2020 Photo Made, Leila Fatemi

Leila Fatemi “A Vessel to Bend Water”

Leila Fatemi

Photo by Christopher Ferreiras


(in progress)

From the earliest depictions of the female form, women have been afflicted with symbolism that disempowers their agency over their bodies, forever bending them back and forth between their physicality and the ideological representations that have been created for them. Using images found in various Orientalist digital archives as a starting point, A Vessel to Bend Water examines the historic relationship between the representation of Muslim women and the props used to show their societal status. In these archival images, the water vessel is used repetitively in studio portraits to reference the job of the water carrier, regarded as a primitive woman’s job. Through the visual intervention of these archival images across a number of photo-based processes, this project seeks to unpack the ways in which the water vessel becomes a prop used to perpetuate colonial agendas and acts as a symbol for the role of women and their bodies.



Leila Fatemi is an emerging artist, curator and community arts worker based in Tkaronto/Toronto. Her work stems from her daily experiences as a visible minority and her perspective as a practicing Muslim woman artist. Fatemi aims to provide platforms and contribute alternative narratives to conversations of ethnic representation with a focus on the experience of Muslim women & women from the MENA region as well as to create a better understanding and appreciation for Islamic culture and traditions. Through her multi-media approach, she challenges the inherently colonial narratives used in Western traditions of misrepresentation of the East.

Fatemi holds an honours BFA from Ryerson University in Image Arts with a minor in Curatorial Studies. Her work has been exhibited in Canada and internationally and has been featured in online and print media including Flash Forward and Fashion Magazine. She was the first-place recipient of the Clyde & Co. Art Award for excellence in visual art and a finalist for the Toronto Art’s Foundation Emerging Artist Award in 2020. 



When and how did you get started in photography?

I’ve always been drawn to capturing moments, people and places so when I took a darkroom photography class in high school, I was immediately drawn to the process. I loved that it’s such a technical medium, but also allowed so much room for experimentation and creative process. I saw and still see it as boundless in terms of photography’s “limits” can be pushed and challenged. During my teens I relied on photography for self exploration and created many self portraits which acted as a visual diary for better understanding the complexities of my identity and growing into them.


What does photography give you? What is it that you try to achieve with photography?

Photography has been a tool that has allowed me to uncover truths about myself, and others. On the contrary, it’s also been deceptive and perpetuated false narratives. As my work continues to evolve, I am curious about the history of representation in photography and how the medium can be used to challenge and subvert inaccuracies while providing a platform to explore alternative experiences. Photography has given me different things at different times but it’s always guided me in posing questions rather than providing the answers.


What do you think makes a truly great image?

 An image that moves you closer to yourself, or towards a better understanding of others. It draws you in and lets you go, more curious about the world around you.

Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?

Lalla Essaydi, Carrie Mae Weems, Alexandra Lekauf, Hajra Waheed, Samira Alikhanzadeh, Ammar Al-Beik and Maimouna Guerresi have been influential figures that I’ve looked towards throughout various parts of my becoming an artist. Currently much of my work is heavily research focused and so my inspiration is largely derived from texts and archival images.


What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?

Much of my work is rooted in my experience as a Muslim women in the west and explores photography’s history of representation of Muslim women and women from the MENA region. As such, I am always collecting images and artifacts that fit within that canon and to help me further understand and illustrate the problematic nature of photography as it relates to imperialism. One object of curiosity for me is the postcard and so I began collecting colonial images of women from North Africa and studying these images, noticing the repetitive nature of the costumes, props and poses within them. The water vessel made an appearance in almost all of the postcards I came across and collected, prompting me to pose questions about its significance and the significance of these images within the context of Orientalism.


What is your shooting process and work flow? How much of the project is staged vs documenting candid moments?

This is an interesting question because while I used to consider myself a photographer with a capital P, I’ve found myself actually taking photos less and less. In fact, I’ve “shot” very little for this project, instead using found images and incorporating various photographic processes with mediums such as ceramics, collage and printmaking. This current body of work is centred around Orientalist photographic archives and uses images within the archive to unpack the complex and layered history of representation. While I wouldn’t say the work is ‘candid’, it is very experimental and has pushed me to look at the potential of the medium in different ways that don’t require my use of a camera. I hope that moving forward I can maintain a practice that allows for the creation of work with camera and without as there is so much possibility within the realm of photography on either side.


How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?

COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge in completing this project, so much so that it is still a work in progress due to government lockdowns and restrictions in accessing the space and materials to complete the project. However, it has also given me the necessary time to slow down my process and meditate, reflect and live with the images I am working with and creating. I’ve allowed myself to stay curious and try new things to see what is working and what isn’t. Because I am using processes that are entirely new to me, it involves a fair amount of trial and error that encourages me to revisit ideas several times before successfully executing them. However, for the most part I’ve stayed true to my artist vision and intention to broaden my approach to photography and working with archives.


What do you find most fulfilling about this project?

The most fulfilling aspect of this project has been the ability to step out of my comfort zone as an artist. Previously, my process has been linear in approach, fixed on one technique or medium to convey my ideas. However, A Vessel to Bend Water has further illustrated the potential of photography and my potential as an artist to push my own boundaries. I am very excited to complete the project and share the final images and works with the world.


Has receiving a Lucie Foundation Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?

Beyond the Lucie Foundation Scholarship being an integral part of funding A Vessel to Bend Water and furthering my ability to expand as an artist, it has also afforded me a sense of feeling valued in my creative voice despite the self doubt that often comes with the vulnerable territory of making art. It has shown me that there is an inclination to recognize and elevate the experiences of those who have been historically othered and ignored. Building a relationship with an established supporter of the arts with its own prestige and reputation has been an honour. I have endless gratitude for the support of the Lucie Foundation through this award and the grace and patience the team has shown me when I’ve expressed challenges in completing this project by the intended deadline.


What’s next for you?

Completing this project is my first priority, from there I’d like to find an appropriate space to exhibit the work. Beyond that I am hoping to continue exploring the world of printmaking — namely understanding its intersections with photography — and create a new project exploring the historical use of the veil across cultures inspired by images of Las Tapadas Limenas from Peru.


Leila Fatemi
Visual Artist, Curator & Community Arts Worker