Falcons, butterflies resting on a slice of orange, and self-portraits underneath a mango tree hanging with lusciously full ripe fruit are some of the subjects in the photographic works of New York-based Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi.
No hazy shadows or muted colors here, but subjects captured with such sharp focus that her photographs seem intent on disrupting the banality of one’s daily visual encounters of the world. Her photographs are a combination of portraiture and still life, and her photographic aesthetic makes the captured subjects look feisty and fresh, and, dare I say, cool?
Some of her works are currently on display through the first week of June at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. The exhibition is largely drawn from the Art Jameel Collection and exhibited as one of the Artist’s Rooms series. Described as “collaborative capsule shows,” the Artist’s Rooms series dedicates a gallery to the works of a single artist who is seen as influential or innovative. The center gives particular attention to artists from the Middle East, Asia or Africa–areas that have influenced or continue to influence the Emirates, its artists and the greater community.
The exhibition is worth visiting to see how young Emirati artists are creating unique narratives and strong statements of contemporary cultural identity. Al Qasimi’s work focuses on exploring the public and private spaces which women inhabit, such as homes and bedrooms. In addition, she often threads in a critique of how consumer culture seduces people, particularly women, with promises of beauty or self-improvement. Her oeuvre also includes video and performance-based work.
A 2017 graduate of the prestigious Master’s of Fine Arts program at Yale University with a focus on photography, Al Qasimi has honed her photography skills to a unique aesthetic. Appearing partly like glossy fashion magazine shoots and like hallucinatory dreamscapes, her works are tethered to a reality of her own construction.
Al Qasimi discovered the potential of photography after enrolling in some art classes during her undergraduate years, also at Yale, while she was studying music. “I attended a high school where art or music weren’t available as subjects to take, so when I took an art class in college, it opened up a whole new world of non-verbal communication,” she says. After a few years of full-time jobs and producing art in her spare time, she was awarded a scholarship from the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation to attend graduate school.
“At the foundation and at Yale, I found a wonderful community of hard-working artists,” she says. “Graduate school or institutional residency programs don’t give you anything that you can’t get from real world experience, but they can be a fast track to forming meaningful communities¬–and gateways to new forms of production.”
Over time, Al Qasimi arrived at her current style. “The more I photographed, the more I felt myself becoming a sharper filter of the world around me, one that was specifically of my own making.”
Her subjects are mostly her close friends, or things that develop as an extension of non-photographic interests. Casting her eye on Dragon Mart, a mega-mall on the outskirts of downtown Dubai with outlets selling a mishmash of goods from gardening equipment to ostentatious period-style furniture, the retail complex serves as a prime example of the absurdity and ubiquity of low-priced, mass-produced Chinese goods in emerging markets.
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Capturing the cheap glamor of these goods, Al Qasimi forces viewers to reconsider objects often perceived as kitsch, imbuing these subjects with a sense of celebratory novelty in an era where designer brands have left their mark of pared-down simple elegance on everything from hotel and restaurant interiors in the Emirates to stylish outfits imported from fashion houses in Europe.
“Through my work, I try to impart a greater knowledge about how the world works, a sharper sense of curiosity and questioning and, occasionally, a way to use the seductiveness of aesthetics as an excuse for people to pay attention to something that I believe is worth looking at,” explains Al Qasimi.
Concurrently with her studio practice, Al Qasimi is an adjunct professor of photography at Pratt Institute School of Art. Citing the financial difficulty of maintaining a freelance career in the Emirates, she says New York City allows for the possibility of developing several aspects of her career simultaneously. “As an educator, I always try and sway my students away from oppressive ideas of refinement and conclusiveness, and instead to open them up to the possibilities of their immediate surroundings, of the act of seeing with wonder, of paying close attention and working with what they have at hand.”
Undoubtedly, this means questioning both the absurdity and the normalcy of daily life, be it in New York or her hometown of Sharjah.
The exhibition Artist’s Rooms: Farah Al Qasimi continues through June 8 at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.