Farah Al Qasimi’s photographs speak to the complexities of negotiating overlapping cultures and multiple contexts simultaneously. Her work considers the global circulation of popular culture and the process by which objects or images are coded with meaning. Lush and textural, Al Qasimi’s photographs possess a heightened quality that veers towards the uncanny. While her subject matter appears legible and familiar at first, her images transcend the realm of the ordinary and confuse the boundaries between perception and representation.
Letters for Occasions, a site-specific, photo-based installation, brings together new and recent photographs that layer multiple personal and familial narratives through images of private spaces and material ephemera. The installation interweaves the story of Al Qasimi’s maternal family’s migration from Lebanon to the United States with images taken in the United Arab Emirates, where her father is from, and where the artist was raised and continues to live part-time.
Al Qasimi spent much of the 2020 lockdown in her aunt’s home in the northeastern US. Delving into her maternal family’s photo albums, material archive, and personal anecdotes, she researched their emigration from Lebanon in the 1950s and the contours of their lives in the US. She scanned and re-printed photographs, postcards, menus, or translation book covers and physically collaged them together with objects and material fragments to create layered compositions that she subsequently captured photographically.
In her research, Al Qasimi paid particular attention to seemingly insignificant, everyday objects, mining them for insights into what her family cared about, what they chose to surround themselves with, and the cadence of their daily lives. Kimball Hotel, Springfield – named for the hotel where Al Qasimi’s grandmother worked as a cook amongst other Lebanese women – offers a glimpse of a hotel dinner menu layered over a hand-written postcard. Strawberries and shrimp are scattered across a draped seafoam tablecloth. Their presence alludes to her grandmother’s discovery that she was allergic to both foods through her work preparing the lunch buffet, and to some of the dishes – shrimp cocktail or strawberry salad – that were popular with hotel guests at the time.
Interspersed are photographs taken in both the Emirates and the US that offer fragmented glimpses into private realms. These images explore the language of adornment and its relationship to identity, probing the ways in which we construct self-image through our surroundings. Conversations and commonalities emerge between photographs, evoking a visual language of domesticity, privacy, and interiority. This visual language is intensely unique to the artist and her family, but it also transcends geographic and temporal specificity. The psychedelic 1970s floral wallpaper backgrounding a partial image of Al Qasimi’s aunt resonates with similar images in countless family photo albums.
Though the body appears rarely, and only in fragments, a ghostly human presence pervades Letters for Occasions through images of a residual handprint on an upholstered sofa, or a recently abandoned plate of chickpea shells. Six Different Screams, the installation’s most visceral depiction of the body, began as a lockdown-driven attempt to spot signs of COVID-19 on Al Qasimi’s tonsils and transformed into a documentation of the artist screaming into the camera. These images offer a brief glimpse of rage or desperation, most immediately about the uncertainty of the pandemic, but more significantly about Al Qasimi’s urge to understand her familial history through her own biology and DNA. At the same time, Six Different Screams aesthetically echoes the pinks and mauves seen in the interior décor of other images, implying that these material fragments are as significant and revelatory as a biographical or indexical history. In this sense, Letters for Occasions can be read as Al Qasimi’s attempt to document the intangible and the ephemeral. The installation’s component images and fragments together reflect the intergenerational reverberations of migration, the labour of women in establishing roots in a new place, and the complexities of intertwined familial narratives.
This exhibition is part of Exposure Photography Festival 2o22.