Starting January 29, 100 bus shelters all over NYC are set to showcase photography by artist Farah Al Qasimi for the debut of Public Art Fund exhibition “Back and Forth Disco.”
For the second exhibition produced in partnership with outdoor advertising company JCDecaux, a series of 17 newly commissioned frames shot by Al Qasimi will be spread across the five boroughs. A selection of the snaps will replace the standard 48-inch-by-69-inch ads at each shelter.
Al Qasimi, who spends her time working between Brooklyn and Dubai, has comprised “Back and Forth Disco” of photographs that explore the beauty of transitory, seemingly inconspicuous moments juxtaposed with the visual and auditory noise of the city that never sleeps.
For the first time, Al Qasimi takes NYC as her subject, focusing primarily on immigrant neighborhoods that resonate with her own experience. The photographs document local communities where small businesses thrive as the lifeblood of the city’s working class.
She captures vibrant instances of self-expression that break through the chaos and anonymity of city life: a woman in a bright yellow jacket and elaborate hair accessory talking on the phone, or the decorative chandelier installed in a bodega by its owner.
The exhibition’s body of work also demonstrates the unintentional embellishment of the everyday by creating stills that highlight the expressive details of individual moments that may often go unseen, drowned within the accelerated rhythm of New York City.
Best known for the rich textures and saturated colors of her photographs, Al Qasimi’s distinct approach to portraiture challenges traditional notions of figuration. In order to protect people’s identity, Al Qasimi obscures their faces, and instead the vitality of her subjects is expressed through garments, hair styles, and poses.
Subjects become incorporated into the larger composition of the photograph through reflections, mirrors, and surfaces that mediate the viewer’s visual access to the individual. In “East Broadway Mall,” for example, Al Qasimi documents a shopping complex in Manhattan’s Chinatown that reminds her of the architecture of malls in the Emirates. Vivid flowers foreground the landscape-like scene captured from a staircase, overlooking a shopkeeper surrounded by neon signage and merchandise.
The artist’s process is both spontaneous and deliberate. She photographs friends and strangers alike, often returning to familiar places repeatedly or recreating moments she has seen in public space in more controlled environments.
In “Coco,” a cockatoo who resides at a curtain store in Ridgewood is paid a visit by neighborhood regulars. A young boy looks at the bird but his eyes are concealed by his mother’s extended arm, allowing other features – such as the woman’s bright red nails – to become the focal point.
“One of my favorite outcomes from working on this exhibition is that this new body of work has changed the way I look at the city, and to an extent, my perception of beauty,” says exhibition curator Katerina Stathopoulou.
“I have started to notice aesthetic details that I didn’t pay attention to before,” she continues, “such as the advertisements at my local bodega and the hodgepodge of items and clashing colors in clothing store vitrines. Al Qasimi’s photographs celebrate the aesthetic choices and cultural traditions that make spaces and surroundings uniquely personal. I now see beauty in environments that I previously overlooked.”
Depicting neighborhood stores, barber shops, street scenes and homes, the photographs are intended to spark recognition within the 20 communities in which they will be housed. In many cases, the locations of the bus shelters displaying particular photographs connects them back to the places where the works were made.
Neighborhoods include Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Boerum Hill, Williamsburg, Dutch Kills and Astoria, in addition to parts of Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx.
Each year, JCDecaux brings two solo exhibitions to 100 of its bus shelters citywide. It is a core program through which the company engages with local communities, creating a continuously evolving platform to bring artistic voices to street level for all New Yorkers.
A collaboration on this goal with the Public Art Fund is fitting, as the nonprofit’s mission is to offer a wide audience with experiences of dynamic contemporary art and the urban environment through free exhibitions of international scope. “Back and Forth Disco” is the initial of five solo shows in the Public Art Fund’s 2020 season.
For Al Qasimi on the other hand, “Back and Forth Disco,” on view through May 17, is her first institutional solo show in New York. Al Qasimi’s work can also be seen in the collections of the MoMA and NYU’s Grey Art Gallery.