On March 9, 2018, the National Art Dealers’ Alliance annual Artadia Award went to a young Emirati artist known for her high-saturation photographs of peculiarities from her homeland: a falcon here, a man dressed in kandora there, and a permeating sense of suffocation by material culture everywhere.
Born in 1991 to a Lebanese-American mother and Emirati father, Farah Al Qasimi is a multimedia artist. Although her most recent show features photographs, she works in sound, video, and performance. Uniting many of these works is a simultaneously playful and critical appraisal of materialist culture: objects clutter and disfigure images with their disjointedness and lurid coloring.
Speaking to Juliana Halpert at Artforum about her award-winning exhibit, More Good News, which was on display at New York City’s Helena Anrather Gallery from October 2017 to January 2018, Al Qasimi made no mention of consumer culture and, instead, foregrounded themes of power, surveillance, and representation in her work. As she put it, she is “interested…in how representation is crucial to how Americans perceive Arabs,” and “committed to acknowledging the power imbalance inherent in portraiture.”
One photograph, featuring a hooded falcon being handled in a veterinary clinic, conveys this imbalance almost literally. Whatever feelings are elicited for the viewer—of sympathy for an injured animal, voyeuristic interest in an immobilized predator, or premature relief for the falcon’s imminent healing—all these are mediated by the photographer’s gaze.
The falcon itself is doubly, if not triply, powerless: immobilized and unable to communicate any response to the medical treatment, it is also unaware of being seen and, thus, oblivious to the gaze of its audience. Such is the nature of living in a society shot through with surveillance. By and large, one is rarely certain when one’s keystrokes are being monitored or who is watching and for what reason. The so-called benefits of this surveillance are profoundly paternalistic: allow us to see you, and we will protect you—or, in the case of Al Qasimi’s falcon, give you healing care.
Al Qasimi’s meditation on the politics of representation continues with her portrait, Gaith At Home. Taking one of the most common targets of Western prejudice, Al Qasimi’s portrait presents an Arab man in a way unseen in Hollywood movies or the news. In the all-white composition, a young bearded man sits on a bed with his eyes closed. He is restful, silent, and almost sensuous, his nonviolence underscored, almost crudely, by the silhouette of a rose near the headboard. “It was important to me that softness was present in my portraits,” Al Qasimi told Artforum. A white plush pillow augments the trope of the angry, flag-burning, and extremist Arab man so ubiquitous in the American media and helps contrast it with the reality of a man of delicate constitution.
Even those faces that are not visible in Al Qasimi’s work are presented in intimate, multifaceted ways. In one photograph, the faceless silhouette of a bearded and turbaned man, presumably a religious sheikh, initially fills the viewer with foreboding. Dangling in the foreground, however, is a pink rose insistently suggestive of the ability to love—ardently, affectionately, vulnerably.
It is not Al Qasimi’s aim to unify Arab and American society. But these are the two worlds she inhabits and the stage for her imaginative production. In her juxtapositions, cultural differences collide into insignificance, with the similarities quite literally glaring before the flashes of her camera.