Driven by a sense of intrigue and loneliness, the Emirati photographer lenses the elaborate interiors of her homeland, bringing up questions of modernisation, gender and visibility.
In an image by 28-year-old Farah Al Qasimi, a man sits on an embossed periwinkle sofa; his face shrouded by a plume of white smoke. He wears a white kandura – a traditional ankle-length tunic commonly worn by men in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and elsewhere in the Gulf region. The room in which he resides is heavily decorated: the walls are painted deep blue, a Persian carpet sits at his feet and a mahogany coffee table with a glass top lies before him, boasting an impressive collection of ornate vases, the largest of which is stuffed with a bouquet of multi-coloured flowers. To his left stands a patterned tapestry screen, and at the edge of the photograph a woman in a gorgeous purple-pink garment is just about visible, her hair shining and her hand outstretched.
The photo, called Living Room Vape (2016), offers a good introduction to the ideas governing Al Qasimi’s work. A photographer from Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital, Al Qasimi’s images are extravagantly detailed, elaborate and layered. To someone unfamiliar with the UAE’s interiors and fashion trends, her photographs, such as this one, could appear strangely bright and saturated. But to the Yale-educated photographer, this is simply “what the Emirates look like – I’m not exaggerating, it is truly a place of magnificent colour”. These details aren’t just for show. “I want to make photographs that people will want to spend time with,” explains Al Qasimi over Skype, about her preference to shoot interiors. “I always think that you have a ‘one punchline joke’ or you have hundreds of little jokes that reveal themselves over time, so I try and stay away from the ‘one-note’ easy ‘knock-knock’ jokes.”
Al Qasimi’s photographs could never be described as ‘easy’ or ‘one-note’. The now New York based image maker and educator (she has taught at the Pratt Institute, and has also tutored at the Rhode Island School of Design and NYU) recently made waves at Art Basel back in June. Her Dubai gallery, The Third Line, dedicated an entire booth to her work, with new, research-based photographs such as Dyed Pastel Birds (30 AED each) (2019). As is the case with many of her images, there is more to this picture of fantastic pastel chicks than initially meets the eye. According to the artist, who is currently exhibitioning at MIT list visual arts Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts (as well as a concurrent show at The Third Line—her third solo show at the gallery), dyed birds like these were a popular gift in the UAE in the Nineties; parents would buy them for their children, before there were regulations for the treatment of animals. “Obviously it’s a cute photograph but it’s actually very morbid because these chicks are living in a trap (they would usually die on account of the chemicals). They’re kind of forced to become these aesthetic objects as opposed to living things,” she laments.
Al Qasimi’s sense of curiosity fuels her approach to photography. Throughout our conversation, the term comes up a lot – in fact, curiosity is what led her towards photography in the first place. Growing up in Abu Dhabi, Al Qasimi learned piano and went on to study music at Yale University. During her undergraduate degree, she decided to take some photography classes “out of curiosity” and as an alternative to her dense, theory-led major, then found that she really enjoyed the solitude of working in the darkroom. For Al Qasimi, who went on to earn an MFA in photography from the Yale School of Art in 2017, her projects (which also include video and performance art) blossom from an intuitive sense of what is interesting. “My work is obviously very aesthetically driven so often it starts with an aesthetic curiosity about a place,” she says.
Even though Al Qasimi has been living in the United States on and off for the past five years, her native UAE has been a constant in her work, one which she initially regarded with unease. “At first, I felt a bit guilty or a little bit afraid of being typecast as somebody who only creates work about where they’re from,” she admits. “But now that I think about it, the [UAE] is a really fascinating case study for questions of national identity and progress. I am baffled by how it transforms at such a rapid pace and what that means for the people who live here and some of the problems that presents. So, even though the work is about the Emirates, the images bring up questions about nationhood or belonging that can be widely understood.”
Al Qasimi considers the perception of the UAE abroad, especially in America, to still be somewhat skewed. “[There’s] a lot of misinformation. “It’s a place that’s shrouded in mystery, with vague associations of excess and luxury.” When I ask her if she is interested in challenging those stereotypes in her work, she rejects the simplicity of that idea. “I try not to think about that. If people have stereotypes to begin with, it probably means that they’re not that curious. It is a trap to try and respond to people’s stereotypes – it only validates the misinformation. As an artist, if you’re constantly trying to be educational in your work it removes some of the raw curiosity. I try not to tailor my work to an audience that might not understand it.”
In this sense, Al Qasimi does not cater to the expectations of some abstract international viewership. One aspect of this is visibility, of ‘being seen’ – a Western concept that is still finding its footing in the UAE and its neighbours. “I come from a place that has a very particular relationship to photography and visibility. For example, we don’t really have a publicised archive of family photographs or personal photographs. Photography is still a fairly new tradition there,” she reflects. While this is changing with the popularity of smartphones and Instagram, Al Qasimi maintains that it’s still generally considered inappropriate to take people’s photos without their permission in the UAE, and that many people would prefer to remain anonymous, even when they have consented to having their picture taken.“Young women, for example, if they want to post a picture of themselves and their friends, they might blur out their faces, or they might put a picture of a kitten in front of each person’s face as a method of keeping anonymous,” she explains. “I’m interested in how you can make a portrait of somebody without showing their face; that is in line with the visual traditions of the region and also respecting people’s anonymity.”
Al Qasimi’s gallery describes her work as examining “postcolonial structures of power, gender and taste in the Gulf Arab states”. Until 1971, the UAE was a British protectorate in an area with a long history of British rule. As a result, the region assumed certain tastes and traditions due to its colonial past. Al Qasimi identifies Living Room Vape as a photograph that demonstrates these Western tastes. “The decor of the living room is very typical of an Emirati home. He’s sitting on a baroque-style couch, he’s got a gold-trimmed painting of what looks like a medieval Europeanlandscape, porcelain, and a Persian rug. It has a distinctly Gulf flavour, but if you actually think about where the drive to seek out furniture like this for a parlour comes from, that is one example of Western influence that’s been fully absorbed into [Gulf] ideas of tastefulness.”
"If people have stereotypes to begin with, it probably means that they’re not that curious."
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Al Qasimi whether anything besides curiosity fuels her work. “I think anger, also, and loneliness,” she confirms. While her loneliness is on account of living away from home, her anger is a combination of frustration at seeing the culture and traditions of her homeland “bulldozed to make way for shopping malls and hotels”, as well as outdated attitudes toward women. “I think that there’s an anger about how, in the Emirates, education is still segregated in government schools … A lot of the young people growing up don’t know how to regard women as human beings. There’s a huge catcalling problem, and [men] can be really disrespectful towards women in public.” Al Qasimi is cautious and measured as she makes this point, qualifying her statement by noting, “It’s generally no better in the US, and I don’t say these things to say that the Middle East is backwards, because it’s really not, but… I just had a feeling that I was a secondary citizen because of my gender, and that I was regarded as someone who could never really talk back. That anger fuelled a lot of my drive to work and to understand how the place operates.”