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Farah Al Qasimi
Farah Al Qasimi

Who runs the (art) world in the Gulf? Girls

Female artists from Qatar, the Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are making urgent, brilliant work that flips the western gaze on its head. We speak to Farah Al Qasimi and Sophia Al Maria to find out more

I’ve been low-key obsessed with the Gulf states for years and I don’t think I’m the only one. They’re parts of the world that act as shorthand in our collective imagination, somehow – a symbol of something else, something key to life in the 21st century, but manifested there more in higher definition: sci-fi skylines, definitely, hyper-capitalism, probably, a world without white countries in charge, perhaps, the future, subconsciously. 

Seeing places in this manner is seductive, and like everything seductive, it’s both entrancing and really, really stupid. I wanted to see for myself, and I finally got to visit this spring for Art Dubai. I went to see the work of two artists – the photographer-filmmaker Farah Al Qasimi, and the filmmaker, sculptor, and image-maker Sophia Al Maria. Both show these parts of the world as they are, or at least seem when you’re from there, not how we from the outside see them. Their work, and their stories, tell us super interesting things about this fascinating, obsessed-over and mega under-understood part of the world.

First striking thing: the art scene is almost entirely run by women. In stark contrast to the UK, where institutions tend to get male-er (and paler) the further up the ladder you go, most art institutions are directed by women: among them are Art Dubai itself, the Sharjah Biennial, the city’s foremost commercial gallery the Third Line and the new mega-foundation Art Jameel. It’s no coincidence that most of the Gulfi artists on show were women, including Al Qasimi and Al Maria.

Ironically, the reasons for this may not be as chill as we might like. Many people, Al Qasimi included, stressed that the education system, and much of society at large, sees art as proper work for a woman, and improper for a man. Yet the explosion in women working and making art, and its mega huge art fair, speaks to the complexities of the Gulf, and how so much of life in the region resists easy, Western-centric ideas of linear development. However much its roots lie in a historical underestimation of women, and even art itself, this chink in the patriarchy has lead to the modern vision of the Gulf being largely annotated and directed by women.

“I think a lot of people lump the Gulf countries together. They think oil money, fast cars, new buildings, labour rights, and… maybe that’s about it. Oh, and oppressed women, that’s a big thing. I get really exhausted being forced into teacher-mode” – Farah Al Qasimi

The gender-flip is not the only reason the Gulf feels like such a staggeringly exciting place for culture and creativity right now. There’s also the fact that these are bewilderingly youthful places – Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were all founded in 1971 after decades of British colonial rule. In that time, staggering changes have taken place: a largely pre-industrial society has transformed into a post-industrial one. It’s not a coincidence that both Al Qasimi and Al Maria use film and digital images as materials and touchstones, and that the totally A+ Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah also works primarily in video.

“They’re image-collectors and image-commentators. Images they’re saturated in, popular culture images (and sounds) from advertising, television, and, importantly, YouTube. This DIY video aesthetic they all started out with, I’d claim, is a consequence of watching obscene amounts of YouTube and then recycling that back into their own YouTube or Vimeo or Insta or whatever,” explains Shumon Basar, the director of the excellent talks programme Global Art Forum, which ran during Art Dubai, and commissioned Farah Al Qasimi. “An Emirati under 35-years-old ⎯ who’s prosthetically connected to their iPhones 24/7 ⎯ may well have a grandmother who was never taught to read or write, because, pre-oil, much of society here was Bedu. The generational geologies are very stark here, rendering each generation bewildering to the succeeding one, yet all this also happens in a psychological milieu fearful of losing those deep traditions too.”  

Speaking of “fearful,” I’m writing this the morning after Theresa May added the arcanely violent rite of fox-hunting to the British electoral agenda. In the UK, politics and culture seems driven by a bleakly conservative nostalgia for a crueller colonial past – a moment that decisively ended when the Gulf began its vertiginous ascent. Dubai is the world’s most multicultural city, with over 80 per cent of its citizens foreign-born. It’s not exactly correct to hold up the Gulf states as paragons of progressive virtue – they definitely have their own very powerful conservative forces, and many of those foreign-born workers endure appalling working conditions. But it is striking to see somewhere where the longed-for moment might be ahead, not behind. Whatever the 21st century will be, you can see it in Dubai.

“Things still feel nascent. The future hasn’t been entirely suffocated by the past. Which is not to say there isn’t ‘history’: there are thousands of years of history. But there’s a sense in which the textures of super-modernity are being rendered in a younger generation, and this gives rise to new visual and aural languages. Post 9-11, 21st century Dubai turned into a number of fantasies: it’s the place financial capitalism dreamt up, where debilitating debt became skyline,” says Basar. “And yet it’s also the place invested in by the real dreams of the non-West, as they liberated themselves from half a millennia of colonial and symbolic subjugation. Yes, Dubai is important, but, more important is how the future looks and feels like from here.”

Below, we spoke to Farah Al Qasimi and Sophia Al Maria about their work and world.


