencing the blocks and fear that many do but still choosing to push through because she understands the importance of being vulnerable. 

“I’m perpetually terrified because a lot of things I show are super personal. You feel naked when you produce work in that mindset,” she says. “But after I make things, it’s no longer mine, so in a way, I’m able to make peace with it.” 

The creative rebirth would not be what it is today without women at the forefront of it being vulnerable by defining and showcasing their individuality. 

“There is so much amazing work coming from the women of the region, and it’s all independent. There is a sense of sisterhood from the creators I’ve met, they wanna talk about their work and also about my work – we understand that it’s hard to carve our own, so we always uplift each other.” 

Follow Mashael at @filmbymashael on Instagram.