Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Farah Al Qasimi casts the Arab world in a different light with Dubai exhibition

The Emirati artist, who is now living in the US, has a solo presentation currently showing at Jameel Arts Centre

‘Ghaith At Home’ by Farah Al Qasimi. Satish Kumar for the National
‘Ghaith At Home’ by Farah Al Qasimi. Satish Kumar for the National

“I’m interested in questions of taste, influence and power,” says Dubai-born artist Farah Al Qasimi. “These things are present in all societies, but because I know the UAE, I can bring to light gestures and meaning that might not otherwise be apparent.”

The artist, now living in New York, makes brightly saturated, boldly coloured and slightly punk images of her native country. She has a fantastic eye for detail: what might pass by others such as how the iridescent sheen of pearlised ankle boots matches the tones of an intricate Persian carpet – is central to her work. Family and friends pose in slightly off-kilter images at home; other images show locally famous institutions such as Dragon Mart and the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.

“Farah manages to shoot the UAE both from the inside out and the outside in,” says Antonia Carver, the director of the Jameel Arts Centre, where a solo presentation of Al Qasimi’s work opened last week.

In Living Room Vape (2016), two subjects are pictured in their family home, with dark, ornate furniture, a shiny upholstered sofa, and Turkish vases on a table. The woman is moving out of the frame, while the man’s face is obscured by a cloud of smoke. The image looks both intimate and posed, a pendant somewhere between snapshot and advertisement.

'Living Room Vape' by Farah Al Qasimi. Satish Kumar for the National
'Living Room Vape' by Farah Al Qasimi. Satish Kumar for the National

A focus on the social rituals of life in the UAE

Al Qasimi is fascinated by the way the usages of photographs end up determining how the subjects are seen – a dynamic that often has political consequences. In 2016, she started a series of Arab men that aimed to counteract the images that circulate abroad, where Arab men are often portrayed as potential extremists. Instead, she said at the time, she wanted to add “softness” to their portraits.

The resulting images often show men, in traditional dress or with longish, religious beards, in compositions usually associated with portraits of women. They are bathed in light, pictured with flowers, or – such as in Ghaith at Home (2016), at Jameel – looking almost modestly away from the camera. One of my favourites of these works, not included in the Jameel exhibition, is Baba at Home (2017), which shows Al Qasimi’s father looking straight ahead, a serene expression on his face, while the ripples of the sofa’s soft, pinkish pattern echo with those on the curtains and on the paisley swirls of his headscarf.

It’s not my job to correct people’s misinformed stereotypes, and it’s not an interesting or nuanced task.

Farah Al Qasimi

Al Qasimi’s focus on the social rituals of life in the UAE, and her interest in photographing people in their own homes – still rarely seen – had the effect of turning her into a kind of interlocutor for Khaleeji culture. Part of the reason for this is a challenge familiar to Arab artists working abroad, where they are asked to represent a culture that is unknown and, in places, distrusted. For Al Qasimi, who moved to the United States to work and then completed a master’s at Yale School of Art, the politics of representation were initially a challenge to be faced head-on. But she now sounds, well, fed up, and keen for her work to be read without cultural baggage.

“At school, I felt pressured to respond to the situation in the US,” she says. “I felt like my work became reactive to American identity politics, and I began to talk about it in those terms, though now I feel like it was a trap. It’s not my job to correct people’s misinformed stereotypes, and it’s not an interesting or nuanced task.”

How will local press react to her exhibition?

With her show at Jameel, which contains many of the same works seen in the exhibition More Good News last year in New York, it will be interesting to see how the local press reaction differs. The New York Times, The New Yorker and Artforum all covered the New York show, with varying degrees of curiosity about the Khaleeji world glimpsed in its images. Here, by contrast, the ornate patterns, Louis XIV furniture and traditional clothing is simply local taste.

And for an art world familiar with Al Qasimi’s work, it’s hard to see her portraits as anything but Al Qasimi images. She has developed such a unique style that the work reads as indelibly hers, and the portraits seem as motivated by Arab identity as by her interest in other forms of image mediation – from surveillance to kids’ cartoons – that also appears elsewhere in her work.

'Curtain Shop' by Farah Al Qasimi. Satish Kumar for the National
'Curtain Shop' by Farah Al Qasimi. Satish Kumar for the National

Al Qasimi’s performances and videos particularly gesture towards high and low culture as a means of telling stories and invoking communities. For UAE Unlimited’s Ishara show last year, she debuted a video with puppets based on the version of Sesame Street dubbed in Arabic, that she watched as a child, exhibiting the work within a Punch & Judy-like miniature theatre that seemed designed to provoke nostalgia. Her Brooklyn studio currently has a makeshift green screen space in a corner, in which she is producing her next video, for her Third Line show in the autumn.

For this work she plays a jinn in the Ras Al Khaimah mountains, in a video that takes in everything from the history of Portuguese and British colonialism to the shifting gender roles in the UAE, all given, she says, “from the loose narrative frame” of reality TV show confessionals.

There’s a lot of power in the immediacy of a slightly more DIY ethos, that you might find in punk and zine culture, or in public access television

Farah Al Qasimi

“There’s a lot of power in the immediacy of a slightly more DIY ethos, that you might find in punk and zine culture, or in public access television,” she explains about her predilection for ­lumpen Jim Henson puppets and low production values, which cuts intriguingly against her portraits of power and taste. “When I was a kid, I made magazines by stapling together drawings. There’s something very freeing about it – a provisional quality that often privileges content over aesthetics, and an accessibility.”

You could argue that a desire to safeguard this provisionality, both in terms of navigating the US reaction to the Arab world she pictures and within the heavy medium of photographic portraiture itself, is a leitmotif throughout her images, performances, and videos. Her work constantly shows faces obscured or turned away: hers is an art of revelation, but of mystery as well.

Al Qasimi’s solo presentation is at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, until June 8. Entry is free

Updated: March 10, 2019 01:26 PM

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