Al Qasimi is a US-based photographer and filmmaker from Abu Dhabi who makes awesomely hyperreal art about her places and our times. For the talks programme Global Art Forum, based on the subject of “trade”, she photographed the Dubai mega-mall Dragon Mart, the world’s largest collection of Chinese goods outside China, and elsewhere, she produced a green-screen film about a hijabi woman scrubbing herself into invisibility called “It’s Not Easy Being Seen”.

The Gulf is an obsession for so much of the world, and that comes with a lot of aesthetic and ideological baggage. But your work looks a bit closer, a bit clearer, and a bit brighter at this fascinating place and time. So first of all, could you just tell me what you feel your work talks to?

Farah Al Qasimi: I would say I’ve traditionally been interested in the relationship between reality and projected ideals, both on a national scale and an individual one. And with the Emirates specifically, I've always been interested in the development of a post-colonial neocapitalist structure, and how it has affected natural and urban landscapes and social frameworks. So the work seeks out these places where there is a sort of peeling back of a thin surface. It's similar to what you were talking about in terms of a lot of people coming to Dubai with an idea of what it looks like, but that usually being a veneer of progress or shininess. That is the image that gets put out into the world, but I want to know how it came to be that way, and what it means for the future. 

Progress is obviously a really fraught word. How does it play out in Dubai and the Gulf?  

Farah Al Qasimi: Progress is a problematic word, because it's usually measured up against some sort of non-Arab cultural standard: of arriving at a point where we can compare ourselves to a city like London, or Berlin, or New York, or LA. I think a lot of the complexity actually gets ignored. 

I've been thinking a lot about this specifically in relation to women's rights since the post-election outrage in the US over governmental regulation of women's bodies. A lot of conversations I've had since moving back to the US three years ago have involved questions about my experiences as a woman in the Emirates. And I've always spoken quite openly about it, about the challenges and privileges I have over there, that are different from the challenges and privileges I have over here. It's reductive to state that it's simply better or worse for women – my experience is certainly not a singular one and I have had a lot of opportunity in the Emirates because of my citizenship. I think that the place is forward-thinking in a lot of ways, and has quite far to go in others, but we have to look at what that really means for all women, all people. I want to liken progress to equality – to move towards a society in which all lives are regarded with significance and care. That is the standard that I hold my two native countries to – and both have surprised and disappointed me in different ways. 

“There’s an emasculating that happens when you’re man and you say you’re an artist” – Farah Al Qasimi

The vast majority of people working in the art world in Dubai were women. Is that something you recognise? 

Farah Al Qasimi: I think it's certainly more socially well-received for a woman to be an artist there, and I find that really interesting, having witnessed the rest of the world's fascination with lauding male artists who work monumentally. I really like that a lot of the artists in my community in the Arab world are women. There’s an emasculating that happens when you’re man and you say you're an artist. They don't teach art in public schools. (But) it is important to start to de-stigmatise the idea of an art career for men as part of a larger move to soften gender-normative ideas of expressiveness or vulnerability. There are lots of opportunities for young artists there, and there's room for the men, too. 

What is it the things that people misunderstand about the Gulf, or the things you have to most commonly explain, or can't explain?

Farah Al Qasimi: I think a lot of people lump the Gulf countries together. They think oil money, fast cars, new buildings, labour rights, and… maybe that's about it. Oh, and oppressed women, that's a big thing. I get really exhausted being forced into teacher-mode, and I started directing people to Wikipedia instead. But it's hard, because I do feel like I have a responsibility, as the first person that someone's meeting from the Gulf, to sort of spell out some of the really basic differences. Like, yes, women can drive in the Emirates. We can wear t-shirts. They're always asking me how is my body perceived when I'm there, and my easy answer is that "it's COMPLICATED!" I can only speak from my own encounters, but I feel a lot more susceptible to real harassment or danger here in the US. And I think that that's really the main thing that I try and communicate in these conversations with people when they ask me these naive questions – to continue ripping apart a dichotomy of one place being good, one place being bad; one place liberal, one place oppressed or backwards. And that's not to say that there aren't shared problems pertaining to labour, citizenship and womanhood in many Gulf countries, but I think that the bottom line is that it's complex, and there are so many factors involved that make things the way they are. I often remind people we were colonised by the British until very recently. In the Emirates, we're still making a move from tribal statehood to cosmopolitan cities in such a short span of time. There are good consequences and there are bad ones. My experience of being a women in the Gulf is going to be very different from that of a woman who immigrated recently, or who has a different citizenship, and I recognise that. I try to be cognisant of the ways that I benefit from existing hierarchical structures and how I can best use my voice.

Tell me about Dragon!

Farah Al Qasimi: Dragon! was an opportunity to photograph one of my most beloved places in Dubai, Dragon Mart – the largest trader of Chinese goods outside of China. What I love most about it, apart from the convenience of having most things that you need in one place, is that there are so many layers of aesthetic translation happening there. It's so interesting to see the Chinese produce Gulf furniture, which is essentially an adaptation of Baroque and Rococo, and all of these other styles that are classically European. So there's a sort of broken-telephone game of cultural interpretation happening, and the temptation to buy or sell a caricature of a certain lifestyle. I've been trying to nail down what a “Gulf aesthetic” actually is, and I don't think you can, but I think that being able to look at these displays (is part of it). I always go there when I want to think about where I am. Does that make sense?


