What Monira Al Qadiri calls her "dream project" opened on Friday at Warehouse421.
Diver is a short film of synchronised swimmers in the sea off Abu Dhabi.
“It’s a project I’ve been wanting to make for many, many years,” the Kuwaiti artist says. “The idea was to have a synchronised swimming team wear full-body iridescent suits and swim to the tunes of the pearl divers in the sea at night. I wanted to make the water look almost black, as if they’re swimming in oil.”
"My grandfather used to be a singer on a pearl-diving boat, so it's also autobiographical," she explains of the video she made for Tarek Abou El Fetouh's Durub Al Tawaya programme, the performance strand of Abu Dhabi Art.
Al Qadiri has also created the visual campaign for the fair: all the purple billboards and biomorphic sculptural objects that you see around the city and Manarat Al Saadiyat, those are Al Qadiri's work as well.
“I didn’t expect this,” she says, laughing. “It’s everywhere.” On Instagram, she wrote that a “whole entire art fair coated in the purple hues of my work. It feels like I died and woke up inside a tropical island dream land purgatory place.”
Indeed, the bright eggplant hue, much like the colour of the banners above on this page, is ubiquitous: purple hoardings, purple structures for sitting in, purple stands for hanging information on. It's in line with her slightly punk aesthetic; at the same time, she notes, it's a bad-luck colour in the oil industry.
Al Qadiri's work is some of the strongest and boldest to come out of the Gulf in the past 10 years, walking the pop-art line between celebration and criticality. Not many artists could pull off the brand identity for an art fair while preserving a sense of subversion, but Al Qadiri is a sharp character.
Festooned across the hoardings are images of the iridescent sculptures of drill bits that Al Qadiri began making in 2014. Others are cast in Murano glass and positioned, in a bed of sand, in Abu Dhabi Art’s entrance; and four others, plus a video, are in Crude, the exhibition curated by Murtaza Vali for the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. As with the swimmers’ simulation of oil in the water and the pearling songs they perform to, the sculptures link Kuwait’s pre-modern and post-modern economies: “making fictional and formal connections between pearling and oil”, as she puts it.
When she began the series, Al Qadiri noticed that pearls and oil were both marked by the same iridescence, or luminous change into a rainbow-like spectrum of colours. She investigated the surfaces as a way to link two historically separated mindsets, manufacturing imitation drill bits in beautiful, swirling colours. Much of her work, such as that of the Khaleeji compatriots with whom she collaborated in the art collective GCC, focuses on the strange temporalities of a society that accelerated from an apparently tribal existence straight towards 21st-century futurist metropolises. Her work attempts to understand what really happened in the past and to typify the realities of the present with a sober gaze.
The drill bits, for example, are fascinating: odd, ungainly, but somehow beautiful apparatuses, opening up like flowers or nobbled like cacti. She was flabbergasted when she came across them.
“I thought, I’m from Kuwait and I don’t know that the things that sustain our society look like this,” she recalls. “Why isn’t this a part of our education? These things are me – they’re a representation of who I am, more than a dhow or a pearling boat or a camel. Those things represent my freak generation. The oil interval in history is a freak interval. It’s not going to last long. What came before? What will happen after? It’s an existential question I deal with all the time.”
The past is personal
Al Qadiri comes from a creative family. Her sister, Fatima, is a conceptual artist and musician. Her mother, Thuraya Al-Baqsami, is a painter and printmaker who has created fantastical and mythical images of women, her family and emblems. Al-Baqsami's work had been reasonably well-known within the small circle of people who follow modern Arab art, but last year Al Qadiri curated a survey show of her work at the Sharjah Art Museum that was internationally feted. "There is this impression among contemporary artists in the Gulf that we came out of nowhere – that we birthed ourselves," Al Qadiri says. "That's absolutely not true. There's a generation that came before us. I wouldn't have been an artist if my mother hadn't been an artist. That's something I always try to remain conscious of."
Al Qadiri's creative development has been unusual in other ways, as well: she lived in Japan from the age of 16, where she eventually earned a doctorate. Her time in Japan came about from an obsession she formed with Japanese cartoons, which were overdubbed in Arabic and played on Kuwaiti TV, during the Gulf War. They were her refuge, she says, while her father was held as a prisoner in Iraq.
A few years afterwards, the Kuwaiti government announced a scholarship for young boys to travel to Japan, and she sought to apply.
"I went to the Minister of Education with my parents and my bright yellow hair" – she had it dyed at the time – "and my parents said: 'She's a girl, but we don't mind if she goes. Would you consider her for the scholarship?' So I applied, and I got it, and I went – the only girl in a sea of men."
Her time in Japan was formative to her work’s supersaturated aesthetic, which she credits to Japan’s “hypervisual” culture.
“Arab culture is so based on words and literature, much more than image and form,” she says. “My identity as an Arab artist was completely distorted and changed from being in Japan. Now, it’s kind of a hybrid aesthetic, in between Arab and Japanese. In Japan, they would say, stop talking, you’re ruining the work. Then I moved to Beirut after Japan and people are just talking and talking and talking. I would say, OK, where’s the work – and that had been it.”
Now based in Berlin, she uses herself as a focal point, to make sense of Khaleeji identity, as well as her own unique, eminently globalised trajectory. Recent performance Feeling Dubbing, for example, first realised in Brussels, uses a 3D-printed model of the artist as a marionette, which Al Qadiri performs alongside. The work is narrated by the Lebanese man employed to overdub the Japanese cartoons all those years ago. Al Qadiri tracked him down to tell him about his influence on her life. "He didn't even remember doing those cartoons," she says, ruefully. "He just did it for the money."
Al Qadiri’s practice, particularly through her association with the GCC collective and the “Gulf Futurism” moment it helped inaugurate, has been allied with her background as a Kuwaiti – almost a lurid source of fascination to the outside world. It’s not a surprise that she can walk the line of celebration and subversion – GCC was known for its postmodern, ironic/non-ironic investigation of petroluxury. But Al Qadiri’s work has a melancholic aspect that gives it an emotional edge. The imminent obsolescence of the drill-bits, their unknown, under-appreciated beauty, the environmental havoc they mask – there’s a fragility that’s not to be taken lightly.
“There’s a real sense of tragedy in my works,” she notes. “That we haven’t found a more sustainable way of living life.”
Monira Al Qadiri's Diver is at Warehouse421 until January, and in Crude at the Jameel Arts Centre until March 30