In May’s Blue Eye (2020), one startling photograph from Farah Al Qasimi’s ‘Funhouse’ – the Dubai- and Brooklyn-based artist’s second exhibition at Helena Anrather – it’s dark outside and a hijabi in silks stares into a camera’s flash, with a blue contact lens in one eye. Behind, two men walk past, as May darts her arch gaze toward the viewer. ‘Just who do you think you’re looking at?’ she seems to ask. Al Qasimi’s photographs of people, plush and plastic objects, and glassy interior spaces enact a glimmering politics of refusal. The artist’s last show at the gallery focused on photography’s ability to thwart stereotypical narratives of masculinity and, in the layered, maximalist images produced for ‘Funhouse’, Al Qasimi uses forced perspective, the iridescence of flash photography and the visual grammar of an increasingly global consumer market to warp and abstract her mainly female subjects and the rooms they might call home, bedrooms and bathrooms, as well as the bazaars, souks and bodegas that offer domestic plenitude.
For Al Qasimi, the joy of misrecognition starts at home, and ‘Funhouse’ begins with unsubtle hints of it. The gallery’s second-floor exhibition space has been carpeted in orange Creamsicle-coloured shag. One wall has been papered with an enlarged photograph of a discount clothing storefront, ‘Amazon’ (written in English and Arabic) on its large, lightboxed awning. ‘Amazon’ is the substrate for four prints, hung at different heights, framed like all the photographs in the show in reflective steel boxes. In Playhouse Goat (2020), positioned where Amazon’s front door might be, a goat peeps its head out of a plastic playhouse window. In another, Noora’s Room (2020), a young woman sits at her bedroom dressing table combing her hair. She pampers herself with her back to the camera – which is to say, on her own terms – surrounded by portraits of Victorian women, a porcelain doll, a Princess Diana Barbie and a friend who is nearly cut out of the frame. Ruffle and tuft pad Noora’s interior space as they do Florine Stettheimer’s buzzing painting, Spring Sale at Bendel’s (1921). Al Qasimi’s photographs bear the trace of what Linda Nochlin referred to in a 1980 essay as Stettheimer’s ‘rococo subversive’ formal language; here are constructions of social environments that question art’s imperative to distinguish personal from public space without conceding to pat resolutions.
For this year’s New York City Public Art Fund commission, Al Qasimi made a series of 100 photographs, titled ‘Back and Forth Disco’, which hang on 100 bus shelters across the city’s five boroughs. These images depict pattern-matched fabrics, facades of ersatz Arabic architecture and hijabis – many of whom are photographed from behind, their vivid garments becoming an integral part of the city’s visual landscape. Al Qasimi’s photographs of glittered fur, buttons and leopard-print outfit the city with a far better version of itself.
‘Funhouse’ was the last exhibition I saw before I was permitted to work from home and self-isolate from COVID-19, to be surrounded by all of my own stuff: cans of Italian tomatoes, a daily rotation of soft clothes, a gigantic and over-affectionate black cat. In Drying Rack (2018), Al Qasimi photographs an ironing board on top of which florid, striped and graphic textiles dry in layers. Sun floods the room, yet the artist douses her objects in harsh artificial light, emphasizing their collective silhouette, which begins to resemble a four-legged animal. Al Qasimi’s dazzling images offer much more than satisfying wit. They make small domestic ecologies appear altogether otherworldly.
Main image: Farah Al Qasimi, Coco (detail), 2019, photographic work part of ‘Back and Forth Disco’, presented by Public Art Fund on 100 JCDecaux bus shelters. Courtesy: the artist, Helena Anrather, New York and The Third Line, Dubai
First published in Issue 211