ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Farah Salem as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Farah Salem (Kuwaiti born) is a Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist and art therapist. In her studio practice, she merges present experiences of human and geologic happenings, while looking at themes of access, agency, power, and the invisibly visible. She investigates the distortion of reality and perception, questioning the potential erasure of socio-cultural conditioning that influences and distorts our shared realities. She holds an MA in Art Therapy and Counseling from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Visual Communications. Farah’s work has been featured at Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), American University Museum Katzen Art Center (Washington DC), United Photo Industries (New York), Mana Contemporary (Chicago), Centro Cultural De Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Paris Contemporary Art Fair, Sharjah Art Foundation (UAE), and Contemporary Art Platform (Kuwait). Farah was named the Laureate Winner of the Women’s Photographers Award 2017 and has been published by the Kuwait National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters for her photography book titled In-Between the Skyline of Kuwait City. She has participated in artist residencies including ACRE, Hyde Park Art Center, Hatch at Chicago Artist Coalition, Crossway Foundation, and Per|Form.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Farah Salem: My multidisciplinary practice is rooted within photography and expands into video, performance, fiber-materials, and installation. My art making process engages personal memories, reflecting on present circumstances, and the stories of collaborating participants whose experiences intersect with mine. I utilize a balance of research and play, and the knowledge gathered from my career in clinical/communal art therapy serves as a basis for some of my studio practice’s research. While interacting with numerous materials, my work maintains an interrogative posture to examine distortion of reality and perception, the relationship between trauma and systemic oppression, culturally induced gender-based violence, and identity displacement. Some of the recurring themes in my work also include investigating the role of access, agency, power, and the invisibly visible. I attempt to capture indescribable sensations in response to feelings and memories elicited by encounters within natural and cultural landscapes by mimicking them through another material and process. In a sense, I recreate the element of astoundment to challenge the notion of perception and engage viewers in self-reflection and challenging their own notions of perceptions.
AE: Can you elaborate on the role of the body within your photography and the gradual move towards making work about the somatic experience of the body beyond the still image?
FS: When I first began immersing myself deeper into photography I started as a street photographer. For many years I was behind the lens, documenting backstreets of Kuwait City, which eventually were published in my photobook, In-Between the Skyline of Kuwait City. Being a body behind the lens still included the body, it was invisible though, which corresponded to my role as a woman in the settings/culture I was in at the time. However, only later did I make these connections and I started focusing more on image making which internationally incorporated a participating body into the artwork.
In addition, as I dove deeper into research in learning about the relationship between trauma/adverse experiences, memory, perception and the body/nervous system through my studies and work as an art therapist, the consideration of the body/somatic experience started to appear more consistently in my work.
The body as a site of transgenerational memory, as a keeper and container of the psyche/perception, the body and its correspondence to geologic time as it interacts with the landscape it walks on. These are all themes which emerge in my image making process.
There is a resolution that my artwork is working towards which is about healing the extracted body. Extraction can be in many forms, whether it’s by way of exile, migration, marginalization, trauma, expression..etc. In my process I examine how in my experience a body confronts a sense of extraction from its freedom to express, a sense of belonging and safety, access to its agency. A body experiencing a sense of displacement from its own which is a result of cultural/societal impositions. I look at the metaphors and tools available through the land and ancestral healing wisdom as medicine for the recovery of the somatic experience. The resolution is somewhere along the line of the body integrating that it is the wounded, the seeker, the healer and the healed.
AE: When did you begin incorporating performance within your practice? In your view, what are some of your most significant performances to date and why?
FS: In 2014, I participated in a 40 day performance-based residency/workshop and ever since, my work has shifted. The first live performance I did was titled Society Projections. I then moved towards performance photography and video.
The performance photography series Cornered (2016) is the first series where I started stepping into the frame myself. In this work I was reflecting on a recurring theme that surrounded me. The theme of accepting discomfort at the expense of wellbeing, confined by expectations, yet so close to physically stepping out of it. While it’s natural to want to protect yourself, the box may keep you safe, yet it also isolates you, it’s a numbing response. We find this body trapped in spaces of beautiful nowhere and the performers’ affect and posture in juxtaposition to the landscapes tells us a story of why she may or may not stay.
