“Where you can find one in a million, or a million of one.”

Is this line from a lost short story by Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges? You’ll find it on the website for Dragon Mart, the largest trading hub for Chinese products outside mainland China, located conveniently in Dubai. For more than a decade Dragon Mart has been a gateway to Middle East and North African markets. I remember my first visit there, soon after it opened, which occurred around the time of my first visit to China, and, I’ve probably fused the two memories, these tactile experiences of early 21st-century world-making. Dragon Mart is Borges’ infamous “Chinese encyclopedia”—described in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”—now writ large, as wholesale shopping nirvana. It contains multitudes of things manufactured, catalogued, shipped, and sold. It sells the sanctuary of selling itself. Might it even become one of the strategic points on China’s futuristic revival of the Silk Road, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (B&R)? Only President Xi knows. 

Yellow plastic shopping bag with Pikachu design sits in front of shoeboxes, next to a periwinkle step stool and mint green step stool.

All images: Farah Al Qasimi, “Untitled,” from the DRAGON! series, 2017 [commissioned by the Global Art Forum 11, Art Dubai; courtesy of the artist]

For the 11th edition of the Global Art Forum, an annual transdisciplinary discursive summit held in Dubai, this time titled “Trading Places,” we commissioned the Emirati photographer Farah Al Qasimi to turn her lens on Dragon Mart’s limitless interiors. Al Qasimi, born two years after the Tiananmen Square massacre and 20 years after the formation of the United Arab Emirates, has developed a precocious sickly-sweet style. Whereas most images of the UAE tend toward predictable stock-and-awe (think Burj Khalifah meets roaming camels), Al Qasimi’s form a catalogue that is both atmospherically nuanced, and necessary. For example, her work is prone to chromatic shrieks. There are clashes of commercial brand names. Exclamations! Exaltations. The invisible plight of Gulfie women, the penury of corporate beauty standards. (And know this: she’s also frigging funny.)  

Al Qasimi’s pictures of Dragon Mart render the sublime emotion of forlorn furniture, the frayed imperfections in sales displays. Plastic bags are happy, then sad. Nature is a wallpaper of a screensaver. I relish these photos the way high-impact polystyrene sheeting relishes being vacuum-formed. The way a dragon craves to be loved. 

Shumon Basar is commissioner of the Global Art Forum