Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri explores paranoia and science fiction in her first UK solo exhibition running at Gasworks in London until 10 September 2017.
Comprised of sculpture, video and sound work, the exhibition raises questions about the authenticity of international relations and geopolitics, and considers the United States’ impact on the Middle East.
“Monira Al Qadiri: The Craft” is an exhibition that envisages the world through a conspiratorial lens, where international diplomacy is viewed as an alien conspiracy. The exhibition is made up of three works: a neon light piece, a floating sculpture, and a film, which take place in two very different environments – one a pitch black anteroom, and the other a gleaming American diner. The works reveal stories and memories that are “lurking in the shadows of the artist’s childhood in Kuwait”.
As Gasworks describes,
Revisiting the fantasies that (the artist) and her sister elaborated during these early years, they depict the culture and rituals of diplomacy by which they were then surrounded as literally otherworldly to the current rise of nationalism and political populism.
The exhibition’s key work is The Craft (2017), a VHS video which plays in the strange, uncanny setting of an American diner. Combining the artist’s home videos with new footage, it asks “Were my parents conspiring with aliens behind my back?”. The result is a paranoia-filled world where reality becomes questionable, an allegory to American pop culture employing tropes such as junk food and alien abdication, alongside international diplomacy. As the gallery details,
Pop culture, futuristic architecture, junk food, dream readings, alien abductions, geopolitics, diplomacy, war and peace: all of these once solid staples of modern life become tainted by a general sense of distrust, which overshadows everything. Like a ticking time bomb placed at the centre of the nuclear family unit, suspicion reaches a crescendo when the protagonist discovers that the ‘American Century’ has finally ended.
As Al Qadiri elaborates, “the film frames international diplomacy as a kind of dying art form,” alluding to the idea that tactfulness and diplomacy are concepts now alien to the modern world.
Born in Senegal in 1983, Monira Al Qadiri was educated in Japan, where she received her PhD in Inter-media Art. In 2003, she was a founding member of the artist collective GCC. The group exhibit widely, and all have connections to the Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.
Speaking of the group to the online magazine The Quietus, she says:
I think it was very sexy to be a collective from the Gulf. That’s never happened before. So immediately we had shows all over the world and it suddenly just snowballed into this thing – much faster than any of us had anticipated.
Her work at university explored the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East, and more recently she has investigated petrocultures and potential futures through her often unsettling sound and video pieces. Other important themes for Al Qadiri’s practice include unconventional gender identities and the impact of pop culture on collective imagination, something that was born from her ten years living in Japan from the age of 16. Fast food is also a key motif in her recent work and is a core theme in her exhibition at Gasworks, and something the artist views as ideologically persuasive and significant in influencing cultures.
In a recent interview with Frieze, Al Qadiri explains how the invention of the chicken nugget in the same year that she was born has always intrigued her as a symbol of the dominance of Western culture and the English language on her childhood:
We were quintessential products of American cultural hegemony, spoon-fed to us through television and pop music in the 1980s. But beyond the usual tropes of pop culture, just as the chicken nuggets entailed, it was first and foremost a cultural invasion of our guts – an imperialism of the stomach. As the oldest carrier of culture, food was at the centre of our naive imaginations. The ideology embedded within the deep fried batter taught us to become individualistic, streamlined, space-aged, and prosperous.
These themes are explored in The End (2017), a dimly lit, levitating hamburger, crudely suspended in midair – the ultimate symbol of consumer capitalism which is recontextualised at Gasworks, through its reference of Japanese Ukiyo-e, pictures of floating worlds that gained popularity in 17th- and 18th-century Japan. Yet here, the suspension is not graceful but rather glaringly obvious, revealing the precariousness of American cultural hegemony.
This notion is reinforced by the accompanying sound piece, taken from an extract of The Kuwait Urbanisation by Saba George Shiber, which details the modernisation of Kuwait in the 1960s.
This text, which pairs the new culture with an alien attack, has proved extremely important to Al Qadiri. As the artist explains to Frieze,
The 1960s was the high summer of American cultural expansion in the third world, and also the arrival of modernity and statehood in my native Kuwait. So far, this is the only accurate text I have found that likens the arrival of modernity to an alien invasion. Ultra-futuristic modern architecture in Kuwait always triggered subconscious images of spaceships and other galaxies, appearing in our dreams at night.
- When art meets literature: “It’s a Mad World” by Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin – May 2016 – after four years of exile, Shurooq Amin returns to Kuwait “bigger and stronger and louder”
- 50 years of Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammad – June 2015 – a retrospective exhibition reveals the remarkable humanity of pioneering Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammad
- 6 Kuwaiti performance artists to know – December 2014 – Art Radar profiles 5 Kuwaiti artists who participated at the Contemporary Art Platform in May 2014
- Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin reflects on oppression in Arab society – in pictures – September 2014 – Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin, whose work explores the role of Arab women in society, bridges the personal and the political
- Young non-profit art gallery transforms Kuwaiti cultural landscape – director interview – January 2013 – founded in 2011, Contemporary Art Platform (CAP), the only non-profit art gallery in Kuwait, provides free and progressive arts education to the public
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