BY Allie Biswas in Opinion | 16 OCT 23
Featured in
Issue 238

Farah Al Qasimi's Journey of Family and Migration

How the artist’s family photo albums trace her ancestral history

BY Allie Biswas in Opinion | 16 OCT 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 238, ‘Family Constellations

‘This work is for, and about, my mother’s family,’ explained Farah Al Qasimi, speaking to me from her home in Brooklyn, New York. Having spent the last decade documenting the Persian Gulf, specifically taking photographs of Abu Dhabi, the city where she grew up, and its surrounding emirates (her father hails from Ras Al Khaimah), the artist envisaged a project that would honour the history of her maternal blood. Everywhere there is splendor (2021) – a site-specific installation originally commissioned by Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis but later revised and re-titled Letters for Occasions for the Esker Foundation in Calgary (2022) and the 14th Gwangju Biennale (2023) – is a testament to those members of Al Qasimi’s family who emigrated from Lebanon to the United States, beginning in 1899, when the artist’s great-grandfather left the village of Mdoukha and found himself in the northeast, by way of Ellis Island. ‘My grandmother died when I was eight and I never met my grandfather,’ Al Qasimi continued, ‘so I felt that I needed to fill in these craters of knowledge regarding my origins.’

Like the numerous photographic series that the artist has produced since graduating from Yale University in 2012, Everywhere there is splendor explores the customs which crystallize within the sphere of the home or the place of work. In the scenes she depicts, Al Qasimi favours the idiosyncratic or unexpected (her photographs are both staged and shot spontaneously), with certain objects – whether an intricately patterned rug or a handheld mirror – often assuming the lead role. Her debut exhibition, ‘The World Is Sinking’ (2014) at The Third Line in Dubai, focused on interior shots of beauty salons and photography studios around the Emirati metropolis, while ‘Funhouse’ (2020), at Helena Anrather in New York, portrayed young women and adolescents in their bedrooms. These projections of the UAE, particularly when they initially began to circulate, provided a necessary alternative to existing visuals of the region produced by outsiders, which had merely helped to prolong predictable readings. The distinctive nature of Al Qasimi’s work was further reinforced by her magnetic use of colour – now an irrevocable hallmark – which resulted in vivid, lustrous images. (‘I fell in love with the transformative quality of a colour photograph,’ Al Qasimi commented in a 2019 interview with The New York Times, having initially experimented with monochrome processes.)

Farah Al Qasimi, Everywhere there is splendor, 2021
Farah Al Qasimi, Everywhere there is splendor, 2021. Courtesy: the artist, The Third Line and François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Dusty Kessler

Several of the images that feature in Everywhere there is splendor were sourced from family photo albums which the artist discovered at her aunt’s house during an extensive period of pandemic lockdown in 2020. Described by Al Qasimi as depicting a world that felt ‘frozen and timeless, but still full of spirit’, these pictures had been posted to her grandmother over the years by relatives who had relocated to the United States and Canada in the 1950s: a photographic tracing, then, of her family’s migration across North America. Al Qasimi scanned and reprinted a selection of them, as well as related paraphernalia garnered through aunts and uncles, before physically collaging together the components, which she then photographed. These multi-layered compositions were framed, then placed on top of vast wallpapered panels onto which new photographs by Al Qasimi, as well as archival images, had been printed.

The combination of these various elements enabled Al Qasimi to augment the narratives to which the photographs in the family albums alluded. ‘I was looking at the everyday objects in these photos for some greater sense of what my relatives were like back then,’ she tells me. ‘I wanted to know what they cared about, what they ate, what they chose to surround themselves with.’ Kimball Hotel (2021), one of the larger components of the overall composition, references her grandmother’s job at the eponymous establishment in Springfield, Massachusetts, which involved cooking dishes for the lunch buffet. Al Qasimi’s collaged image includes a ‘cocktail special’ menu, dating from February 1934, which sits against a backdrop of strawberries and prawns that have been pinned to a draped curtain. At the centre of the picture is a black and white Polaroid of two women sitting in front of a Christmas tree. In the right-hand corner resides a postcard from ‘Mamie’ which relays a single message: we are all safe

Al Qasimi reveals the importance of geographical specificity: how a person’s location is interchangeable with notions of home and family, as well as their sense of self

This amalgam is bordered by a panel of wallpaper that renders a plate of chickpeas on a kitchen table – a reference to the hummus that Al Qasimi’s grandmother would make at home. If the act of leaving your homeland behind consumes this work, Al Qasimi’s first feature-length film, Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire) (2019), reflects on the possibilities of returning to and reclaiming your roots. Taking the form of a horror-comedy, the narrative centres around a jinn (supernatural spirit) hailing from Ras Al Khaimah, who laments the rigid social constructs of contemporary life, instead appealing for a society which allows for what cannot be easily categorized. Al Qasimi devised the film at the same time that exorcisms (a sustained practice in the UAE) alongside other cultural traditions, such as the provocative M’alayah dance, became outlawed. Recounting the demise of her country, the folkloric spirit comes to the realization that she is losing her currency, along with the endorsement of those around her. In the end, though, she decides to reassert herself as a vital entity within the community. Her conduit is her own body: an invigorating dance, performed with fervour alongside other women, offers cathartic release, while signalling self-governance. 

Farah Al Qasimi, Fish Sandals, 2022
Farah Al Qasimi, Fish Sandals, 2022. Courtesy: the artist, The Third Line and François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Dusty Kessler

In her attempt to make a record of the intangible and transitory – whether through the perspective of a jinn or the experiences of distant relatives – Al Qasimi reveals the importance of geographical specificity: how a person’s location is interchangeable with notions of home and family, as well as their sense of self.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 238 with the headline ‘Regarding Origins’

Farah Al Qasimi's 'ABORT, RETRY, FAIL' will be on view at Delfina Foundation, London from 4 October until 12 November 

Main image: Farah Al Qasimi, Everywhere there is splendor, 2021. Courtesy: the artist, The Third Line and François Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Dusty Kessler

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 with Mark Godfrey, published in June 2021. She is based in London, UK.