Oscillating between the United States and Abu Dhabi, Farah Al Qasimi makes richly coloured images that explore power in contemporary society
With a Lebanese-American mother and an Emirati father, Farah Al Qasimi has lived much of her life between the United States and Abu Dhabi, where she grew up. Yet on relocating to Connecticut to attend the Yale School of Art, she had “a hard time fitting in, in a cultural way”, she says. She initially enrolled on a music course but, finding she was better able to express her ideas through the visual arts, she changed discipline, and found her way to photography in her third year.
Now completing a Master of Fine Arts at Yale, Al Qasimi is still oscillating between her two home nations, and producing work that explores home, belonging, representation and clarity. More specifically, she visualises this through the experience of women and how they are perceived, or how they want to be perceived – even when they are not physically present in her work.
“I had been thinking about traditional portraiture and the idea that, with the photograph, all the meaning is located in the eyes,” she says. “I wanted to challenge that. How to communicate a sense of somebody’s personality or a really fervent moment or dynamic, without having them totally visible.”
Chiara Bardelli Nonino, the Vogue Italia photo editor who nominated Al Qasimi for BJP‘s Ones to Watch, says: “Her constant displacement mirrors itself in her photographs in a powerful hybrid of Western and Arab aesthetics. By showing us first of all her intimate vision of the world, her work familiarises us with a different concept of beauty.”
Al Qasimi’s images are rich in colour and texture and, she says, should be seen in sequence to get their full impact. “Things that are really brightly and violently lit are a part of the invasiveness that I was trying to communicate, as well as the sense of the sickly sweet feeling, where at first you might be seduced by it but then it makes your teeth ache, or your eyes hurt by looking at it for too long,” she says.
Al Qasimi’s work has been displayed in a number of group shows, mainly in the UAE (last year as part of a Barjeel Art Foundation exhibition), and has been published in Vice and Aperture’s On Feminism issue. While she continues to draw on personal experiences and expand on tensions in the representation of women, she’s now making new work focussing on diplomacy and state power. Amid a climate of political uncertainty in the US, and considering the work of film-maker Adam Curtis in relation to her images, this new chapter has also been influenced by her father’s diplomatic career.
“Al Qasimi manages to normalise our idea of womanhood in Arab cultures without being reductive or stereotypical,” says Bardelli Nonino. “At the same time, she manages to address a global discourse on the representation of the female body that is becoming more and more relevant every day.”