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Farah Al Qasimi: The Gulf Filter

Interview by
Myriam Ben Salah
19.11.2019

The third exhibition of artist Farah Al Qasimi (UAE, b. 1991, lives and works between New York and Dubai) is on view at The Third Line in Dubai, through 23 November.

MYRIAM BEN SALAH  Your photographs are richly textured and deeply layered, challenging codified expectations of how images are constructed. From documentary to classical portraiture, and even the seductive, lush finishes of fashion photography, your use of different stylistic, iconographic and conceptual registers is definitely playful. What is your process in building an image?

FARAH AL QASIMI  My work is a direct result of growing up in the Emirates, where design preferences lean towards maximalism and commerce has to serve a pretty diverse population. You’re surrounded by a lot, all the time—at the mall, at the grocery store, at the souk. So I feel like that spirit of rabid color and abundant visual information stays within the work. These days, I really like Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Florine Stettheimer, living rooms in 1980s Egyptian cinema, and looking at cake accounts on Instagram. I work in many different ways. I’ll go for long walks with a camera and respond to things quickly—that’s one way of making photographs. Sometimes, I see things happen separately and think they need to happen at the same time, like a little melodrama in a still image, so I’ll stage that—but even when I do, there’s still some element of truth to it. I like not being able to tell which photographs are “staged” and which are “natural”; I think that question is getting less and less relevant in non-journalistic photography.

MBS  Your practice is often defined as one that looks at identity and its perception in terms of gender, nationality and class. However, I feel like your photographs are full of contradictory cultural signifiers: they disturb the vernacular and defy cultural categorization. There is definitely something “of the Gulf” in them—a digestible presentation, almost playfully replicating the clichéd Western gaze. What is your take on that? How do you deal with the notion of representing a certain idea of the Middle East in America?

FAQ  I try not to take on that responsibility. In graduate school and right after it, I was convinced that I had to “challenge stereotypes of the Arab world,” but I realize now that is impossible and somewhat naive. I went to an American graduate school where the pedagogy was firmly centered around American identity politics, and as a young artist, I felt I had to respond to clichés and stereotypes about the Gulf—particularly men in the Gulf—but I now feel that that further legitimizes stereotypes and exoticizes the photographs themselves. I think the best way to address these ideas is just to do the work I care about, to let it spring out of a natural interest in the complexity of the Gulf’s social and political norms instead of a need to correct somebody’s malformed perception of my home.

MBS  Camouflage and concealment are very present in your photographs, which is interesting in relation to conversations about visibility. How does that intervene in your work?

FAQ  I work with a lot of friends who are much more comfortable in front of a camera when they can remain anonymous. There’s also a trend on Instagram recently among young women in the Gulf where they will post images of themselves and their friends but use graphics like oil paint strokes or flowers to hide their faces. Creating those boundaries for the purpose of anonymity is incredibly freeing for a lot of women, and it is an important part of my work. It lets us still make the pictures that we want to make while challenging us to find new ways of communicating narrative or emotion without relying on facial expression.

MBS  How do you envision the performative aspect of your work in relation to the photographs?

FAQ  They’re always related visually. I build stages in the same way that I make photographs, with detail and layering in mind, but I think the performances and video work are a lot less refined, simply because I’m still learning those languages. For example, I made a video piece a few years ago that involved hand-sewing some puppets in my bedroom and then tacking up satin on the wall as “curtains.” Of course, it looked totally juvenile, but I think that was one of its virtues.

Image courtesy of the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

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