Spirit of the Emirates: an interview with Farah Al Qasimi
Spirit of the Emirates: an interview with Farah Al Qasimi
Spirit of the Emirates: an interview with Farah Al Qasimi

A dazzle of colour; an obscured face; a clash of pattern; a display of gaudy objects: the aesthetic of Farah Al Qasimi’s photographs and videos are instantly recognisable. Her carefully staged, close-cropped shots capture an essence of the Emirates. Having grown up between the US and the UAE, studying at Yale University and the Yale School of Art, she has developed a unique style that combines a cinematic eye with curiosity for her own culture. In recent years, her star has risen internationally with residencies at London’s Delfina Foundation and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, as well as receiving the New York NADA Artadia Prize and the Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer's Fellowship.

For her show at The Third Line in Alserkal Avenue, which is her third solo presentation with the gallery, Farah is presenting a new body of work that looks at jinn folklore in the UAE. Its centrepiece is Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire), a 40-minute horror-comedy in which a fictional reality TV show produces a programme on the Ras Al Khaimah-based jinn (or genie) named Um Al Naar. The comical, and yet unsettling spirit narrates the story of how the UAE has changed over time, from “waning trust in traditional forms of spirituality and medicine” to “the loss of history in an urgent bid for novelty”. Arrival also includes photographs that capture the shadowy world of the genie. In this interview, Aimee Dawson speaks to Farah about her foray into film, her inspirations, and her upcoming projects.


Um Al Naar is your first feature-length film. What aspects of it came naturally to you and what parts were a challenge?

It was a challenge to learn how to tell a story over time, and I still don’t think I ultimately succeeded, but true learning happens incrementally. The photographic parts came most naturally to me: setting up a shot visually, directing actors, and so on.


How did you come up with the idea for the film?

Our home in Ras Al Khaimah is near Jazirat al Hamra, the haunted village – I wanted to funnel a lot of the area’s oral history and hearsay into this character of a misunderstood female jinn.


Who did you work with on the film?

I did the filming myself with the help of Gaith and Khalid Abdullah, close friends of mine, and Madison Burger, a wonderful Pratt student who sometimes helps me out in my studio in New York. It stars various friends and family. I did the soundtrack myself in my studio. It’s truly low-budget, but I like the spirit of DIY.


Whose is the voice in the video?

Um Al Naar’s.


Do you appear in the video at all?

If I do, I am unrecognisable, as it should be.


Where did you find the found footage that is included in the film? How did you go about locating it?

YouTube, Instagram, and Vine are huge resources to me, as they are to millions of youth in the Gulf. It’s a modern but informal way to share folklore, ghost stories, or footage of exorcisms – I just got my Instagram algorithm to start showing me things I’d want to see by liking certain content.


Do you now plan to make more feature-length films in the future?



Were you told stories about jinn growing up? Did you believe in them then and do you believe in them now?

My parents don’t believe in them much, but the rest of my extended family does. I believe in supernatural forces beyond human cognition, yes. Do I believe they have donkey feet and sickles for hands? Not really.


Are you superstitious at all? 

No, just hopeful.


You’ve been capturing the aesthetic of the Emirates and its unique history and identity for a decade now—have you witnessed any notable changes in that time?

We have IHOP now.


So much of your work obscures faces and has this sense of concealment—why is this?

This is how many women in the Gulf are most comfortable being seen on camera, and so my work should echo that.


Your photos also ooze colour—where does this fascination come from?

Growing up in the Emirates. A place of wild colour and much visual info, all of the time.


The Emirati art scene is growing rapidly – you just had a show at the Jameel Art Centre, which opened last year. What do you think about the field of art in the Gulf now? What is it doing well and what does it still need to develop?

There’s a lot of top-down funding for artists which is wonderful. I think we need to strengthen monetary, structural and visa support for non-Emirati artists, so that we can be truly inclusive and reflective of our diverse population.


When I was on a tour of your work at Jameel Art Centre, I was told that many of the obscure, garish objects in your photographs come from Dragon Mart – can you talk about why this place and these objects are so interesting to you?

I am a customer of Dragon Mart, first and foremost. I don’t enter it as a tourist. I’ve been going there for years, and it feels like a land of endless possibility to me. It feels luxurious to find so many things you need – and don’t – underneath the same roof. I like trends but don’t like overpaying, so I’ll make my more daring fashion purchases from there. There are some vendors I like to revisit to say hello to.


You are based in Brooklyn. How much time do you spend in the UAE now? Does the distance help your perspective on Emirati identity and nationalism?

I spend roughly 5-6 weeks a year there. I teach, so I am beholden to an academic schedule.

And yes, distance certainly makes the heart grow fonder, but also provides room for growth and critical thinking.


If you could sum up Emirati taste in five words, what would they be?

Very Fancy But Always Changing.


You currently have your first US institutional solo show on at MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, MA. What has it been like to have your first US show?

I had my first US show at Helena Anrather in New York City, this is my first institutional exhibition. I’m proud of the MIT show – it is a quiet one, but it lets the work breathe, and the team there was a joy to work with. I like being able to show work in the context of an academic institution; it’s a different audience, there are different questions being asked.


Next year you have a few shows lined up, including the group show New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century, at UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, San Francisco. What can you tell us about it?

Not much yet!


Are you working on any new pieces right now?

I’m working on a piece about perfume for Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Projects — and that’s all I can currently say.


Who are your favourite artists and who inspires you most?

Jim Henson, Florine Stettheimer, Abdullah Al Mutairi, Hannah Wilke, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Mika Rottenberg, Meriem Bennani, Sondra Perry, Sophia Al Maria, Octavia E. Butler and many more.


What are your hopes/plans for 2020?

Eat more salad.


Arrival runs at The Third Line in Alserkal Avenue from 18 September – 23 November 2019.



About Aimee Dawson

Aimee Dawson is the Assistant Digital Editor at The Art Newspaper. She specialises in art and culture from the Middle East and North Africa having studied Arabic and Middle East Studies and contemporary African and Asian art. She has contributed to a number of publications including Ibraaz, Reorient, Mada Masr, MOJEH and Harper’s Bazaar Art. She was the writer-in-residence for Shubbak Festival of Arab Culture and Nour Festival of Arts in 2015.

"I’ve been going to Dragon Mart for years, and it feels like a land of endless possibility to me. It feels luxurious to find so many things you need – and don’t – underneath the same roof.”