Kuwaiti photographer Farah Salem has spent five years roaming the back streets of Kuwait City to discover and capture the multicultural aspect of the capital through photos and video installations featured at her “In-Between the Skyline of Kuwait City” exhibition.
The exhibition, at La Galerie at the Alliance Francaise of Dubai, was the outcome of a journey that began when Salem was an undergraduate student and resulted in a book with the same title that was published in June 2016.
Salem’s work invites viewers to a “dynamic meditative experience” and the video-and-sound installation offers an experience similar to a visual walking tour around the streets between the skylines of the city.
“I aim to allow people to see that there is more to Kuwait City’s urban life than the dazzling modern and luxurious buildings that somehow feel lifeless. Behind them are the most scenic streets and passages that tell a far more powerful story,” Salem said.
“I was an 18-year-old woman with dreams of travelling to explore new cultures and places. At that time, I had to focus on my education.
I could not afford to travel. I had a car and a camera and I decided to use these tools every weekend to park somewhere in the city and go on walking adventures,” she said via e-mail from Chicago, where she is working towards a master’s degree in art therapy and counselling.
Salem faced several obstacles in a country where women were often not expected to be roaming alone photographing backstreets.
“However, I made it work for me and I built honest human connections with strangers on those streets. Often, I would return with a printed photograph to offer it to shop owners or craftsmen whom I had met on the street,” she said
Salem’s documentation of a 5-year period of a city that is constantly shifting generated great interest inside and outside Kuwait.
“There was great feedback,” she said. “At one point a few individuals who were not happy with ‘this specific image’ of Kuwait asked me why I didn’t document any of the modern buildings or malls. Ironically, this was my very point from this project: not to show Kuwait’s modern architecture that can be easily found on a search engine but to capture the beauty that lies within the rawness of the backstreets. To include all aspects of the city and those who reside in it.”
In her journey towards a full-time creative life Salem can count on the support and encouragement of her father, who is creative himself, and friends. “I also receive encouragement from the creative community that I am surrounded by and deeply appreciate the support from viewers and art enthusiasts,” she said.
Salem started experimenting with photography when she was “14 going on 15,” with a digital camera she would carry in her pocket to capture moments of life around her.
“My father saw potential and bought me a (professional) camera when I was 17. I began learning on my own and then enrolled in a photography course. I continued practising and taking as many courses as I could,” she said.
“By the time I was 20, I was experimenting with film and instant photography. Eventually, I started attending both photography and other art practice programmes. Like every artist, it’s an ongoing practice of building your own aesthetic and conceptualisation of themes.”
The media Salem is currently working with are photography, video, installation, performance and projection/light work.
“Through my artwork, I question ways of erasing socio-cultural conditioning, through looking at the societal gendered trauma, particularly rooted within my experience as an Arab woman, as well as debating ways of defeating silence and overcoming boundaries of a restricting culture. Other themes such as existential questioning also appear in my work,” Salem said.
Salem said censorship is still a large issue in the Gulf region. “I don’t believe art should be restricted by any kind of ideology,” she said. “It is often easier to censor women and keep their voices down. It is a part of the culture after all.”
Stressing the importance of applying feminist theories in the Gulf region, she said: “I don’t mean the Western version of feminism or simply the equality of gender but also taking into consideration class, race, religion, nationality and socio-cultural backgrounds. Feminism is freedom of choice. Feminism is about dismantling the systems of oppression.”
“Creating platforms that can act as safe spaces, finding new processes to empower our own choices and engaging all members of society in a just way is what is needed right now,” she added.
N.P. Krishna Kumar is an Arab Weekly correspondent in Dubai.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.