In recent years I have returned to live performances such as Mirage (2019). In this performance I invite viewers to join me in playing a game from my childhood called Bar/Bahar (desert/sea). In the game the participant shifts their body in response to changes of landscape. In the performance, I provide a reading of collected excerpts of philosophical reflection on play, seriousness in adults, and conditioning. I also read a series of poems, and songs by women participating in rituals in response to historical relations to the desert/sea in Kuwait. There is a theme of power dynamics shifting throughout the performance between me and audience members which keeps this performance fresh and interesting depending on the crowd. Every time I perform Mirage, it feels different depending on the chemistry of the crowd in the room.
AE: Tell us about your ongoing series, Uninhibited People of the Earth, that you exhibited in the two-person show Crossings, at the Chicago Artists Coalition this past April 2022.
FS: In April, I produced the first iteration of a series of works titled Uninhibited: People of the Earth. I exhibited photography, fiber tapestries, performance video, a soundscape, two reconstructed instrument installations, and a live performance. This body of work is centered around a fading practice in the Arabian Peninsula/Kuwait named Zar that originated from East Africa. A healing ritual that was historically utilized by oppressed and socially isolated groups of women to cope with anxiety and stressors of societal shifts in the pre and post-oil era. Zar traditions include reconciliation rites between the Jinn spirit and their human host. Jinn, referred to as the people of the earth often inhabited in the depth of the earth, and rock formations, live in a parallel yet invisible world and respond to rituals and sound created by specific instruments/rhythms. The majority of participants are women, affected by societal patriarchy and extractive capitalism, when participating they are able to reduce their distress and achieve a sense of mental restoration through accessing trance states. Through archives, oral stories, merged with my professional occupation in clinical/communal art therapy and trauma recovery, I uncover personal memories of these ritualistic practices in my own lineage allowing me to deepen my understanding of this ancient ritual’s psychological underpinnings compared to modern medicine.
Music and dance of the Arabian peninsula spread with migration and shifts to meet the needs of communities. This body of work, Uninhibited: People of The Earth, in a way re-imagines Zar music/dance. I draw from Zar the wisdom of ritualizing feelings and grief so they can move quickly through us without causing uncomfortable internal distortions, and as a tool to reactivate a sense of agency in the body. I am thinking through, learning, and sharing my findings of how Zar is an indigenous practice that holds a non-judgmental space for participants to practice being with the natural rhythms of our nervous systems. It is a practice that completes and discharges pent-up emotions and sensations through the body and restores a sense of wellness as a response to perceived threats. New cutting-edge body-centered trauma therapies are finding this, yet ancestral wisdom within Zar has known this all along.
AE: Tell us about your work that came from that series, رتاج الطنبورة Ritaj Al-Tanbura: Unlocking the Portals’ Gate. This is the first time you created an instrument that functions within an installation and is activated by performance. What is the significance of music and also in particular, this musical heritage, for you?
FS: The installation of the reconstructed Tanbura instrument titled Ritaj Al-Tanbura: Unlocking the Portals’ Gate uses enlarged protective talismans to create tension to musical strings. The installation seeks to bring participants close enough to the experience of being in the presence of an activated state in the process of healing. Where people of the earth, the jin spirits being our unconfronted shadow selves, are welcomed and held with openness through the soundscape. The density, and weight of the talismanic objects produces the sonic landscape, the portal that allows us to access the space where the shadow self resides, and we may approach it with humbleness towards individual and collective healing. I like to call the quality of sound it makes “sand rhythms”, as these talismanic objects traditionally called yam’a are filled with sand to create tension that produces the sound, the fabric contains screen prints of rock formation photographs. The sound quality and activation of the instrument will continue to shift and have multiple iterations as I continue developing this piece.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
Currently I am continuing to develop my project Uninhibited: People of the earth. In early 2023, I am participating in a duo show at Hyde Park Art Centers’ booth in the Expo Chicago art fair. I also have various group shows which are in early stages of development.
FARAH SALEM ONLINE: