Farah Al Qasimi’s vivid photographs offer a magnificent insight into life in the UAE

Kathryn O'Regan, Sleek Magazine, September 24, 2019

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.

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.
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.”
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.”
From the SLEEK website.