Review: Farah Al Qasimi at Helena Anrather

Review: Farah Al Qasami
Helena Anrather, New York
Art in America // February, 2018
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The young Abu Dhabi–born photographer Farah Al Qasimi’s first New York solo exhibition, “More Good News,” featured a dozen images, many of them portraying Arab men or—given the artist’s interest in exploring the racial leveling that can occur in the eyes of Westerners—those who might be perceived as such in the West due to their features and clothing. Combining staged and candid shots, the show served as a meta-commentary on how images can codify identity.

Al Qasimi’s previous projects have addressed stereotypes of female Arab identity, including her own. In 2015, she asked studio photographers in the United Arab Emirates to take her portrait, instructing them only to make her look beautiful. The photographers often Westernized her appearance, lightening her skin and reddening her cheeks. For a subsequent performance project, she cast an Indian-American woman to play her, explaining, in a recent interview, that she selected “somebody who might be mistaken for me if they knew my name but nothing else.”

A number of works in the recent show referred to art historical portrait traditions. Jagdeep (2017), a formal portrait staged against a dark background, recalls Dutch old master paintings. Like the distinguished sitters shown in paintings by artists like Hans Holbein, the bearded, turbaned Jagdeep stares directly at the viewer, as if challenging anyone who might question his assuming of a position historically occupied by white elites. Al Qasimi’s portrait of her father lounging against plush furnishings that match his brown kandura, Baba at Home (2017), vaguely recalls Orientalist representations of odalisques.

For Ghaith at Home (2016), Al Qasimi photographed a friend in a similarly intimate style. Bathed in bright light coming from the left, the bearded man lounges in white clothes on white bed linens, his eyes closed. Female subjects have been posed this way throughout art history, their indirect gazes or closed eyes connoting passivity. The shadow of a rose cast on the wall beside him underscores the feminine association. In Gurdwara Nanak Darbar Sahib (Kansas), 2017, Al Qasimi offers a similar composition but has changed the emphasis: here, a turbaned man standing at a lectern appears primarily as a shadow cast on the wall, while the podium and two pink roses in front of him are dramatically spotlighted. Al Qasimi took this photograph at a Sikh temple in Olathe, Kansas; she had traveled there as a photojournalist to cover the aftermath of a hate crime in which, the month following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, one Indian American man was fatally shot and another injured in a bar by a man who mistook them for Iranians. The mournful picture implies that in the eyes of the Olathe killer, all foreign bodies are interchangeable and expendable.

Two portraits of animals evoke themes of dominance and violence. An image of a hooded falcon at a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi might suggest care, but also has darker undertones, given that the bird’s head is covered with an eyeless hood and its neck is gripped by a handler. Al Qasimi’s technical skill, however—with, for instance, the bird posed perfectly and the handler’s blue latex glove matching the blue wall in the background—evacuates the emotional tension of the image. A more unambiguously chilling shot is the candid Piper at a Barbecue in Houston (2016). The hard-flash photo depicts a shaggy dog standing beside a table topped with guns, ammunition, and a dish of raw meat. The dog’s eyes glow red as it cowers with its tail between its legs, seemingly menaced by the camera, which is positioned just above the guns at this good old-fashioned American barbecue. The trope of aperture-as-weapon is an old one, but it feels especially relevant as civil rights are stripped away in an era of constant digital surveillance.