Farah Al Qasimi Crosses ‘Unseen Boundaries’ With Photography
In the most recent work of the photographer Farah Al Qasimi, people are largely absent, or they are merely suggested. But the interior scenes — all shot in Ms. Qasimi’s home country, the United Arab Emirates — are full of color and pattern.
In “After Dinner” (2018), a pink velvet sofa, pillow and matching drapes take up most of the image; look closely, though, and there is a pair of feet in patterned socks in a corner, belonging to an unseen person who is lying down on part of the sofa. Someone else’s hand and water bottle are emerging from behind a drape.
“Dyed Pastel Birds (30 AED each)” from 2019 shows three little birds in yellow, aqua and pink on a patterned stone floor. In “Rose 1 (Tomato)” (2018), a bright red tomato carved into a flower rests against an intense backdrop of nearly the same shade; Ms. Qasimi did the handiwork herself, after ordering a $5 paring knife on Amazon and teaching herself the technique via YouTube videos.
Those images are among the 10 evocative and somewhat mysterious photographs by Ms. Qasimi being shown at Art Basel this week, in the booth of The Third Line, a gallery in Dubai; a video completes the presentation.
The 28-year-old Ms. Qasimi — now a New Yorker, and one who attended Yale for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees — is getting a lot of attention. A show of her work will be presented at the List Visual Arts Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge from July 30 to Oct. 20.
“She’s definitely on the rise,” said Henriette Huldisch, a curator and the director of exhibitions at the List, who first came across Ms. Qasimi’s work online.
“I was intrigued and seduced by her visual language,” Ms. Huldisch said. “The images can be sumptuous, almost like editorial work, but then you realize they are more complicated. There are layers of disguise and camouflage.”
In person, Ms. Qasimi does not conceal, but she does compose her words as carefully as she does her images. Sitting in her tiny studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, offering maple-ginger tea to a visitor, she offered a thoughtful assessment of her themes.
“I think about, ‘How do I photograph the unphotographable, or how do I talk about some of the more complicated aspects of a place without using verbal language?’” she said, adding that the subject of the works is not just the Arab world, but specifically the Persian Gulf states.
Her interest, she added, is in “social customs as seen through objects” and “an anthropological sense of unseen boundaries.” The two people glimpsed in “After Dinner” turn out to be her close friends.
The 40-minute video being presented at Art Basel, “Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire)” (2019), is a “horror comedy” starring a ghost, Ms. Qasimi said, and one styled like a TV reality show. The headliner is a spirit of Emirati mythology, a jinn, who narrates the changes she has seen in the United Arab Emirates since the federation was formed in 1971.
The place of women in her home region, and of sexual and gender roles generally, comes up in her work a lot, sometimes obliquely. A 2016 photograph, “Nose Greeting,” shows two Arab men in the traditional local embrace, but something in the scene could be read as friendly or intimate.
Asked if it was tough to be a woman in the Arab world, Ms. Qasimi at first rejected the question’s premise. “It’s tough to be a woman anywhere,” she said.
She went on: “I think what’s particular about the Emirates is that Emirati women have a lot of relative freedom. But then there are other unspoken rituals or social boundaries that do make it difficult. I’m interested in what those invisible lines look like and how are they signified.”
Ms. Qasimi comes by her love of vivid hues honestly. “It’s a hyper-colorized world,” she said of Abu Dhabi, where she grew up.
At Yale as an undergraduate, she explored the medium she would later adopt fully. “I took a lot of really angsty black-and-white photographs,” she said of her early ventures. “It didn’t really click for me until I took color photography. I fell in love with the transformative quality of a color photograph.”
Ms. Qasimi took three years off before going back for her master’s, at one point working as an administrator at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi. She has moved very quickly into teaching, which she now does at Pratt, the Rhode Island School of Design and N.Y.U.
Ms. Qasimi shows with the New York dealer Helena Anrather, but said she made a point of maintaining her relationship with Abu Dhabi’s Third Line.
“It’s important to show in the Emirates because essentially the work is about the Emirates,” she said. “It only functions properly if it is accessible and legible to a local audience.”
To get the quality she desires, Ms. Qasimi prints the images herself, on a large-format printer she bought with funds from the Artadia Prize, awarded to her last year by the New York New Art Dealers Alliance.
If she needs a break from work, she has a futon on the floor in her studio, covered with blankets and sheets in a riot of stripes and patterns. “I’m like that bird that feathers its nest with shiny things,” Ms. Qasimi said.
The nap nook dovetails well with the interest in domestic scenes in her work. “I’ve always been interested in the history of interior décor and taste in the gulf, and what it represents,” she said.
Though Ms. Qasimi is always able to put a savvy intellectual frame around her themes, some of them at least bubble up from a more personal place.
“My grandmother was somebody who made her own blankets,” she said, adding that her recent focus on domestic spaces “feels like a way of maybe shining light on something that is often seen as craft or hobby and maybe giving it significance or, for me, admiration.”