Artist Farah Al Qasimi Is Seeing Idols In A World of State Surveillance

The Private and Public Act of Image Making And Self-Portraiture

  • Interview: Maya Binyam
  • Photography: Tonje Thilesen
Farah Al Qasimi

The night before I met Farah Al Qasimi in her studio, she made a bodega cake. Blue bundt sponge; blue coconut cream cheese icing. For decoration, she boiled Cool Blue Gatorade with agar flakes—a vegetable gelatin derived from algae—and poured the treacly syrup into molds to cool. The resulting dessert was pristine, like radioactive baby food for a post-apocalyptic species

Al Qasimi’s work, which is primarily comprised of photographs taken in the United Arab Emirates and New York City, and which is currently being exhibited on bus shelters across the five boroughs, spins fabulism from the private pleasures of everyday life. In_ 5 Star Barber Shop_ (2019), a mirror becomes a vortex into a routine trim, the purveyor and consumer framed in lockstep. In Aviary (2019), a woman photographs a fabricated desert; the ceiling is dotted with fluorescent lights, and the horizon is lined with wallpaper sand dunes. The woman is in the UAE––a country whose landscape is for the most part made up of real desert, arid and inhospitable to human life. “For a lot of people who work with images, there’s a unifying quality to a body of work that is usually tied to location,” Al Qasimi tells me. “But I try to build worlds in which geography doesn’t matter, and which can access psychic states that are difficult to describe with verbal language.” Qasimi’s photographs are harshly lit, and her colors are fluorescent, creating an atmosphere that would be horrific if it weren’t also so pretty. Everything looks like a treat, but also like it might be poison. In Um Al Naar, Al Qasimi’s first feature-length video work, the title character, a misunderstood jinn in the throes of depression, narrates their lonely nights spent observing women. “They spend a lot of time at home making the most beautiful things out of sugar: roses out of frosting, butter, and cream. They decorate foods in the most stunning ways,” says Um Al Naar. “It’s a kind of dance in itself. It’s a different kind of movement––maybe one that isn’t meant to be seen.” The film, styled after an imagined government-sponsored reality TV show, is surprisingly sad; it’s difficult not to feel kinship for this sheet-clad old soul, who has been forced to hide for generations in plain sight. Al Qasimi’s subjects often appear in disguise, either because their self-image is thwarted by inanimate objects, or because it’s been deployed to nefarious ends. Interviewing an artist whose work attempts to evade the capacities of speech seemed oxymoronic, so mostly we talked around the images––about cakes, threading, the horrors of reality TV. Eventually we got to where we were going.

Maya Binyam

Farah Al Qasimi

Many of your photographs are taken in the UAE, a place that has a high investment in its own self-image, and whose branding often suppresses the people who labor on its behalf. What is it like to photograph a city that’s so frequently rendered in advertisements to consumers?

The UAE is a fascinating study in nation building, because the country is so new. The self-narrative it’s adopting, which is based on geographic specificity and borders, permeates the place in palpable ways. I’m always contending with those other images, but I don’t want my work to be seen as a response––that would only give the fabricated images more significance. I’ve always been curious about how liberal values are defined and expressed in a place that still has a lot of pockets of tribal life.

What do you mean by that?

If we think about the history of feminism as it has come to be defined by the West, there’s this idea that there exists a constant upward progression, which usually results in greater mobility, greater equality, etc. But in other parts of the world, it’s difficult to measure progress by what we’re actually seeing. In the Emirates, for example, gender roles have changed in ways that aren’t completely visible in day-to-day life. Before the Union in the 1971––when Sharjah, Fujairah, Ajman, and Fujairah joined with Abu Dhabi and Dubai to create the UAE––women were a much more visible part of society: they would go out, do their own errands, and they didn’t necessarily wear head scarves. Women were especially crucial to the movement for independence from British Imperialism, despite the fact that the cosmetic image of the resistance is a bunch of men sitting in a room, forming allyships. As oil revenue grew, the idea of the woman as a figure whose value should be in line with ideals of Western feminism––in the sense that she should have corporate success, and be in positions within government that lend her privileges and power––became more popular. But at the expense of who?

Now that things have shifted and the country has a lot of wealth, there’s this idea that physical labor is something to be embarrassed about, or that it’s something to outsource. There’s now an Emerati Women’s Day, which exists to celebrate Emerati women for their achievements in professional industries. But who is doing the child raising? Who is doing the house cleaning? These aren’t questions that I ask specifically of the Gulf; they’re also questions that I ask of Western feminists who are constantly talking about “having it all.” The work that women do to raise families, to just be decent human beings in the world despite everything––I don’t see why that work should be valued any less than work that contributes to a national economy.

Your photographs taken in the Emirates are almost all in private spaces––either homes or businesses––which is perhaps due to the architecture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where even public space is buttressed by commerce. But you’ve just been commissioned by the Public Art Fund to show photographs on bus shelters across New York City. How have you navigated this migration of your work?

