Farah Al Qasimi, Funhouse @Helena Anrather

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs (2 not on display during my visit), framed in silver and unmatted, and hung against white walls (and an image wallpaper) in the main gallery space and the office area. All of the works are archival inkjet prints, made between 2018 and 2020. Physical sizes range from 11×8 to 60×45 inches (or the reverse), and all of the prints come in editions of 5+2AP. The show also includes 1 color video with sound, from 2020, 10 minutes, in an edition of 3+1AP, shown on a video screen on the orange carpeted floor of the gallery (with an embroidered pillow). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Farah Al Qasimi is building her career in photography the old fashioned way, one deliberate step at a time. Following the completion of her MFA at Yale, her work was included in several solid group shows, and in 2017, she had her first New York solo gallery show (reviewed here). Since then, she has been included in various other shows, including a successful run on bus shelters around New York city via the Public Art Fund. Her second solo at Helena Anrather opened up just before the virus lockdown, and has now been reopened (by appointment) and extended – and for those concerned about venturing out to see art, it’s a show worth the trip.

In Al Qasimi’s prior show, she centered much of her imagery on exploring gestures, poses, and nuanced attitudes of masculinity, particularly those of Arab men. In her newest body of work, she returns to the feminine side of the equation, with a similar intention to unpack both how Arab women see themselves and are seen by those around them.

But as the title of the show Funhouse implies, there are plenty of illusions and appearances to be tangled with in Al Qasimi’s photographs. Two images use mirrors in bedrooms to add visual misdirection – in Noor’s Room, a woman’s face is multiplied by several vanity mirrors, with various dolls and princesses nearby to further the female replication, and in Marwa Braiding Marah’s Hair, a mirror captures the hair styling ritual, flanked by a jumble of cute dolls, bears, and Elmo. These personalized representations of female identity are then amplified a step further by a portrait from the Miss Muslimah pageant, where the brown-skinned contestant from Iowa beams in a spangled dress and sash. Motifs of women dressing up for viewing, or more overt objectification, take further form in a pairing of photographs of girls in shimmery robes at the Khaleej Hair Dance and of pastel dyed caged birds at the bird market, both on display and seemingly available for selection. And Al Qasimi upends us one more time with a portrait of a beautiful head-scarfed woman with two different colored eyes (one brown and one blue), her stare offering an unnerving back and forth oscillation.

Around this thematic core, Al Qasimi has added a range of additional mirages and deceptions. She shows us an Escher like staircase at a shopping mall, a woman moving pieces of a human-sized chess set, a man climbing up a fake stone fountain at a prop warehouse, and a car seat with fake upholstery, each a scene that isn’t exactly what it seems. The same can be said for the wallpaper image of a knock-off “amazon” store that papers one of the walls of the gallery – Al Qasimi has nested us in deliberate layers of confusion, where surfaces can’t be trusted.

Other images provide close up views of found oddities that seem to pop with bright distraction. A goat peeks out from a plastic children’s playhouse, a lime green bar of soap sits in a light blue porcelain bathroom, and a watermelon is elaborately scalloped into a greeting, each image an incongruous moment of mannered staging. Another pair of images enjoys some wordplay with the word “palm”, one picture a drooping palm tree, the other the bloody palm of a woman’s hand, both palms hiding their damage.

Seen together as one artistic statement, this show is much more consistent than Al Qasimi’s previous effort – the photographs are more confident, and overall effect is more thoughtfully integrated. What this points to is growing momentum, where the notable stand alone images are starting to pile up and the artistic voice is getting clearer. With the benefit of hindsight some years hence, we may look back to this show as the one where the tipping started, and Al Qasimi began to move from being just one face in a large emerging crowd to carving out a more distinct and durable presence in contemporary photography.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced between $1500 and $5000, based on size; the video is priced at $5000. Al Qasimi’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (here). Hardcover, 285 x 235 mm, 112 pages, with 55 black-and-white reproductions. Includes a short afterword by the artist and a list of ... Read on.

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