Monira al Qadiri combines intensive research on the cultural histories of oil with her exploration of 'the aesthetics of sadness.' She talks to Brian Paul about her upcoming projects and lecture performances, about her grandfather's opaque pearl-diving past, and about the Kuwaiti government's campaign of Disney-fication of the oil markets.
Brian Paul: You grew up in Kuwait until the age of 16, and then you went to Japan to study Japanese. Can you tell me more about the time period when you decided to start pursuing art?
Monira al Qadiri: I grew up in a very kind of artistic household - my mother was an artist. From the moment that I was conscious, there was a studio with art materials everywhere, and that was what we would do for fun at home instead of playing; we would be drawing and making things.
Since I was a kid I thought that I was going to be an artist, like my mom. When I was about 9, I became obsessed with Arabic dubbed Japanese cartoons and I thought that I could become this cartoon character; this caricature. So I blindly pursued this passion to go to Japan. I got a scholarship and I went to Tokyo, alone, at the age of 16! Which is absolutely insane to think of it now. How could my parents let me do that? I stayed there until the age of 27. I did my BA, MA, PhD, so I basically spent my entire adolescence in Japan. In the beginning it seemed very exotic and wonderful, even though I couldn't become a cartoon character (which was very disappointing). However, Japanese society can be very conservative, rigid, and cruel, and after ten years, I started to see this dark underbelly of the country.
BP: What did that underbelly look like? A policing of how you were being in the world?
MQ: As a foreigner who speaks very good Japanese, like I do, you will still realize that there are parts of the Japanese society that will never accept you. Even when it seems that you are like them, and you think like them. They will ask you, "Oh, is your mother Japanese? Where's your father from?" To be honest, the main thing was also how Japanese society treats women. I thought that it was even worse than some aspects of Arab society. It's just a very conservative place to be, and this kind of conservatism and the kind of love for the establishment is also reflected in the art world, where there isn't really an infrastructure to support young artists. Nobody takes risks with younger artists. So, after 10 years, I wanted to try my hand at going back to the Middle East, to see what was happening there.
BP: So your practice began while you were still in Japan. Do you consider the work from that time in response to the repressiveness and conservatism there?
MQ: I was very interested in gender performance. I was obsessed with masculinity and sex appeal, and, in general, challenging the notions that weren't accepted in Japan. It was a time when I was nostalgic for where I was coming from. All these sensibilities that they had were just not fitting anywhere for me. So I made a lot of work about that.
BP: So you made works like Wa Waila when you got back to Kuwait, and other music videos with you basically in costume -
MQ: Well, Wa Waila was actually made right before I went back. I was still in Japan.
BP: Ah, okay. But when you returned to Kuwait, you continued to think about masculinity. Was there a difference in that exploration back home? Did you have a community around you that was more on the same page with gender performance?
MQ: No. I was just a freak! Everybody was saying, "She'll grow out of it, she'll grow out of it!" And I did grow out of it, but in Japan not in Kuwait, surprisingly. In Japan, I was heterosexual and I adored men to the point that I wanted to look like one. A kind of narcissistic tendency. But it was truly more like a gender performance rather than an identity issue.
This character was part of who I was, and when I came back to Kuwait, I realized why I was doing it. In Arab societies, in order to access power you have to be a man. Even now, when I go to Cairo for instance, I feel like I want to do drag. Because no one catcalls you in the street and you feel powerful in the way that you can just walk out and be an asshole if you want to. It's this 'wrong' way in which I absorbed patriarchy. But yes, I don't think that anybody in Kuwait really understood what I was doing at the time. I mean, now maybe there's a kind of community? But in the mid-nineties, it wasn't really a thing, it was very underground. There was a short period when the society was a bit more open and a bit better for gay and trans men....
You would see men at the mall who were dressed effeminately, for instance, but it all got banned in the early 2000s. I was like, "Thank God I left before that happened!" I would have been in prison.
BP: I wanted to ask about your sister, Fatima, and her recent album Shaneera that was also all about drag. I'm just curious about family life. How does it tie into your exploration of queerness, or however you might call it?
