Farah Al Qasimi, Hello Future

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Capricious (here). Hardcover with kiss-cut sticker dust jacket and a bookmark, 300 pages with 84 color photographs, multiple stills from 7 videos and 13 photographs of exhibition installations. Includes an essay by Negar Azimi and a conversation between Meriem Bennani and the artist. Design by Studio Lin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Farah Al Qasimi, a multidisciplinary artist originally from the United Arab Emirates and now based in New York, uses her unique position as an insider and outsider to examine “postcolonial structures of power, gender, and taste in the Gulf Arab states,” focusing on gender dynamics and privileges. Qasimi was raised in Dubai, but had spent most of her summers with relatives in the United States, absorbing American culture and later observing its colonial influences back home. Qasimi says that at the heart of her practice is “understanding what the everyday is like,” and she is particularly interested in “the language of banality because that’s where a lot of meaning lies.” 

In the years since she graduated from Yale University’s MFA program in 2017, her work has been included in a number of group shows and her second solo exhibition at Helena Anrather (reviewed here) was on view in early 2020. This year Qasimi won the third annual Capricious Photo Award, and as a result, Hello Future was just published by Capricious. This photobook is her first survey monograph, and brings together a sampler of the artist’s most recent five years of work, including photography, performance, and film. 

Hello Future is quite exciting and playful as a photobook, and overall it is an elegantly and thoughtfully crafted object. It has a colorful kiss-cut dust jacket busy with various details and textures. Each element is a sticker – plates with a cut open pomegranate, bananas, and papaya, women’s feet, and a hand putting oranges in a bowl, all of it arranged on a collage with different bright fabrics. These stickers are meant to be placed on a mirror chromed hardcover, a playful and interactive design element that is not often used in book production. Inside, bright photographs form a dynamic visual flow, while the captions are gathered at the end of the book, together with thumbnails. 

There is no obvious linear story, nor does the visual narrative have a conventional beginning and end, rather Hello Future offers an open-ended structure that invites more potential interpretations and readings. The book begins with a tender photograph of three little birds walking on a patterned surface, their feathers are dyed in bright pink, blue, and yellow. Qasimi’s images, from relatively simple to complex compositions, are always loaded with meanings. Full of vivid colors and textile patterns, the photographs are intriguing and even alluring. They are also more sophisticated than they seem at the first sight; as one looks closer, the masked layers and camouflage become more evident. Often packed with an overwhelming amount of information, the images function as complex visual puzzles. 

Qasimi’s practice focuses on social critique, as observed in various environments around her. She navigates between private and public spaces, moving from bedrooms and living rooms to bodegas and shopping malls. There are elaborated portraits and still lifes, and formal photographs tie together the visual flow. As we move through the book, there are shots of a butterfly on a black fabric, a perfectly lit beige bathroom, the bright outside signage of the fake Amazon store, a sparkling chandelier in a bodega, luxurious textiles, a falcon hospital, shopping arcades, etc. 

While people are often present in Qasimi’s photos, she masterfully obscures their identities: they often appear out-of-frame, seen from the back or through frosted glass. Her quite well-known photograph titled “Living Room Vape”, captures a man in a white robe seated on a sofa as he blows a cloud of white smoke, so large and dense that it blocks his entire head; on the right side of the image is a woman’s arm reaching into his direction. A range of patterns seen in vases, a carpet, a sofa, a pillow, and flowers add even more complexity to the image. In “After Dinner”, a bright pink sofa with matching drapes and pillows takes up most of the frame, and it takes a moment to notice feet in patterned socks on the sofa, and another person standing behind a drape holding a bottle of water. 

Qasimi constantly explores the position of women in the Persian Gulf states: from the impact of consumerism on women to stereotypes of female Arab identity and power dynamics. In “Woman in Leopard Print”, a young woman in a leopard headscarf and jacket looks in a tiny mirror, showing her perfect eyebrow; an ad with giant glitter tipped nails serves as a backdrop. There are also various photos of soap bars and perfume bottles – these are intimate objects, with a direct connection to the body. “Green Soap in Blue Bathroom” is a simple yet striking formal photo of a soap bar in a bathroom. Another shot shows perfume bottles and a soap bar placed on a green bathroom shelf; the bottles are arranged in a way that some names are visible, reading “obama”, “lovable” and “flawless”.

Qasimi is also interested in gender roles more generally, and versions of masculinity in particular. Her approach is often enigmatic, like in the photograph titled “Nose Greeting”; it captures two Arab men in ankle-length tunics as they tenderly embrace and shake hands, yet the scene hints at a rather intimate connection. In “Ghaith at Home”, a bearded man rests in white clothes on white bed linen; the shadow of a rose in a vase by the bed makes feminine association even stronger. Qasimi creates a similar composition in another photo: the shadow of a bearded turbaned man at the lectern is framed by two pink roses. One can easily misjudge the beards and turbans, and a closer look reveals that the body language of the man suggests grief and frustration. The photo was taken at a Sikh temple in Olathe, Kansas, in the aftermath of a hate crime.

Hello Future is a complex and clever photobook, defining Qasimi both as an artist with a distinct photographic vision and aesthetic, and as an intelligent observer of everyday life. It is a bold visual labyrinth to explore and it requires attentive looking. Qasimi’s series adds another strong voice into the complex conversation about power dynamics, representation, and gender, challenging the ways we perceive and portray them. As a sophisticated artistic statement in book form, this is one of the most exciting photobooks published this year. 

Collector’s POV: Farah Al Qasimi is represented by Helena Anrather Gallery in NYC (here) and The Third Line gallery in Dubai (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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