Emirati photographer Afra Bin Dhaher creates romantic worlds to wander without leaving home


Afra Bin Dhaher’s photographs have an air of motion. Hymns to a Sleeper, her first solo show at Dubai’s Tashkeel, was a natural follow-up to her 2011 Self Portrait series. Running from January 20 to March 3, it featured her familiar dioramas, dramatic sets frozen within the frame. Having collaborated with performance artist Andrew Starner for a year, her statement for this show asked if there can be a performance without a live body. Accompanying texts pushed the imagination on its own narrative journey.

The show comprised 19 photographs in total. Nine featured her characters, identified by the colour of their flowing scarves. They wear pale white masks, denying them a vital life-sign. Bin Dhaher’s work focuses on the girl at home, yet in flight. She’s fixed beautifully at a defining moment, surrounded by colours, birds, delicate fabrics and familiar home objects.

“Hoopoe: Look, Yellow, look at the faraway mountains!” In By the Window, Yellow speaks to a talking bird perched on her wrist. On second inspection, the hoopoe was a paper collage brought to life by text. With fidelity to prettiness and privacy, this half of the work was personal and formidably feminine.

The second half was more social, with images of rugs, ornate chairs and household items, some dipped in gold. In House of Three, an exotic parrot sits defiantly on a frayed velvet seat. “Humbled by the harshness of the desert life, they both brimmed with kindness and inner peace,” a text read. “The ladies lived in separate houses and both owned this chair.”

Bin Dhaher’s work is unexpectedly profound. Are we intruding, or invited? Is the mask freeing, or constraining? Are the characters flying, or caged by the frame?

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One – on – One Issue #35, on page 22.