By Leah Samoa Overstreet
Young girls float in a sea of saltwater and floral fabric, washed up on the shore and draped in ocean-blue cloth extending from their heads down past their toes; seashells conceal their faces, leaving only their eyes visible to pierce the lens of the camera. These are the mermaids of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Or rather, the dream-come-to-life of visionary photographer Amira Nazer, CC ’22. Whimsically styled in pinks and blues, ruffles and mesh, the girls are in various states of modesty, some veiled and others unveiled, some wearing a loose-fitting, full-length robe known as an abaya. In the VICE Arabia article that accompanies the Mermaids of Jeddah photo series, Nazer writes that the project was intended to explore “the tension, freedom, beauty, and limitations that come together in the lives of Jeddah’s women.”
One can’t help but admire Amira Nazer’s charisma. She’s disarmingly eloquent and warm. It was on an uncharacteristically radiant October day that I asked Nazer to speak with me, and she insisted on sitting outside to soak up the rays. In a delightfully sequined top, she glistened. The sunlit bench outside of Furnald she had perched on was her throne. She spoke with the ease of someone who’d discussed her work at length many times before, and who had a clear understanding of her creative voice. She has vision.
It was in Photo II with Alex Strada that Nazer first started working on what would inspire Mermaids of Jeddah. Strada instructed the class to choose one subject for the semester and photograph it constantly. Nazer chose her younger sister and, over four months of shooting, noticed dramatic changes in her body. “It was about this age that I started wearing the abaya, so in my head, I had this direct link between puberty and the abaya.” But Nazer’s sister was growing up in New York, not Jeddah, where Nazer had spent her adolescent years. The garment’s absence in the photographs made Nazer obsessed with the concept of her own body—covered and uncovered—in different spaces.
It was sometime in this period that Nazer dreamt of a mermaid emerging from the waters of a childhood beach. In the dream, onlookers admired and praised the mermaid’s tail, but what caught Nazer’s attention was how burdensome it was. How heavy, as she struggled to drag herself out of the water. The vision inspired Nazer to embark on a new photography project: The abaya would be the mermaid’s tail! As soon as she woke up, she called her childhood best friend, stylist, and London fashion student Latifa Bint Saad, to relay her idea.
“I was thinking a lot about what it means for fabric to be—for fabric to have weight,” she said. “What is the weight of fabric as a theoretical, philosophical question? But then also, in terms of material, what is the actual weight of carrying around this object?” Mermaids of Jeddah was particularly fitting as Jeddah is often called “the bride of the sea”—another term for mermaid. Nazer wrote in an article for VICE Arabia that, for her, “the sea exists as an entity of liberation, freeing an individual from the land; however, simultaneously, as a form of restraint, restricting the body from its habitual mode of motion and consuming it within another material.”
Saad, whom she has known since kindergarten, worked alongside Nazer to realize this vision. She’s responsible for creating the garments showcased in the series. That both women experienced coverage while growing up was crucial to the piece’s success. “We were able to create a real representation of ourselves in our community because of our relationship with our youth. So I think that made it a lot more sentimental.” They took inspiration from the colors they used to cover themselves with as children and reached out to friends who covered differently. Thus, Mermaids of Jeddah became a reality. According to Nazer, though, the series is not yet complete. The digital images from the series have been printed onto the fabric of the garments she photographed, and Nazer hopes to showcase these prints as the final installment.
Nazer’s latest creative endeavor is the Thobe Project, which explores the timeless nature of Saudi men’s dress. Earlier in the pandemic, when she was back home in Jeddah, Nazer shot several pieces for this series on expired film. When she returned to the United States and developed the photos, many of them were lost or discolored. Many were unsalvageable. Even so, VICE Arabia reached out to her. They were impressed by the photographs and asked to feature them. Nazer plans for this series to continue for at least a decade.
In the meantime, Nazer fills her days with a variety of artistic projects. In the fall of 2020, she spent a gap semester working with Saudi calligraphy artist Nasser Al Salem and experienced a more curatorial section of the art world. She also noted the impact of a performance art class that she took with mentor and iconic 1980s performance artist Kembra Pfahler. In an assignment in which she was instructed to “activate” Alma Mater, Nazer set up a bed and bookcase next to dear old Alma and hosted a night of bedtime stories. During this performance art piece, she invited audience members to climb into bed with her and either read a book from Columbia’s Core syllabus or a story they felt was more important. Nazer described the performance as a “juxtaposition of light storytelling, intimacy, and secrecy” with “this wider collective of shared information that is the institution that is Columbia.”
Somehow, Nazer still has time to cultivate life’s lighter side. She fills her wardrobe with bright colors and plenty of glitter, adores spending time with her friends, and is currently on the hunt for the best croissant in New York (La Bicyclette in Brooklyn is the top contender so far). Nazer also took up DJing over the pandemic, inspired by the underground house music scene. Although she hasn’t been DJing much lately, Nazer enjoys going to dance at these venues—perhaps, one night, she’ll take Sam Sacks along and cameo in our pages once more. Given her tenacity and talent, I certainly doubt this will be her last headline.