Thinking outside the box with award-winning photographer Farah Salem

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’The Dove’ photo series presents a woman in a white abaya. (Photo courtesy: Farah Salem)
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'The Dove' photo series presents a woman in a white abaya.
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Fittingly, the boxed subject of “Cornered” is Salem herself.
Updated 07 March 2018

Thinking outside the box with award-winning photographer Farah Salem

LONDON: Female empowerment and women’s status in society are increasingly hot topics on the streets and in headlines alike — issues the Middle East’s rising ranks of contemporary artists have long been wrestling with behind cloistered gallery walls. Digging deeper, and more articulately, than many of her contemporaries, Farah Salem’s multidisciplinary work examines not just the pervading cultural pressures, but also the self-imposed mental barriers that often paralyze women from realizing their potential.
Last year, the young Kuwaiti talent beat close to 1,000 competitors from 84 countries to be named Laureate winner of the International Women Photographers Award 2017 for her work “Cornered” — a series of 10 photographs, each depicting a woman awkwardly bent inside a cardboard box in a striking variety of locations.
“It’s about how we choose to live, uncomfortably folded up in our box, because we’re too scared to leave our comfort zone,” says Salem. “But, outside, there is actually this wonderful nowhere, and it’s so easy to stand up and explore these beautiful spaces and landscapes.”
Salem is quick to point out that, while the subject is a headscarf-clad woman, the work can relate to anyone suffocated by their own self-imposed ideologies about gender, race or class.
Yet the traditional female clothing of the Arab world remains a recurring theme in the artist’s work. In “Disclosed,” another performance photography piece she dubs “gender soft-texture architecture,” Salem captures her subject garbed in ornate, self-designed abayas, confidently striding across an array of colorful landscapes. Last year’s sculptural “Crown of Your Head” depicts a model wearing a fiber pulp headpiece inspired by the headscarf.
Meanwhile, in “The Dove,” Salem turns convention on its head, presenting images of a woman in a white abaya — a symbol of purity and sanctuary — freed from the societal shackles of convention and expectation; or, as Salem puts it, “freeing the dove.”
Fittingly, the boxed subject of “Cornered” is Salem herself. The work takes cues from the artist’s personal experience of breaking down her own mental barriers when realizing her biggest project to date, “In-Between the Skyline of Kuwait City.” The result of more than five years’ labor, this photography series offers an unflinching portrait of her home city, deeply probing into the less glamorous multicultural communities few visitors, or even prosperous residents, ever see.
“I was an 18-year-old undergrad student and I had all these dreams about traveling alone, exploring different cultures and countries, finding a space where I could express myself freely, which I didn’t find in society — but all I had was my car and my camera,” remembers Salem, now aged 26.
“So I started to pretend I was a stranger in my own city, going on adventures, walking alone on the backstreets, getting lost, having these moments — these stolen frames. It was an interesting experience being a local woman on my own in those places. Back then it was kind of strange, it was breaking boundaries.”
In 2016, the mammoth personal project was realized as both a published photo book, supported by Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Art and Letters, and a touring solo exhibition, accompanied with a sound installation of ambient noises catching the city’s vibrant backstreet thrum. The project’s steady evolution mirrored the artistic and personal development of its author.
“As a creative person, my thoughts are always flowing around everywhere, and the dynamic meditation of being able to follow them while walking, and having that camera. The experience of capturing an image was like also capturing my thoughts at that place, at that time, being a woman in that city,” she says.
“I felt like I was more at home than ever — I never felt at home walking around malls. It felt safer to me to be on the streets. I met so many wise old people who have lived there for years and know so much history about the city.”
Salem is speaking from her current home in the United States, where she is midway through a Masters in Art Therapy and Counselling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Inspired by a desire to direct her creative impulses into an altruistic calling, Salem’s studies are channelled through a social justice model examining systems of opposition, viewed through the flashpoints of race and gender: Two topics often reflected in her work.
The fixation on gender identity and empowerment was solidified for Salem at any early age, the natural consequence of growing up with two brothers and noticing the differing freedoms, expectations and opportunities. “I’ve always been a little bit of a feminist warrior, because I didn’t think it was fair. Just because I was a woman and my society didn’t approve of these things, things that to me that were a basic human right,” says Salem
When I ask at what age she first encountered these glass ceilings, Salem laughs. “Since I was born — it was always there,” she adds. “At first, they joke about it, it’s cute you’re a female. At some point, the more you grow up, the more realistic it becomes.”
Art gave Salem her platform to address the injustices she felt on a public canvas. After taking painting classes and experimenting with photography in her early teens, her voice developed with her first major performance piece, which wore its intent in the title “Society Projections.”
Staged as a 40-day residency at Kuwait’s Contemporary Art Platform in 2014, the work begins with a newlywed woman named Lulwa — played by Salem and dressed all in white — inviting the assembled audience into her “home,” a blank gallery space decorated with outre “white on white” art. Slowly mounting pressures — a kitchen, chores, a family — are projected onto the wall behind. The piece closes with the adage “a woman’s place is her home” beamed directly on to Salem’s form, before the artist hurriedly gets up and walks away.
“The white is a metaphor of being this pure, well-put-together female that society expects from women, but also a metaphor for blending. The woman becomes a screen for whatever society wants to project onto her,” says Salem. “Having a choice, decision-making, for me that’s what signifies freedom. Often women don’t have any other choice than to follow what is expected.
“My statement in the piece is very clear — I left the room.”

British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

Updated 20 June 2018

British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

  • Exhibition on King Ashurbanipal reveals treasures from the 7th-century kingdom that stretched across northern Iraq and eastern Mediterranean.
  • Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.”

LONDON: When Daesh ransacked Mosul Museum in February 2015, the world watched in horror as cultural treasures were pushed from plinths and relics from ancient civilizations smashed to the floor. 

Priceless pieces of Iraq’s history were lost, taking thousands of years of heritage with them while the militant group tried to wipe out pre-Islamic past and destroy all memory of the ancient civilizations Iraq is built on.

Rescuing the artefacts that escaped the group’s savagery and restoring Iraq’s archaeological ancestry has become part of the healing process as the country emerges from the trauma of Daesh rule and pieces its identity back together following a decade of turmoil. 

Programs to train Iraq’s archaeologists in emergency heritage management are being supported by overseas institutions, including the British Museum in London, where a new exhibition will delve into an era when Iraq was at the center of a great Assyrian empire. 

Priceless treasures from the archaeological archives of ancient Assyria will go on display at the museum in November for the first major exhibition on the kingdom’s last great ruler, King Ashurbanipal. 

Described as the most powerful person on earth during his reign in the 7th-century BC, Ashurbanipal ruled with an iron fist from his seat in Nineveh, now northern Iraq. 

He presided over a vast territory that stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the summits of western Iraq and was known, according to the exhibition, as a “Warrior. Scholar. Empire-builder. King-slayer. Lion-hunter. Librarian.”

A map showing the extent of the Assyrian Empire (in pink). (Courtesy Paul Goodhead)

His feats on the battlefield, which included conquering Egypt and crushing the state of Elam, established his military might but the Assyrian king also cultivated an intellectual prestige, amassing the largest library in existence to showcase his scholarship.

For Ashurbanipal, the ruthless ruler, harnessing the power of learning to build his status as “King of the World, King of Assyria,” was equally important in cowing his enemies.

Among the notable pieces in his extraordinary collection, which predated the famous Library of Alexandria, was the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia considered the earliest surviving work of great literature.

About 30,000 of these texts are in the hands of the British Museum, where they tell the story of life at Ashurbanipal’s famously extravagant court in ancient cuneiform script, hammered out on clay tablets. 

These are among the 200 rarely-seen objects due to be displayed at the museum, which has brought together pieces from across the world, from the History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan to the Musée du Louvre in Paris to supplement its existing collection of artefacts from the glory days of ancient Assyria. 

Huge stone statues, delicately-carved reliefs, rare wall paintings and elaborate armory give a sense of the opulence of Ashurbanipal’s palace, which stood as a symbol of the vast wealth and influence he wielded, flanked by expansive gardens where an elaborate canal network reached 50 kilometers into the mountains.

Recent speculation has suggested that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — were in fact those at Nineveh.

Some of the the artefacts have been brought up from a decommissioned basement gallery at the British Museum, where few have had the opportunity to lay eyes on them for 20 years. 

Brought together for the first time, they capture the scale and splendor of the era before Ashurbanipal’s empire fell to the Babylonians and recalls an era when the influence of Assyrian monarchs reached across the world. 

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.” 

Many of the items on display originate from archaeological sites in Iraq, including Nineveh and Nimrud, cities recently ravaged by Daesh when the group stormed the ancient sites armed with sledgehammers and drills. 

Gareth Brereton, exhibition curator, said: “As present-day Iraq looks to recover the history of damaged sites at Nineveh and Nimrud, this exhibition allows us to appreciate and relive the great achievements of an ancient world and celebrate its legacy.”