MQ: Like I said, my mother is an artist, and my dad used to be a kind of diplomat slash government opposition member. So we lived in a very kind of outlaw family in Kuwaiti society. Everybody thought we were strange, like "Who are these people, what are they doing?" My parents broke out of the traditional and religious conservatisms, and they moved to Moscow in the 70s, because my dad used to be a Communist for a while.
They had a lot of different lives compared to a lot of people in Kuwait. Obviously that rubbed off on us. We were free to speak our mind, we could do whatever we wanted. Then people used to make up rumors about our family all the time. So it was this very strange outlaw family. Which I think was very good for us, growing up. I always fantasize about what it would have been like if I grew up in a normal Kuwaiti household. Would I be here? Of course not. I would already have five kids and plastic surgery.
BP: Quite a spectrum. I want to move to ask you about your recent works. You have this kind of back and forth motif between pearls and oil. I'm curious to hear you speak more about that. How did that start? When did that relationship become clear for you?
MQ: I moved to Beirut after Kuwait and I don't know why, but I started thinking a lot about my grandfather, who I've never met. He was a singer on a pearl diving boat. Pearl diving was the main industry before oil, for about 2000 years. And then oil came and pearl diving was completely destroyed.
For me, his life is a fiction. Is he really real? What was his life like? This extreme poverty living on boats for six months of the year, trying to get pearls and making very little money out of it. It's just so alien to us now. I was just thinking about what links my life to his. It's so disparate, so different, and so detached that it's almost not real. He was the patriarch, the real man in the family. He was this scary ass dude. I heard horror stories about how horrible he was.
BP: Is this on your dad's side or your mom's side of the family?
MQ: My dad's side. He was just this ultimate macho kind of character, which I think trickles down to me. And I was thinking, "What can I do to link myself, as a post-oil baby, to him?" Then, suddenly, I had this idea when I was looking into these images of pearls and oil, and I was like, "Wow, they have the same color scheme."
My work is about this kind of tragedy. My thesis in Japan was about the aesthetics of sadness. I'm really obsessed with tragedy, as a concept, as a mood, and as a philosophy. I think that using color as the only thing that links us to our history, is also kind of very radical and very tragic.
BP: You apply the color sometimes to these large scale objects. That are linking not necessarily to history but to a future. They're titled Alien Technology, and have been described as biomorphic alien-ware. Do you see your relationship to pearl diving in a nostalgic kind of way? I'm thinking of how in the U.S. for example, there are people who move to a rural part of the country, like, "I'm going to get back to the land!" and they start farming... (laughter) Is there a sort of wistfulness there for you?
MQ: It's not wistfulness or nostalgia. There is a void in the history of the region. As we are in non-democratic societies, history is always a kind of taboo. We're not really supposed to talk about poverty, or about ways of life, or industries that existed that were the norm before oil. Oil is seen as this mystical substance that came to us and that we're the chosen people. The history is sanitized to become this Disney-esque "Vay! Pearl Songs!" They make these ads now, where old men who used to be pearl divers are on iPads on their boats. But of course nobody does this! None of it reflects any kind of reality. It's so distorted now, to a point that it's become absurd.
So this is not nostalgia at all. You need to know your history in a more realistic form, especially that in the early 20th century a lot of this information is blacked out because there were so many mini-wars and coups... Sheiks killing other Sheiks, and tribes killing other tribes, and so much blood. There is this huge period that is very vague and nobody really knows what happened because now we're just being taught this official history, "This is your country. It was founded in 1961, we're new. Before that? We don't know." So my work is about this terrible acknowledgement of history and, of course, thinking about the future because the petroleum interval in history is going to be very short, it's not sustainable. Everybody knows that, even though our governments ignore it, but it's the truth. We're the freaks of this weird time...I'm also acknowledging my freakishness. It's from the oil! [laughter]
BP: I definitely get that sense in your work, of the absurdity, surrealism of the present and the ways that we're just burning through this substance that takes millions of years to form.
MQ: Exactly! And the extreme forms of decadence. It's insanity. People don't really realize that this is just like those fleeting moments... Plus, there's no kind of vision for the future after that. Like, maybe we should use this money to build some kind of infrastructure so that we can live on later.
BP: I just think about the Chinese One Road policy. They're trying to connect everything across two continents and there are going to be like... 'Planes, trains and automobiles' going back and forth. And they've made these videos that are similar to what you were describing. Disney characters singing about how great they are.
MQ: Oh definitely. I share a lot of affinity with the Chinese context.
BP: Can you talk about the work you had in Art and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, in Guangzhou?
MQ: This group exhibition first happened in Beirut in 2016. They actually commissioned my first small drill works. My work is very biographical, and it speaks a lot to history, but you can equally look at it through this ecological lens. These things that are destroying the world are both very beautiful and very menacing at the same time. It was very relevant at the time, in 2015, because we were all taking part in protests because the Lebanese government stopped collecting the garbage. It was related to corruption because the garbage business is privatized in Lebanon. I mean you can't brush over the fact that it's a failed state. The warlords were fighting over the spoils.
BP: I think that's at the time of the Paris climate accords, right?
MQ: Yeah. Everything was going out of whack and I felt at that time that it was really important to talk about ecology. It was very interesting to show my work in that context in Lebanon, and then equally interesting to be part of the same show in Guangzhou, in China. Guangzhou is like the factory of China and it also made a lot of sense to organize the show there, in that context. I was so excited about that. Strangely enough, China is having a more pro-ecological viewpoint than the US now. The shift that's happening is quite interesting.
BP: It seems like it's being cast almost as a way the Chinese are a foil to the Trump administration... In your work there's this attitude of thinking about 'after oil.' It's a resignation to the inevitability of some other energy source. Will you talk about that?
MQ: Yes – Two years ago, I did this lecture at the American University in Kuwait. I think people were really shocked because usually, the taboos in our society are sex and religion, it's very simple. But you're not supposed to talk about this either; the oil markets.
There was a journalist who wrote an article the next day about the lecture, and they said, "Oh, she spoke about art history and her favorite colors." So that was a very strange censorship going on... And, in 2014, the oil markets crashed right after I made my first public sculpture of an oil drill. I thought, "Wow, I feel like a Soothsayer".
People really started talking about it much more openly and really kind of panicking. The government was panicking. Now, the prices have stabilized a little, but it's never going to go back to what it was. It is just going towards a steady decline. Maybe places like the UAE or Qatar have a different future vision. I don't know if that's sustainable, but they're at least thinking about it. In Kuwait's case there is no future vision. We're just living off oil until it's over, and then the country will collapse overnight. There's always this kind of existential crisis...
BP: It makes me think of your thesis The aesthetics of sadness. You're getting ready to mourn, prepping for being incredibly sad.
MQ: I think it also stems from the Gulf War in 1990. Kuwait was invaded in one day and ceased to exist overnight. There's all this wealth in Kuwait but wealth is fleeting, it's not really a strength in anything. I think a lot of people – especially people in power – after that incident started seeing Kuwait as a kind of temporary project. Not as a 'real' state. I think that also reflected on this kind of 'no future' vision, like 'We're just going to enjoy it while it lasts.' So I always try to support myself economically and individually without any income sources that are related to oil. I want to be independent in my life. A lot of people in Kuwait can't really say that. I work really hard to make it happen. I am independent. So if it's collapsing, I'm fine.
BP: You have a clairvoyance that other people don't have yet.
MQ: Well I think it also comes from my parents. They have a different outlook on things and they were always saying, 'Try to build a future somewhere else. You never know how long this is gonna last.'
BP: I read Reza Negarestani's book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials' last year and he writes in this semi-fictional mode following a narrative through the 'field notes' of an acclaimed archaeologist, who claims that oil is an entity, a terrible deity of evil. It's a sci-fi / theory-fiction set in Istanbul and around the Middle East. I'm thinking about that book and the layers of archaeological, philosophical research that Negarestani deploys. What role does research play in your practice? And are you more interested in the cultural impacts of these things, or are you also looking at scientific dynamics – all of the above?
MQ: Well, I think about oil as a cultural player, as a character, as a person, as an alien, as a politician. It's just droplets of dinosaurs; I try to imagine the dinosaurs speaking to us. Like 'What are you doing to my bodily fluids!' Everything is kind of fictionalised, including this kind of history and the oil itself, which is a storage of ancient sunlight. It's solar power stored in these dinosaurs... I do think about the geological aspect of it, but maybe not in the same way as Reza does. The inspiring thing about his book was that you can imagine oil as being a character. That was very impressionable for me.
BP: I wanted to ask something about your work in an institutional setting. You sort of touched on it when you were just talking about your lecture on the oil markets getting glossed over. But there is also an interview that you gave where you describe your work as "Wahabi Cubism". Wahhabism is a Salafi Islamic doctrine that teaches ultra-conservative adherence to the Quran and hadith. So I'm curious about mediation... When you put your work in different places: does the way that you're talking about it change?
MQ: No, I mean... The work I was referring to specifically is called "Muhhawil (Transformer)" which is a 4-channel video installation showing the murals that religious associations were painting on power stations in Kuwait. I thought it was really interesting and freaky at the same time because they're against art. They think art is a sin and that you're imitating God when you do it, so you should never do it. But you can never stop people from being creative. Even if they're the most conservative people on the planet, they still have a creative streak, and they use this religious context to make new things and invent new ways of expressing their devotion.
When I showed this piece in Kuwait the first time, I was actually terrified. I thought something would happen to me, but people took it very positively. And I think that happened because it was animated. People were seduced by that and then they were like, 'Oh, this is great. We should show it at the mall, we should sell it to the religious ministry. They'd love it.' And other people were like, 'Oh, you're showing the regression of our country. Good on you.' So it was positive, but from all different sides of the spectrum. So I'm glad in a way to be playing with this kind of ambiguity. But I don't change what I say or do; if it's censored it's fine. I actually find that kind of interesting. My main gender bending, crossdressing video was banned in Dubai once because they thought it was about ISIS. (laughter) Maybe the guy who did the censor was watching the news whilst eating his lunch, and had indigestion or something, and then he watched my video and they all mixed. It's that arbitrary!
BP: What video was that?
MQ: It's called Abu Athiyya (Father of Pain) It's part of a music video series titled "Music to My Tears." I was upset for about five minutes, but then I was like, 'Wow, that's actually so interesting.' And as long as there were no repercussions to that, it's fine, I can't show it in that country, it's fine.
BP: You spoke somewhere about the artistic community of people that you met in Beirut, and now you're living in Berlin. You've had the kind of unique experience to live in so many different places. How are you feeling about your community now?
MQ: I mean I never truly felt like I belonged in Kuwait or Japan or Beirut... I am always an outsider, I've never been an insider anywhere. But I find that eternally more interesting and exciting. These different artistic communities in Kuwait, Japan, Lebanon, and now in Europe, taught me that art isn't ubiquitous, and the way these communities think, discuss, and conceptualize art is completely different. And I always felt that that's really good for me because it kind of gave me freedom. I didn't feel the need to be part of any kind of distinct discourse. In Japan the works are usually hyper visual and, let's say, non-textual, non-verbal. In Beirut, it was extremely verbal, and non visual, and it was interesting that that's what people think art is, and that's what they do. And then, in Amsterdam, where I was doing a residency, I felt that work there was very much related to craft, very focused on how you make things, and on production. So it's just interesting how different these perceptions are. Now, I'm new to Berlin, but there are also multiple 'scenes' here. I like jumping in between.
BP: That reminds me, I wanted to ask about production processes for your large scale sculptures. Are you working with fabricators? What does that process look like?
