Ochre, dusty pink, tan and various shades of brown—colors that belong to the deserts and mountains that frequent the photographs and videos by Farah Salem, Kuwaiti Iraqi artist and art therapist working and living in Chicago. Farah tells me that she used to travel across the Arabian Peninsula with her family when she was younger. Seeing how the landscape changed from the backseat of the car filled her childhood memory. Fascination took root after she saw a green mountain for the first time and had such a visceral reaction to it; this affinity that humans develop with their surroundings has intrigued her ever since.
“Temporary Deformations,” for example, is a series of digitally altered photographs that Farah made during the pandemic. The camera zooms in on where mountains touch the water; sublime sedimentary layers, lines and cracks are brushstrokes painted by time. But if you look closely, a portion of the rock surface is noticeably blended and distorted by a digital brush. As it were, the mountainous rock had melted into liquid and became solid again, but this time mutating to more slick and unearthly forms. To Farah, the terrain is allegorical. “As you move through the landscape, it elicits a sense of internal movement through your own psychological landscape,” she says. These photographs are superimpositions of the two landscapes that mirror each other: the strata are stories told across geological time, a result of pressure from the surroundings on a body of rock; the digital deformations are disquieting eruptions of one’s inner world, psychological pressure from social environment exerted onto the body and the mind.
This duality of landscapes extends to Farah’s more recent work, “Uninhibited: People of the Earth,” a multimedia video installation exhibited in “Crossings,” the two-person show at Chicago Artists Coalition that was the culmination of her HATCH residency in 2022. In a silent video and between excerpts of historic footage of Zar rituals, a figure is seen wearing a headpiece and the Manjour—a wearable instrument—dancing through solemn rock formations, almost devoured by them. The documentation of these dance movements was all shot throughout the American Midwest. Farah thinks of this as her way to adapt to unfamiliar geography as she travels thousands of miles from home. She tells me, “I was really renegotiating my sense of finding home, thinking about how traditions shift with migration in our cultures and how people were able to make a home wherever they go.” Similar to moving and shapeshifting along the landscape, our identity is the result of constant negotiations between what we bring with us and what we receive.
Farah started making art when she was a kid, and later went to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree in visual communications, and worked as a graphic designer for some years. Out of a desire to return to a fine-art practice and continue to use it as means of working through trauma, healing through creativity, Farah chose a path in art therapy and found herself at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, seeking a master’s degree.
Practicing art therapy allowed Farah to reflect on the healing rituals to which she has been exposed since childhood. “I have this deep dive into understanding how traumatic or adverse experiences are locked into the body,” she says. “When verbalizing them is just unavailable to some of us, engaging in more somatic practices can help us gain power and access to a sense of agency that we once felt is lost.” Farah’s works that are performative—or what she prefers to think as “ceremonies” that are expanded from a private setting to a more public one—are apt to mobilize different formal elements to offer a transcendental experience.
In the installation at Chicago Artists Coalition, the sound piece, “A Soundscape, Zar Journey,” composed in collaboration with Mohammad Alowaisi featuring vocalist Hussa Al Humaidhi, complemented the silent video from across the gallery. In yet a different corner, the headpiece and the Manjour from the video, reimagined with cowrie shells (as opposed to the traditional goat hooves), laid on a side table. The installation had the power to summon all sensorial faculties, with sculptures and objects emitting sonic potential. Music and singing were blended with fresh and soothing clackings of the shells; imagination bleeds into reality, forming a trance state only to be occupied on site, at the moment.
Farah is working on “Disclosed,” an ongoing photography series that she started in 2016, featuring women who have had life stories that intersect with hers. In each portrait, a woman is posed in a landscape significant to her, with her face and body disguised by the abaya garment, her story—which cannot be told publicly—is poetically translated into visual motifs and expressively painted on the veiling garment. Challenging the connotations of the veil that are, in the West, shrouded by stereotypes and entangled in politicization, Farah wants to think of this piece of clothing as a protection tool from environmental conditions and as a communication tool for sacred privacy. “Disclosed” also insists on alternative–but equally powerful–ways of storytelling: in color, in sound, in how the horizon line intersects with the body, but this time, just not in words. (Nicky Ni)