Art as a form of social justice: 'My Friends in Balmain' by Ibi Ibrahim

In a series of images that the Yemeni American artist calls "first and foremost an ode to friendship," pieces from the Balmain Resort 2022 collection are featured in all their beauty and cultural value.
Art as a form of social justice: 'My Friends in Balmain' by Ibi Ibrahim

Few may think about the fact that Balmain's Creative Director Olivier Rousteing has Somali and Ethiopian roots. He was adopted as a baby and only recently came to that discovery himself. And fewer still might know that his Resort '22 collection for the maison was inspired by a trip to the IMA's exhibition "Divas, from Oum Kalthoum to Dalida" in Paris. It's an ode to the Arab world, with hints of fabrics from his motherlands.

We can all agree that Rousteing's understanding of the past, present and future has always been a part of his heritage at Balmain -- where he has been for the past ten years, having been picked to head the brand at the age of 25. His clothes seem to be at the crossroads of modernity and tradition, a special place where humanity always rules.

So when the French designer invited Yemeni artist and photographer Ibi Ibrahim to photograph "real people" wearing pieces from his collection, in any setting the Ibrahim saw fit, the Brooklyn-resident jumped at the chance. He enlisted the help of his friends, "Maryam from Iraq, Lylla who is Syrian and Lebanese, and Hadi, Anisa, and Mohammed who are Yemeni" he explains. And he continues, in his essay on the experience, "Brooklyn is our home today as it will most likely remain, but there is another home that lives within us. It is where our stories were born, and where our dreams often travel."

Maryam, My Friends in Balmain, 105x70cm, 2021

I wanted to catch up with Ibrahim and feature a few of his stunning black and white images of the clothes, worn by his very photogenic friends. And catch up I did. Here below is a quick Q & A conducted with the multi-disciplinary artist whose work is in the collections of the British Museum, Colorado College, Barjeel Art Foundation and the Durham University Museum, among others.

Your work tackles the issues of being Yemeni, in the diaspora but also returning home (as in your series ‘Arrival’). What does your heritage mean personally to you, beyond the great connections you make through your work?

I can’t help but think of a sense of privilege as I think of my heritage as a Yemeni. This is a place as old as history. With all its complications, conflicts and endless wars, I am still very fortunate that I am a one who comes from that world. 

Cultural identity and heritage has a vast influence on my work and is often a driving theme behind my projects. As a Yemeni American, I am impacted both by the war in my homeland and by the legacy of Trump’s travel ban -- two disastrous events that resulted in major shifts in my artistic practice. The work I produced in recent years has become a platform for others directly impacted by those events to tell their own story and disclose their alternate reality. A reality often dismissed from mainstream media. Through oral story-telling and imagery, I believe that we are able to break the stereotype often imposed on Muslims, Arabs in the West and immigrant communities. In telling that story, I am practicing a form of social justice. 

Ariane, My Friends in Balmain, 105x70cm, 2021

How did your latest collaboration/series come about ‘My Friends in Balmain’? And why this brand?

My work was on display at l'Institut du monde Arabe in Paris as part of the exhibition ‘Divas’ in 2021 and I believe that Olivier Rousteing visited the exhibition at the time. I learned that Balmain’s team and Olivier himself really liked my work; in particular photographs from my earlier series ‘Social Codes’ which tackles issues of sexuality and gender in conservative societies. Based on their interest, I was approached about the commission. I’ve always loved Olivier’s work and the inspiration behind the 2022 resort collection was magnificent and impossible not to love. I said yes immediately and the rest is history. 

How did you start to take photos? And when did you realize you had a power to explain and express with your camera?

I’ve always had an interest in photographs, since as long as I can remember. The year 2009 was a turning point as I found myself approaching photography with a sense of telling a story rather than merely documenting a moment of beauty. Back then, I’d just moved back to Yemen -- leaving my friends and my life in America behind. The loneliness made me seek something new and I found that in photography. The more I read and saw, the more my approach developed. 

Hadi, My Friends in Balmain, 60x40cm, 2021

What do you hope people take away from your work?

That really depends on the work. I am constantly working on different themes and projects. I like to always seek something new and challenge myself. I do like it when a work of art initiates questions and makes you go search for answers.

A journey to seek answers begins. I am a fan of those journeys. 

Top header image "Anisa, My Friends in Balmain, 40x60cm, 2021" and all others by Ibi Ibrahim©, used with permission of the artist.

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