It's been five years since the last Conversation show at the San Francisco Arts Commission, but it was worth the wait.
The series pairs a Bay Area artist with someone from “another point on the globe,” connecting the local art scene to the art world at large and creating new points of comparison for both practices.
Conversation 7 brings Bay Area-based artist Marcela Pardo Ariza and New York and Dubai-based artist Farah Al Qasimi together for an exhibition of recent photographic works, many made expressly for this show. And while plenty of photography exhibitions welcome viewers into lush, often-private worlds, it’s less common to see, as we do here, works in which the subjects retain their agency.
Though Al Qasimi and Ariza’s work divide the gallery roughly in half, commonalities between the two artists’ photographs—and exhibition tactics—make for a cohesive viewing experience. Al Qasimi positions smaller works atop large pieces of printed vinyl, Ariza hangs framed portraits on brightly painted color-coordinated walls. Both artists use blankets or draped fabrics to make bodies strange. Clothing, textures and patterns alternately individualize their subjects and render them anonymous—or sometimes, camouflaged.
Al Qasimi, born in Abu Dhabi, photographs friends and family members in the everyday environments of her communities both in the United Arab Emirates and the United States. The vinyl wall pieces nod to the illusionistic interior spaces in many of her photographs—a jungle mural on an office wall, a floor-to-ceiling landscape photo in China Mall Office or the mirrored ceiling of Barber Shop (Gold).
Punctuating these larger images are smaller, often intimate moments, like close-ups on bars of soap, or the quiet portrait of a man, eyes closed, dressed in white on a white bed in a white room. Only his hands, feet and face stand out against his surroundings—more than enough, it turns out, to convey a relaxed, contemplative mood.
M Napping on Carpet similarly erases a subject's body, this time with the help of swirling patterns. Al Qasimi's subject lays with a hand thrown across her face, her clothing blending into the carpet below. Here, the thrilling moment of individuality comes from M’s iridescent vinyl lace-up stilettos, a pop of psychedelic and unexpected color against the carpet’s beige tones.
The shoes surprise partly because they're shiny and vertiginous, but mostly because they don't fit Western assumptions about the footwear of Arab and Southeast Asian women. Letting us into private spaces filled with thick carpets, patterned vases and ornate furniture, Al Qasimi also confronts the viewer with the distance between those quotidian settings and our own preconceived notions about the people and places she photographs.
Where Al Qasimi captures both subject and setting, Ariza’s work more forcefully zooms in on bodies, framing local queer performers in tight crops of faces, torsos and legs. The ongoing series, called Entre nos (among us), presents portraits of Julie Tolentino, Xandra Ibarra, Grace Towers, Faluda Islam, Fíera and Juliana Delgado in glamorous makeup and costumes.
Another difference: Ariza's subjects show much, much more skin. One of my notes in the exhibition brochure reads simply, "nipples and nails!" And because of these close-up views on inches of bare flesh, the small glitzy details of fashion—and each performer's decision to don sequins, peacock feathers, platform shoes or colored contacts—take on greater significance.
Here the challenge is to represent the performers—bodies meant to be seen in motion—without the benefit of a moving image. Sequences of a single performer in different poses, cropped to different body parts, hint at their personas.
Ariza plays with this fragmentation, in a nice parallel to the prismatic effects in some of Al Qasimi’s work, in the two frames of Grace III. Grace Towers’ lower half, seen from the back and front, meet each other in the middle, creating a diptych that is all legs, leather jock strap and patent leather platform heels.
And while segmented views of bodies can make those bodies seem less whole or less real, many of Ariza's backdrops match the painted walls they’re hung upon, cannily pulling the performers out of a nebulous studio space and into the real world.
Ultimately, it's what we don't see in Al Qasimi and Ariza's images that makes them so alluring. By skillfully obscuring faces, identities, body movements and larger narratives, the photographers point to the impossibility of depicting an entire community, a geographic region or even a particular performer's signature style through their chosen medium. What is revealed—by the artists and their subjects—becomes all the more powerful for its vulnerability.
'Conversation 7' is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries (401 Van Ness, Suite 126) through Aug. 26, 2018. Details here.