Tarek Al-Ghoussein elides dystopian narratives in favour of modest memorials to the past occupants of Al Sawaber in Kuwait.
The Kuwaiti-Palestinian artist’s latest exhibition examines the traces of lives left behind in the doomed Al Sawaber housing estate in Kuwait.
In his latest body of work presented in the exhibition “Al Sawaber”, on display at the Third Line Gallery, Kuwaiti artist and photographer Tarek Al-Ghoussein focuses on the Al Sawaber area in Kuwait City. The area is known for a series of stepped housing blocks built in 1977 as a response to the increasing scarcity of housing in Kuwait due to the displacement of peoples from areas where oil had been discovered in the early part of the twentieth century.
The Al Sawaber development was intended to be a landmark in the progressive housing programme for Kuwait, and while its Canadian architect, Arthur Erickson – who is also the designer of Abu Dhabi’s Etisalat headquarters and the revolving Le Meridien Hotel – stands by his design, the estate has received many critiques for its shortcomings. Only around three-fourths of the buildings planned were actually built and when standing the allotment quickly ran into disuse due to a series of inadequacies, including the lack of a functioning diwaniya space – the traditional gathering and social spaces for Kuwaiti men.
In Tarek’s photographic study of the housing blocks, the viewer witnesses the dereliction of what was once a promising social housing project, characterised by the emphasis on shared garden and green space between the buildings.
Tarek Al-Ghoussain’s images of the block take a documentary stance to the architecture. The mute colours and bleak composition suggest a latent critique of the high-rise utopias that populate socialist and functionalist architecture of the 1950s and 1960s. The Al Sawaber estate of Tarek Al-Ghoussain’s photographs may at first glance appear like the Barbican of J.G Ballard’s dystopian novel High Rise, or the curious fall from grace of Barcelona’s Walden 7 building, critiqued by locals and international architects as a famous failure for communal living.
Yet far from affirming the dominant narratives of the failure of the building, Tarek Al-Ghoussain’s project Al Sawaber rather recuperates the invisibilised history of one of the unintended consequences of the complex. The 1990-91 Gulf War marked a shift in the use Al Sawaber, as Kuwaiti nationals gradually left the apartments and moved into other residential areas. The housing steadily changed from being a residence for Kuwaitis to being a home for a wide variety of expatriates, refugees and migrant workers of different nationalities and faiths. Tarek Al-Ghoussein believes Al Sawaber should be considered a partial success, stating in an article:
You had Christians here, Hindus and people from both sects of Islam and there were no issues even though they were living only 15 feet from one another.
Tarek Al-Ghoussein was born in Kuwait in 1962 but his parents are Palestinian exiles. The artist lived in the United States, Morocco and Japan during his childhood, no doubt informing his perspective which is both internationalist and localist. As a trained photojournalist, his professional and personal background play a prominent role in his artistic output, which deals with his Palestinian identity through photography that often appears to be documentary in nature, but is in fact fictional.
This tension between the indexical and the imaginary, between the image and the caption, and between fact and fiction, has been a primary organising force for his practice since he began making aritistic work in the early 2000s. More recently, Al-Ghoussein has started photographing walls or barriers in a desert landscape. These images refer to the literal barriers that prevent Palestinians from moving freely in the world (Al-Ghoussein has never been to Palestine) as well as the artist’s own difficulty in overcoming prejudices against the Arab world.
The photographs and installations presented at The Third Line are less of a post-modern critique of faltering utopian architecture than a modest memorial to the undocumented and often invisibilised inhabitants of Al Sawaber.
“Al Sawaber” by Tarek Al-Ghoussein is on view from 5 November 2017 to 14 February 2018 at The Third Line, Warehouse 78 & 80, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, UAE, PO Box 72036.
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- 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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