With the work that came out of the Public Art Fund, I was thinking about how certain public spaces become private. One of the images is of a salon owner in Brighton Beach. In the photograph, she’s threading a young woman’s eyebrows, and you just see her back and the print of the outfit she’s wearing. I frequent threading salons for my mustache, and it’s a funny experience. Now I know my aesthetician, but if it’s your first time at a salon, this person that you don’t know at all is getting extremely close to you. I’ve gone in, and aestheticians have said, “You need work on your eyebrows, too,” but I don’t get insulted, because it’s not a criticism. It’s an expression of love––like, “Let me take care of that for you.”

Like something an auntie would say.

Exactly. It’s the auntie mentality of saying something that’s slightly insulting, but that you know is 100% in good nature. There’s something about trusting someone else with your self-image that’s incredibly personal. And in a way, that’s what people are doing with me, as a photographer––there’s a mutual trust.

When you’re represented in your own images, it’s often in the form of a doppelganger. In Body Shop (2017), a series in which you asked Emirati photo studios to photograph you looking “beautiful,” you look like your low-fi, Face-Tuned second cousin––matted and impossibly smooth. And for your solo show at Helena Anrather, More Good News, you commissioned an Indian-American woman to perform as you, while the audio artefacts of your family’s surveilled phone conversations looped in the background. Why do you approach self-representation through these imperfect doubles?

All we have of ourselves in the world are imperfect doubles. As somebody who struggles with depression, every so often I can hear my inner voice saying, “There’s nothing about you that’s worth being loved.” It’s only through the eyes of my friends and family that I’m able to combat that voice and tell it to stay quiet. It’s really difficult to contend with a lack of control over how you exist in the world, and my way of dealing is to be very playful, and to purposefully give up control. The show at Helena Anrather was about surveillance, and the racial flattening of Arabs and South Asians after 9/11. So in that particular performance, there was a lot of justification for using a doppelganger who didn’t even really look like me.

Mechanisms of state surveillance extract data from subjects to create a double whose appearance rarely reflects the reality of the original. If you’re black or brown, and especially if you’re poor, your doppelganger is usually a criminal. But your portraits are often humorous, either because bodies enter them in subtle, surreptitious ways, or because they’re obscured to the point of anonymity by household objects––blankets, plush sofas, etc. What value does humor have as a tool or affect?

The rest of the world has a lot of problems, but I think America really takes the cake in terms of having such an ancient and expertly formed system of oppression that is also so abstruse. I find it difficult to dive into the reality of surveillance technologies and racial profiling head-first, even though I’ve been aware of them my entire life. The UAE’s phone lines to the U.S. have been tapped for as long as I can remember. As a kid I would hear someone breathing, or I’d hear the lines cross. There was always the sense that we were doing something wrong––that they were just waiting for us to do something wrong. Humor is a way to acknowledge the absurdity of some of these sources of darkness, and to also challenge their right to exist. It’s a way to point to things and say “this isn’t normal,” but also to resist submission. To say “hey, wait a minute, maybe I have some agency.” To look back and say, “Maybe I’m watching too.”

Alongside your work as an artist, you also work as a photojournalist. How does the process of making photographs on behalf of a news organization align with or diverge from your individual practice?

My process isn’t hugely different. I’ve been really lucky to work with editors who have understood I’m an artist above everything else. I’m usually assigned stories that afford the opportunity for visual play. It’s about applying a sensibility to an image, rather than an agenda.

Last summer, you photographed a story for the New York Times in which you and a writer, Liana Aghajanian, travelled around the country for two weeks trying to answer the question: “What does America look like now?” In Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, a community that is 97 percent white, you photographed a woman wearing a MAGA hat and a Trump t-shirt emblazoned with Trump pins, and who has decorated every room in her house with Trump paraphenalia. In the photo, she’s holding up a fake ID with an image of Trump’s face, as if it’s her alter ego. How did you approach taking that photograph?

It was difficult. I was trying really hard not to be overly critical in the way I saw these people. I don’t want to defend them, but at the end of the day, when you’re two people having a conversation, people are a lot more likely to be cautious in their reasoning, and to try to express a point of view that’s less alienating than the one they might express if they’re in a crowd. At the same time, it was soul crushing. The road trip ended with me and Liana going to a really progressive church service in the woods of New Hampshire. It was the week of the Dayton and the El Paso shootings, there was a lot of ICE activity, and we had been closely connected to the news. I went in thinking we would have nothing in common with the churchgoers, but during the service somebody said something about empathy, and I burst into tears.

My impulse, no matter where I am, is to see the world like I’m in an anime. I have to hope that the colors are as bright as they could possibly be—that the world might contain some aspects of transcendence worth paying attention to.

Maya Binyam is a writer living in New York. She's a senior editor of Triple Canopy and an editor of The New Inquiry.

  • Interview: Maya Binyam
  • Photography: Tonje Thilesen
  • Makeup: Aya Tariq
  • Nails: Lila Robles
  • Date: Mars 05, 2020