Al Maria is an artist, writer, and filmmaker who grew up between Qatar and America and looks at myths and our accelerated times through a black mirror. At the Third Line in Dubai she showed her video “Black Friday”, a totally amazing film about the dark heart of malls and modernity, and a series of images which juxtaposed text from beauty products with shock-and-awe slogans used by the US military. 

How much of you and your work are defined by the place you grew up in, and how much do you think is universal to any other artist of your age who grew up surrounded by wifi and global culture? 

Sophia Al Maria: When I began articulating my ‘work’ it was absolutely influenced by my childhood in Puyallup, WA and my youth in Doha, Qatar – those geo-specific locations had everything to do with the proto filter bubble I existed inside of. The literature I came across at the public library or the cartoons I watched on satellite TV. That geo-specificity has faded as my own location on the planet has been blurred with constant travel and an unforgivable carbon footprint. I guess I’ve always been straining to come to some other place. Some unreal, impossible zone where the tastes of, and barriers imposed by the particular audience we tend to end up speaking to as ‘artists’ aren’t the defining forces that determine relevance. Universalism is a pretty idea, though. I like to dream about what it might mean.  

One of the most insane things about the Gulf is this incredibly fast pace of change – pre-industrial to post-industrial in three generations or less. What impact has this had on you, your work, and the art produced by people from your part of the world? 

Sophia Al Maria: You are right to point out the surreal proximity of the technology with the pre-agrarian experience. It really is, as you put it, 'insane'. But the Gulf is not unique in this way. The speed of development is the product of oil which is an amphetamine for capitalism. Our consensual reality is lubricated by it. But maybe the Gulf is a bit unique in the way it has dealt with its so-called resource curse. Or in the way in which oil and gas companies and transnational deals have been brokered since that first meeting on The Great Bitter Lake between Saud and Roosevelt in 1945. While Venezuela and the Niger Delta and the Arctic all have their own experience of the violence born of the act of drilling for and finding fossil fuel – I feel in the Gulf it has been largely sublimated and redirected. Cleverly. Fatally. It’s repressed beneath clever layers of PR language and nationalism, and yes, consumerism. I can’t speak to what impact this has had on others but I suppose for me it has been the seed of a lot of my work.

“Yes. The Gulf art scene is run by a secret cabal of boss ladies. But kunstwelt is pretty cunty everywhere – in my experience at least – that’s why I like it (!)” – Sophia Al Maria

One of the things I kept hearing in Dubai was that the art scene there was run by women. Would you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?

Sophia Al Maria: Yes. The Gulf art scene is run by a secret cabal of boss ladies. But kunstwelt (translating to ‘art world’) is pretty cunty everywhere – in my experience at least – that’s why I like it (!)

Last year, you said to the Guardian: “People hate Islam but they’re titillated. That’s the gross thing, the thing that must be defused.”  How might this be defused? 

Sophia Al Maria: Fucking sub-editors. That is all I can say about that headline. I had made a flippant comment and as if to illustrate the point – the Guardian used it as click bait. Maybe served me right. It was a few weeks after the Brexit vote and that was on my mind. Who knew last summer that the xenophobia being stoked by loud-mouthed and incorrectly termed ‘populists’ would be so powerfully infectious?

The so-called ‘muslim ban’ in the US is just proof of this ‘titilation’ I mentioned. I’m not saying anything new at all in that interview. Muslims in general, and poor, disenfranchised Muslims in particular, with that list have been used as a convenient cartoon bogeyman to give America a cheap thrill and to justify all kinds of military action and legal action. To the global power elite, the Muslim is a figure interchangeable at different points in history with other religious or ethnic groups that have been targeted. It’s been present in the white, European, colonial imagination for centuries. When the comfortable and entitled feel threatened – be alert.

Speaking of gross – what does The West misunderstand about Qatar, and life for women there?

Sophia Al Maria: Everyone is lazy in their assumptions about Qatar. To be fair it isn’t the easiest place to ‘get’. But you read the same adjective-laced op-ed over and over, “Tiny Emirate Qatar”, “the diminutive Oil-state”, “the thumb jutting out of Saudi”. But it’s not just The West. There’s an amount of racism and elitism within Arabic-speaking countries who regard Gulfis as backwards, nouveau riche bumpkins. Expats from all over the world grow up in Qatar and never make friends with a local. Here’s a fact for what it’s worth: female enrolment in Qatari universities is double that of male.

Do you think the malls of the Gulf are important to understanding today, and what do these places, and the shopping that takes place inside of them, tell us about the world? 

Sophia Al Maria: They’re only important insofar as a piece of religious architecture is important to defining a time and place and the behaviors of those in it. George Romero used the shopping mall, his zombies gravitate towards it because it’s ‘where they were truly happy’. I guess consuming feels like a sort of sacrament. The pilgrimage to the mall happens with an almost rhythmic regularity on payday. You confess to your true self in the booth of a changing room. That’s what I feel the mall is telling us. As a structure. As a format. As a jewelled trap.