Farah Al Qasimi

Farah Al Qasimi discusses her show at Helena Anrather

Farah Al Qasimi, Falcon Hospital 2 (Blue Glove), 2016, ink-jet print, 27 x 20”.

Among the thirteen photographs mounted in “More Good News,” the Emirati artist Farah Al Qasimi’s first solo exhibition in New York, are several portraits of men in their homes, reclining on ornately patterned couches or sitting on a bed. Other pictures look inside a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi, and one captures a dog cowering next to a table littered with guns in Texas. Throughout, the images reveal Al Qasimi’s fascination with the privileges of privacy and what it might mean to see or be seen. The show is on view at Helena Anrather until December 22, 2017. 

“MORE GOOD NEWS” comes out of my recent interest in formal portraiture. I had been photographing male friends and family members, and—with this show in mind—I began thinking about how these portraits would be contextualized in the US. I’m interested in the feedback loop of public opinion and foreign policy, and in how representation is crucial to how Americans perceive Arabs. Decades ago, during Hollywood’s obsession with sheikhs and harems, Arab men were generally perceived as passionate romantics, but now they’re seen as brutish and violent—terrorists, essentially. 

Where I grew up, it was common to see a lot of physical closeness between men. It’s a delicate thing that is generally misunderstood outside of the Arab world. It was important to me that that softness was present in my portraits and that, as a woman, I was controlling the way that these people were being seen. Each image is composed differently; each is embedded with its own logic of confrontation or avoidance. I’m committed to acknowledging the power imbalance inherent in portraiture, and in telling others what to look at, however vague or oblique it might be.

The photographs I took at a falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi underscore that commitment. A lot of people in the Emirates use falcons as hunting birds, and this hospital rehabilitates birds of prey when they get sick or become injured. The facility is visually striking: it has the bright blue, clinical sterility of any regular hospital, but it’s filled with these stunning birds wearing leather hoods. They sit on their perches, calmly waiting to be seen by the nurses, because they’re completely defenseless without their sight. It’s such a drastic transformation of character. 

Something struck me about seeing such wild birds suddenly have a tender, vulnerable relationship with these humans, whom they now rely upon to stay alive. The simple addition of the hoods renders them captive, and gives the nurses—and me, the photographer—total control. It felt violent to be participating in this unilateral gaze. That feeling of voyeurism and intrusion seemed analogous to how people under surveillance feel—something I have often been on the receiving end of.

The NSA has always had a looming presence in my life; I joke that we are longtime friends by now. Phone calls are interrupted by intricate glitches; mail arrives three months late with security stickers plastered everywhere. In this form of identity-based surveillance, there’s an act of judgment, and there’s an act of extraction. Someone with an apparently supreme ability to judge character and synthesize information is taking all these parts of a life and determining whether its existence is a threat to national security. It’s portraiture, in a way.

For me, photography functions as one part of a larger system of extraction and editorializing. I think there’s a power in asking people to respond to images that might reveal something about their own misinformation. The problem of subjectivity permeates the practice of photography at every level, and I’m invested in what that means beyond the walls of the gallery.