Born in the United Arab Emirates, Farah Al Qasimi is a Lebanese Emirati film maker, performance artist, and photographer based in New York City and Dubai. Her photos of lavishly stylized settings, still lifes, and portraits in the Persian Gulf deal with issues of capitalism and the U.S. presence in the Gulf Arab states. Her work reveals the subtle remnants of colonial influence and shows geographies informed by migration, displacement, and foreign intervention.
She studied music as an undergraduate at Yale University, switching to visual arts in her third year. She received her M.F.A. from Yale in 2017. She also studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She has served as a visiting lecturer on photography at Pratt Institute, Rhode Island School of Design, New York University Steinhardt School, and Bard College. As a classically tried pianist she writes her own music for her films.
Al Qasimi blends nature and artifice in exuberant color-saturated photographic vignettes and videos that deal with consumer culture and everyday moments of life in the United Arab Emirates. She often obscures the identities of her subjects. One photo shows a turbaned man standing at a lectern, but the man only appears as a shadow cast on a wall. The microphone and two roses in front of him are spotlighted in the foreground.
Sometimes she shows women in social settings, but their heads are turned away from the camera, or their faces are hidden by smoke, garments, or a cell phone. Sometimes their traditional clothing will have them blend into the oriental carpet they are lying on. She will photograph friends in intimate styles bathed in light. A portrait of her father has him lounging in plush furnishings similar to past representations of female odalisques.
She offers a glance into the youth culture of the Middle East in a riot of pigments and prints from her home country. For her still life photos of rich interiors, she often uses ornate polyester blankets: “I’ll use the older ones that I have . . . I’ll repurpose them for sewing projects. I’ve made dolls out of the material. They don’t really exist on the internet. They’re kind of one of those things that you have to buy in person.”
In 2020, she received a commission from New York’s Public Art Fund. This resulted in her “Back and Forth Disco,” a series of 17 photographs installed on 100 city bus shelters which showed the aesthetics of immigrant neighborhoods in the city. She has also done a series about Arabic mythology surrounding the Djinni, a class of spirits in Muslim religion that inhabit the earth, assume various forms, and have supernatural powers.
Her first solo show in Australia was “Star Machine” which featured works made between 2017 and 2021. Its titular photograph depicts a living room bathed in a blue light. Its otherworldly quality comes from painted archways, rich curtains, chandelier, and various iridescent surfaces of silverware and metal sculptures. The richness of this setting almost hides the self-portrait of the artist lying down on the sofa with her back to us. Her form recalls the image of a reclining odalisque in a harem rather than a contemporary moment of leisure in a sumptuous living room.
In 2021, she was included in the exhibition “New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century” at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. In 2023, she will participate in a number of biennials and triennials in the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and Norway.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Guggenheim Museum; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; Amsterdam’s Museum for Photography; Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art; and London’s Tate Modern.