NORTH ADAMS -- Artist Ibrahim Quraishi is looking to the west for inspiration, seeking out the dream of the cowboy and discovering the reality.
His show, "Dreaming Arizona," offers seven films and seven photographs, and is currently showing at MCLA Gallery 51.
Quraishi's work stems from a three-month journey through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Ohio, in search of real cowboy culture.
"I love that culture," Quraishi said. "There are a lot of facets of that culture that are really iconographic in the way they've been portrayed in films and also in the way that there is a kind of homoerotic element in that culture. I was amazed at this version of sexuality that was occurring in the working class."
Quraishi was also very interested in the culture's feeling of freedom, and its idea of openness, as well as the land and the human connection to it being a huge part of those aspects.
"It's a very personal study of a simple aspect of the landscape, the highway," said Quraishi. "And the cars. And the way that nature is embracing it, though nature is totally conflicted in that environment."
Quraishi decided to rent a white Bronco and have someone else drive it while he filmed, capturing his idea of the endless journey. These grainy films are coupled with photographs of the road that move away from the tourist distractions and focus on the long black line that stretches through the West.
"I spent hours and hours just standing with a camera, literally off the highway trying to photograph," Quraishi said. "And then I transformed them into this very empty work that you just see the truck, an empty space and a black line. I was much more interested in moving away from this touristic gaze to a gaze that is much more about the voyage, this endless feeling that we are there, in the territory."
Quraishi says that he was challenged by the natural beauty of the region, the obvious subject matter for a photographic investigation of the area that he had to resist in the interest of not allowing his work to become a form of tourism. Even shooting with a precise idea of what he was after resulted in a lot of work discarding images once he returned to New York.
"Three months there and then it took me another six to seven months to start working with all the material I had," said Quraishi. "Most of the material, I just threw away. I just kept very little of the materials. You get to New York and find out what you have."
Aside from the work he created, there is also the experience he had on his travels. One of the most consistent themes in Quraishi's encounters with people of the region involved religion.
"Everywhere we went, we came across a lot of people who were either going to church or expecting to go to church," he said. "I remember in Texas, women knocked on the door Sunday morning to make sure we would go to church. It's great, it's really fantastic, but it's so strange. I had a few people try to convert me, get me to church, that was funny."
Quraishi discovered also that there is one major scar on the landscape that clashes with the natural grandeur in an alarming and sometimes destructive way -- poverty.
"The nature is amazing, no doubt about it, but the poverty was extensive," he said. "You can't imagine. Immense. When I came back, I was telling friends in New York, there were parts of Arizona and parts of New Mexico that are like Bangladesh, and they wouldn't believe me. In truth, I was shocked. I have never seen that kind of poverty."
Sometimes the impoverished areas Quraishi encountered had a quality about them that reminded him of a world that is, in theory, long gone and supposedly the exact opposite of what America is supposed to stand for.
"I remember one place in New Mexico, it was shocking," Quraishi said. "There was no supermarket, no post office, and the only place we could eat was an Arby's. Arby's had this horrible greasy chicken and, honestly, it reminded me of the former Soviet Union. There were parts of the Soviet Union where you could only get this horrible, crappy food. It didn't even look like America. The natural beauty was immense, but people were living in tin houses by roping down motor cars. It was really shocking."
Quraishi lives in New York, but was born in Kenya to parents that are a mix of Yemen, Uzbek and Pakistan descent. His skin color also presented a number of encounters that he welcomed the absurdity of that situation and the clear view it gives to the bubble universe the region can sometimes exist within.
"Most people thought I was Mexican," said Quraishi. "They kept on approaching me in Spanish, or if not in Spanish, they assumed I was some kind of Mexican immigrant. It was really quite funny, I must say. They just couldn't get it, you know? And they couldn't understand that I was an American coming from New York."
This is a dynamic Quraishi has encountered in other countries. The need to register a dark-skinned person as the local dark-skinned person you are most concerned about seems almost universal.
"It depends on the different countries," said Quraishi. "It depends on my look. If I have a big black hat, a lot of people say I am Jewish. If I dress a certain way, it's ‘Are you Indian?' I do play with it, but I'm much more interested not in how they respond to me but how I can play with the way they imagine themselves. A lot of it is about imagination."
Despite his skin color, he says there was only one point where Quraishi felt truly in danger.
"In a small town in Arizona, we were in a bar and it turned out to be a redneck bar," he said. "I don't want to call them Nazis, but pretty much a neo-Nazi bar, and I went there and everyone was white. Above me was a very funny sign that had white babies crossing the wall and a black baby not able to cross the wall. I sat there, and I was alone. The bartender warned me that I was not welcome in the bar."
"The thing is, I was wearing a cowboy hat. I entered and it was like a boy in a candy shop. I was really enjoying myself, so I didn't think in those terms. There are moments where you forget about that aspect of history. But that was only one that I was quite uncomfortable. Most of the time, no."
Racism and intolerance don't surprise Quraishi, regardless of the continent or region he is visiting.
"Rednecks are everywhere," he said. " Every village has its rednecks all over the world. It's nothing new."
Quraishi attempted to interact with Native Americans, but found that a hard task to accomplish, partly because of the reality of the situation and partly because of the enormity of the problem, and the history behind it.
"We were in a part of New Mexico that had a lot of what I call shanty towns, basically Native American reservations." Quraishi said. "There were a lot of drunkards, a lot of alcoholism, a lot of violence. I was not prepared for this. I had a very ideal illusion of it until I started walking through."
"The politics is out of my scope. The politics of Native American reality is so massive, so if I addressed it would be like me, as an outsider, sort of touching it and standing on one side or the other and, in that sense, I was not interested in it. It becomes a very tricky subject."
Quraishi acknowledges that his work is by no means meant to be a sweeping examination of the culture in that region. Even while doing his best to step away from tourism, he also realizes that even an extended road trip is not the best vehicle to piercing depth.
"Being somewhere for three months traveling on the road is not sufficient time to really absorb complexity," Quraishi said. "Even though you read a lot and watch a lot of movies and whatnot, it's not sufficient, because the history of that region is immense. Like everywhere. Three months is superficial at best."
One thing Quraishi learned is that even though his politics might be far different from most people in the region he was traveling, it was his challenge to place his own feelings aside and try to look at things from the region's own point of view. It didn't matter whether he agreed with it, it only mattered that the people shaped their world by these feelings, and that was the key to coming to any understanding of it.
"You cannot always go there with a liberal attitude," said Quraishi. "You just have to be open to whatever comes your way. Americans are afraid. Whether they have a legitimate reason to be or not, they are afraid. They just have this way of dealing with it."
"The sincerity of people, whether they've confederate or conservative or rednecks, people are sincere. Generally, I would say that people are super-sincere. Even in their hatred, they're sincere."
Quraishi can be found online at ibrahimquraishi.org.