The photographer combines five years of work in photography, performance and film in the vibrant and explosive, Hello Future
A cultural phenomenon, viral meme, Super Bowl halftime show alumni: this is the ubiquitous power of SpongeBob SquarePants. For those unfamiliar with the American cartoon, SpongeBob is a friendly, yellow sea sponge (who lives in a pineapple under the sea), learning the lessons of life with his pet snail and starfish friend, Patrick. With approximately 280 episodes televised in 200 countries, translated into 50 languages and over 13,000 memes, the character’s ability to permeate culture across international borders is extraordinary. It is a universality that Farah Al Qasimi (a BJPOnes to Watch in 2017) finds fascinating. “I think a lot about translations or iterations of American pop culture icons abroad,” she says. “You can learn a lot from what parts of culture get to cross continents.”
Al Qasimi unravels these ideas in a conversation with Moroccan artist Meriem Bennani in her new book, Hello Future. Published by Capricious, it is a culmination of five years of photography, performance and film that examines postcolonial structures of power, gender and aesthetics in the Persian Gulf states. The book animates Al Qasimi’s innate ability to uncover meaning in a labyrinth of seemingly unrelated or disparate matters that occupy our lives. Alongside SpongeBob’s long list of redeeming qualities – “He’s funny,” says Al Qasimi. “He expects the best of everyone and he has a great work ethic” – the SpongeBob icon stands as a figurative Pandora’s box for the photographer. He confronts cultural hegemony, power and the relationship between capitalism and commodification.
Viewing Hello Future is an explosive experience. Al Qasimi’s practice is one of obsession with objects, symbols, codes and culture. She uses them to fuel an urgent drive to understand the complexity of our world. Convergent aspirations and histories collide within the frame as one question leads to another, and then another. Traversing private and public space, she presents uninterrupted scenes of adornment, from cluttered bedrooms and pristine bathrooms stacked with soaps, perfumes and creams, to trompe l’oeil car seats and bodega chandeliers.
Al Qasimi often uses metaphor and the language of banality within which she finds ample meaning. Still lifes become complex psychological portraits. When people are present, she employs obfuscation and camouflage to render them unidentifiable. Backs are turned, faces are distorted by frosted glass or obscured by hookah smoke as a method to protect and project onto the people she photographs. Al Qasimi conjures a theatrical portrayal of reality, one that she treats with care, reverence and fascination.
Energetically, the work reflects her experience of living with multiple cultural entanglements and the tension between modernisation and cherished traditions. Al Qasimi grew up in Abu Dhabi and spent every summer in the US. “With photography, there are so many people who work within a specific framework defined by things like place, time or a group of people,” she explains. “My life doesn’t contain those logical parameters. It’s kind of messy, consisting of constant back-and-forth motions and cultural anxiety – a sort of seasickness.” The artist, who splits her time between Brooklyn and Dubai, overrides geography as a unifying force and instead hunts out instances when cultural specificity is transcended.
Al Qasimi’s elastic reference points are unified by an intricate surface design that reads like a collage, often ready-made. The omnipresence of mirrors, reflections and screens heightens this experience and contributes to ideas of mimicry and multiple truths. Our entry point is a visual language steeped in desire, overwhelming the senses and leaving the viewer wanting to transcend the portal of the photograph and exist within her world.
Hello Future is published by Capricious and is available to pre-order now
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.