MQ: I work with fabricators. I'm originally a painter, so I only dealt with two dimensional things. But I've always had this longing and kind of fascination with three dimensional things, even though I can't make them. I am so bad at making sculptures. I just don't understand how to deal with size and things like that. So 3D modeling came along and gave me a lot of wiggle room; now I can make a 3D model on the computer, I can print, and then I send the model to a fabricator. This technology freed me from my handicap, which is not being able to make 3-dimensional objects, and now it's sort of all i do!
BP: What are you reading or looking at currently? Is that informing what you're working on?
MQ: Right now... yeah, I'm working on a performance that has to do with Japanese ghost reading. I've been very interested in the idea of ghosts this past year. When I was living in Japan, the general concept of ghosts was so real. This was a kind of schism between all my friends and I. They were like, "You're lying, you're just pretending, you believe in ghosts and you're just pretending to be tough."
In the Arab world, there is no concept of ghosts. We have Djinn which are these beings that live parallel to humans. But they're not ghosts; they're not dead people; it's really not the same. So I'm working on this project that has to do with ghosts and I'm reading a lot about that right now. The Japanese ghost reading is very distinct and specific. Actually I had this incident with a ghost reader who read my ghosts and she told me a very interesting thing, but I don't want to ruin the performance!
BP: That's okay! Is it like palm reading?
MQ: No! It's more like you go there and she looks at you, and she's like, "Oh my God, your mother is floating there, and she's telling me this." The ghosts are stuck to your body and they change. So sometimes they leave you, sometimes they come back, sometimes you have new ghosts. You might not have any ghosts at all... Some people have one, and some people have forty! Like me!
BP: A whole party with you all the time!
MQ: So, it's about my forty ghosts. I was just in Japan in the summer and doing a lot of research about ghosts. I think it's an interesting new phase in my practice, but then again: they're all men so then it's about masculinity as well.
BP: It seems that ghosts can go either direction: they can be scary, horrific. The movie The Grudge, I think is based in Tokyo, right? That's a terrible house ghost.
MQ: ...The Ring!
BP: The Ring! It can go in that direction or maybe people are more at peace with it, if it's their ancestors – that way of thinking. It also can be this mourning and the sadness. Another way to bring all of your threads back together.
MQ: In Japan, in popular culture, ghosts are usually women with long black hair, and scary. And yes, I think it is quite interesting that my ghosts are men. It just makes so much sense!
LC: I just have one more question – what does the near future look like for you? What are you excited about?
MQ: I'm excited about going to MoMA next month and delivering my lecture performance "The American Century: The End." I've never done it there but it makes a lot of sense; we grew up on American culture, I speak American English, even though I've never lived there. We know American landscapes, homes and interiors, characters, and that's because of the pop culture that we've been consuming all our lives. But it's waning now, it feels like the end of an era. Especially from the perspective of my generation, born in Kuwait, in the 1980s. We were called chicken nuggets; brown on the outside, white on the inside because we really grew up assimilating American culture.
A lot of us speak English better than Arabic. We went to these American or British schools because it was kind of a status symbol at the time, if you could send your kids to these schools. And even if people couldn't afford it, they would do it anyway, even if it meant going into debt, like my parents. I grew up knowing nothing about the real America.
The talk is about junk food and how, in the eighties, it used to be this magical glittering thing. A hamburger at McDonalds was amazing, now it's like the most disgusting food, you don't even know what's in that shit. It's an emblem for America itself. I'm very excited about being able to engage with an American audience about this subject. I was thinking about it four years ago, and people wouldn't really understand what I was saying. "What are you talking about: the end of America?" But it's happening, and it's happening now, so it's suddenly a relevant topic. Everyone wants to talk about it.
The lecture-performance is a new format for me but I'm becoming more comfortable with it. I'm enjoying it. It's an interesting way to relay an idea, and I think that led to making actual performance pieces in some way. I made my first one last year, and now I'm doing this big project that I mentioned earlier, about ghosts. Performance is very exciting for me right now. It's so terrifying, it's like bungee jumping! The excitement of sharing a moment in time with people, one that is not virtual; there's something very interesting about that. Maybe I'll get too terrified and I won't be able do it anymore. But now I feel emboldened enough to perform, and that's new for me, so it's very exciting.