Helena Anrather in New York presents an exhibition of new photography by the Abu Dhabi-born, US-based photographer and filmmaker.
Art Radar looks at the artist’s practice through the current exhibition, which deals with visual codes and cues of power and authority.
Farah Al Qasimi‘s photography uncovers a cross-cultural conversation that reflexively makes connections between the two worlds that she straddles. The US-based, Abu Dhabi-born photographer often turns the lens back on her own country, unveiling bodies of work that reflect the nuances of its contemporary society.
Trained in photography, video, sound and performance, the multidisciplinary artist continues to play with visual codes, exploring sites, contexts and situations through her practice. An emerging artist, Al Qasimi graduated with an MFA in Photography from the Yale School of Art in 2017. Her exhibitions include “Invasion: Breakdowns and Side Effects” at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard (Annadale-on-Hudson, NY), “Doublespeak” at Shulamit Nazarian (Los Angeles), “A Scream Runs Through The House” at Helena Anrather (New York), and “Coming Up Roses” at The Third Line (Dubai).
Her work ranges across a broad number of settings and little-studied contexts. One of her better-known bodies of work called Dragon! portrays the Dragon Mart, a mega-mall in Dubai, which qualifies as one of the biggest collections of Chinese goods outside of China. Photographing inexpensive commerce stalls, and kitschy and gaudy storefronts, Dragon! was a reflection of the cheap and cheerful that had descended on Dubai, qualifying as an intense scrutiny of the icons, symbols and ideals being peddled at the stores that accompanied the wares themselves.
Another body of work that she completed in 2015 was entitled The World is Sinking. Capturing scenes of stagnation and decay in Dubai, the series included images of worn-out McDonald’s’ signs, quiet entertainment parlours and spaces crammed with kitsch. Al Qasimi avoids stereotypical Middle Eastern imagery, asking essential questions about the material culture that pervades different contemporary societies, often capturing her subjects with an innate sensitivity to contexts and situations.
“More Good News”: narratives of power and authority
Her latest exhibition at Helena Anrather in New York City is a no less insightful, layered approach to her subject. Titled “More Good News”, the exhibition is Al Qasimi’s first solo presentation in the city. Focusing on communities of men in the United Arab Emirates and the United States, the exhibition parses notions of power and threat, dismantling the visual cues that typically accompany them. In Ghaith at Home (2016), the singular figure of a man clad in all-white is the focus of the frame. Eyes closed, positioned on a sumptuous bed, with the shadow of a rose in a vase providing an interesting counterpoint, Qasimi’s subject is captured deep in thought, almost in a state of meditation. Al Qasimi places her subject in a sympathetic angle, framing him in an almost tender setting that makes references to notions of purity and peacefulness. Qasimi’s image subverts any easy categorisation, forcing her viewer into an ambiguous, open-ended relationship with the image.
Lined with references and portrayals of animals, Al Qasimi’s new body of work also grapples with notions of power through her depiction of wildlife in specific circumstances. In Falcon Hospital 2 (Blue Glove) (2016), the viewer is invited into an interesting scene. A hooded falcon is held by a gloved hand, held upright with a loose grip around its neck. Blinded, and held in its captive position, the falcon’s unease is palpable. Walking a fine line between patient and prisoner, the falcon serves as an interesting focal point in a situation revolving around lines of control and authority. Although ostensibly in a place meant for nurturing and care, the falcon’s vulnerable position reveals the dynamics of power that operate in such circumstances.
Similarly, Butterfly Garden (2016) is an image of vibrant, yet fragile beauty, as well as an image that refers to notions of entrapment and captivity. Feasting on a slice of cut orange, the wire fence in the background of the image provides a counterpoint to the bright, vivid colours of the butterflies’ wings. The image bears traces of the butterflies’ relationship to humans. Apart from the fence, the slice of cut orange denotes how butterflies are fed in captivity when they are kept in large-scale enclosures. The enclosure itself becomes a site through which different power relationships also play out, and Al Qasimi’s photographs pick up the footprints of these dynamics through the images they bear.
Between private and public
Apart from images of wildlife and bedroom scenes, Al Qasimi’s body of work hints at more complicated relationships. In one of her works, Al Qasimi documents the aftermath of the February shooting of two Indian American men who happened to be mistaken for Arabs at a bar in Kansas. In yet another, a soldier in uniform picks up a phone call. Often moving between private and public spaces, Al Qasimi’s exhibition explores a number of contexts and situations, whilst at the same time avoiding an easy reading of the circumstances that she finds herself in.
“More Good News” by Farah Al Qasimi is on view from 27 October to 22 December 2017 at Helena Anrather, 28 Elizabeth St., New York, NY 10013.
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