New York

Farah Al Qasimi, Nose Greeting, 2016, ink-jet print, 35 x 26 1/2".

Farah Al Qasimi, Nose Greeting, 2016, ink-jet print, 35 x 26 1/2".

Farah Al Qasimi

Helena Anrather

Farah Al Qasimi, Nose Greeting, 2016, ink-jet print, 35 x 26 1/2".

A year ago in February, a white US military veteran in his fifties walked into a bar in the Midwestern town of Olathe, Kansas. The man scanned the crowd and spotted two brown-skinned men sitting together. He left and returned with a gun. He shouted, “Get out of my country!” and then shot them both. He killed one and wounded the other; a bystander who tried to intervene was also injured. The gunman then turned, ran out of the bar, and drove to another one eighty miles away. He was arrested after he told the bartender there that he had just shot two men he thought were Iranian. His victims were Indian engineers at one of Olathe’s largest and most successful high-tech companies.

Some time later, the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek sent the photographer Farah Al Qasimi to Kansas, where a reporter was working on a story about what the shooting meant for immigrants in Donald Trump’s America. Al Qasimi, a graduate of Yale University’s prestigious MFA program who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, has a laser-sharp eye for nuance and for the tellingly incongruous details that remain just visible in the corners of a highly charged scenario. The images Bloomberg chose to run from Olathe are notably anodyne. The one they excluded is a triumph, and it served as the lightning rod for Al Qasimi’s first solo exhibition in New York, in late 2017, called “More Good News.” The photograph, titled Gurdwara Nanak Darbar Sahib (Kansas), 2017, shows the shadow of a bearded, turbaned man cast dramatically across a wall framed by two small, sad flower vases and the podium of Olathe’s well-attended Sikh temple. At a glance, the man’s profile could be mistaken for that of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Look too quickly and you may misjudge the temple podium for a witness stand. Al Qasimi delicately sets that trap, correlating beards and turbans with terrorism and trial. Look closer and longer, and you may come to see that the man’s eyes are downcast, that his hand, just visible on the right-hand side of the image, rests heavily, suggesting frustration, perseverance, or the terrible burden of grief, anxiety, and disbelief.

In many of the photographs she made prior to “More Good News,” Al Qasimi danced gingerly through the stereotypes of feminism and Orientalism. She reveled in heaps, twists, and crumpled piles of luxurious textiles. She played peekaboo with ornate patterns and the bodies of her friends, sometimes her own. She troubled the pop-crazed, skin-lightening conventions of contemporary studio portraiture across Asia. What was so striking about “More Good News” was how deftly and confidently Al Qasimi, in thirteen pictures, turned to the world of men—to the nimble observation of their spaces, accoutrements, and gestures. The show included a portrait of the artist’s father; another of her friend Ghaith, who casts a shadow that exactly echoes the one in the Sikh temple; and another of a hairy man’s chest covered in restorative mud from the Dead Sea. It almost passes for a black-and-white photograph but for the glimmer of a gold crucifix pendant hanging from the man’s neck. Perhaps the most beautiful image on view was Nose Greeting, 2016, showing two men in long, crisp, high-collared robes touching noses and shaking hands. (The nose kiss is a Bedouin tradition still practiced in parts of the Persian Gulf, and Al Qasimi’s photograph of it radiates tenderness and affection.) And yet her exhibition exuded toughness at nearly every other turn: One image showed a soldier making a difficult phone call; another depicted a friend’s house in Texas strewn with guns and raw meat (the latter intended for a barbecue) and occupied by a worried-looking dog; and a pair of images from a falcon hospital disabused viewers of the notion that the predatory bird hunt is dainty, old-fashioned, or anachronistic. As with the photograph from Olathe, every one of Al Qasimi’s images parceled out a story, a drama, a political condition, or a civilizational dilemma, detail by detail, the longer you stayed to look.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie