On the occasion of the Art Week running in Dubai from March 19th to 24th, we asked curator and director of Baarjel Art Foundation, Karim Sultan, to have a conversation with artist Farah Al Qasimi to learn more about her practice and involvement in the exhibition “Ishara: Signs, Symbols and Shared Languages“, on view at Concrete, Alserkal Avenue and presented by Alserkal Programming and UAE Unlimited.
Karim Sultan: Some characterise translation as either an inherently failed exercised – impossibility due to the vast spaces between languages and the experiences they embody. Others characterise it as a joyous and intriguing venture that is inherently productive. Where would you fall in between these two opposing views?
Farah Al Qasimi: Translation is a painful process, often borne from necessity – particularly in a world where so many people are being rapidly displaced. At the same time, it’s impossible to do it right. So many languages have words that are completely untranslatable. I’m in the middle. I’m not the best Arabic speaker, but I do have an appreciation for the economy of our words. One syllable can pack a lot of information (including gender – because, like many other languages, Arabic assigns genders to inanimate objects).
KS: Can you tell us the journey of the work produced for Ishara (its conception, development during the Delfina residency, the production in the UAE)?
FAQ: I saw a Jim Henson exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and completely fell for the puppets, even in their slumped-over, inactive states. I started making little hand-puppets at Delfina, sewing them in my room with fabric and crafts I found at Shepherd’s Bush Market while watching old Muppets episodes. It was kind of funny to think of my puppets as multicultural or bilingual because the materials they’re made up of are sourced from such different places. I had fabric from Korea, India, the USA… so I started thinking about the puppets as abstract forms or surrogates for humans with complex cultural backgrounds. I first wanted to make a traditional TV puppet show with a linear narrative, but became totally engrossed in the translation books I was using for the text. I loved the places where these textbooks faltered, and imagined a world where language is a material that can be abstracted instead of refined.
KS: The puppets present in your work seem to represent different aspects of the process of translation from one language to the next, with the dictionary character mediating (or attempting to mediate) between them. Are these characters embodiments of actual characters or kind of abstractions for the process (and the difficulties it poses) itself?
FAQ: I see them as both. While they embody different stages of the process of translation, they also express patience, frustration, and curiosity. There’s a moment where one character is trying to learn phonetically Arabic sounds through English spelling, and he gets confused by the familiarity of the English words.
KS: Music plays a role in this work. What is the relationship between music and your visual arts practice – are they largely separate?
FAQ: They started off as separate but are increasingly intersecting. A lot of my performances use the format of a song or a musical, and are concerned with the task of imbuing inanimate objects with their own power relationships and internal emotional dialogues. When I was in grad school, people often asked me whether my work belonged in a gallery or a music venue, and I don’t think it matters. I’m much more interested in art that is unclassifiable, or removed from the commercial art world’s genre lexicon. People like Throbbing Gristle and Wendy O Williams, whose work is musical and performative, but also very visual, defy that classification in a way I find inspiring. This project is the first time I’ve tried to write a song that a child might like. I don’t know if I got it right! I showed it to some kids I know and their response was, “OK, but when does it end?” I still have some work to do.
KS: Did the local context in which the work would be exhibited figure into the development of the work?
FAQ: Yes, but I’d like to think it would still be legible elsewhere. The Emirates has a relationship with language that I find fascinating and puzzling. For example: there are multiple highway signs for the same neighborhood. I’ve seen the following iterations on different signs: “Dubai Marina” in English, “Marsa Dubai” (which is the translation of Dubai Marina) in English, “Marsa Dubai” in Arabic, and the transliterated Arabic version of “Doo-bai Ma-ree-na”. Who makes these decisions? Who decides which meaning of the word to prioritize? What is a Marina, anyway? Is it the place where people park their boats or the name of that one neighborhood?
- Karim Sultan
- Farah Al Qasimi
- Farah Al Qasimi, "It's Not Easy Being Seen", 2016. Courtesy of the artist and The Third Line