Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s sculptures explore the narrative of oil

From a metallic field of flowers to floating invisible compounds, the mesmerising works shine brightly

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Stepping off the escalator to the first level of ICD Brookfield Place in DIFC, five large inflatable sculptures float overhead.

Shaped in distinct forms, they hover in bright metallic colours such as orange, silver, pink and green. These colossal creations are one half of Kuwaiti visual artist Monira Al Qadiri’s current exhibition entitled Floating World.

This section of the show is entitled Benzene Float, and despite the pieces' awe-inspiring size, Al Qadiri is depicting magnified versions of invisible substances existing all around us: Oil-derived chemicals.

“I thought it would be interesting to exaggerate their presence in our lives so we cannot ignore them,” Al Qadiri tells The National. “They're like these huge balloons in the room that are overpowering everything.

“This is their reality in our lives. In the modern world, we can't live without them.”

Each floating sculpture is based on the drawing of what is known as a space-filling model that represents a molecular structure of a petrochemical substance such as benzene, propane gas, paradichlorobenzene or naphthalene.

Oil is a running theme in Al Qadiri’s work. From its invisible compounds to the methods of its extraction, to how it has defined nations and its necessary presence in our daily lives, she is fascinated with the many facets of it.

“Oil is like a mutant, it transforms into so many different things. There's something magical about it,” she says.

“This one material creates all of these different things, our clothes, shoes, glasses, the buildings that we live in, the shampoo we wash our hair with, it's all full of petrochemicals.”

In the gallery space of ICD Brookfield Place, Al Qadiri presents another body of work that grapples with the multifaceted presence of oil in modern life.

Entitled Nawa, the space is strewn with 50 two-dimensional metal sculptures of varying shapes and sizes. They are painted in glistening colours, tying in with the hovering pieces from Benzene Float. The sculptures also have a rainbow shimmer, often seen on the surface of oil.

Few stand straight, some lean, tilt and lie across the ground, while others hang on the wall. The collection of metallic sculptural forms have a delicate appearance reminiscent of the hexagonal prism shapes of snowflakes, and resemble – as Al Qadiri envisioned – a field of flowers.

“My idea was almost like somebody grabbed a bunch of flowers and just threw them in here,” she says gesturing across the gallery space. “I wanted it to look like they were dispersed in a kind of random way.”

The floral shapes of the sculptures are not of her own design but taken directly from an unlikely source. They are the composition of steel rope cables that carry oil from deep in the Earth up to the surface. When these cables are cut in half, they reveal a hyper-visual geometric pattern reminiscent of floral patterns seen in nature.

“The idea is that it's a field and the field is beautiful and seductive and looks like flowers,” Al Qadiri says.

“But behind it, if you dig into the subject, it's also about extraction, about pollution, about a lot of different things. My work is always playing on two planes: The positive side and the negative side at the same time because that's real life, isn't it?”

Al Qadiri makes no statements about our reliance on oil and its effect on society and the environment. She says she works as an observer revealing what already exists, narrating through intriguing and surprising means.

“I'm not criticising, my work is not activism,” she says. “I'm not a political artist, but I’m very interested in reflecting the status quo.”

Through another lens, Al Qadiri’s work speaks to the historical narratives that oil has shaped in the region. She compares oil to pearls, both connected through their rainbowlike sheen and their reverence as currencies at different times in the Gulf.

“Our whole society was about pearl diving once upon a time,” she says.

“My grandfather was a singer on the pearl-diving boats and I've also been thinking about how to relate myself to him. How do we create a kind of continuous history in these different industries?”

Similarly to her grandfather, Al Qadiri is a storyteller. She reanalyses and contextualises the power sources and currencies of culture, where they come from and how they are embedded into our lives.

“There is a beauty in recreating history, even if you do it artificially, even if it's wrong,” she says.

“There is a beauty in this laborious exercise of trying to rediscover your history and your ancestors, and the stories of your people.”

Monira Al Qadir's exhibition Floating World at ICD Brookfield Place runs until January 3

Updated: December 08, 2023, 3:06 AM