A chat with Monira al-Qadiri can be uplifting.
Whether you’re discussing her tour of the Middle East in search of the aesthetics of sadness, or her teen years in Tokyo, or the latest developments of the Gulf Cooperation Council — and the artist collective she co-founded last year that hijacks the GCC acronym — you’re guaranteed to get insights and a good laugh.
Qadiri’s sense of humor is spontaneous, sharp and a bit awkward. She describes her experience as a seven-year-old Kuwaiti witnessing the Iraqi invasion of her country as “unique.”
“No one else had lived in hell,” she explains.
She would sit at home with her sister Fatima (currently a New York-based musical artist) and draw caricatures of the Iraqi army; one showed a soldier squashed inside a bun like a hamburger. Twenty-two years later she produced another work about her Gulf War experience. “Behind the Sun” (2013) premiered in November at the Beirut Art Center as part of “Exposure 2013.” It is showing again this week at Germany’s 64th Berlinale.
The video takes viewers into a Hollywood-style apocalypse — only it’s real, with no visual effects. We follow a car racing through a burning land with thick black smoke from blazing fires blocking the sky. We hear the voice of a religious preacher praising God and His creations.
Having lived in Beirut for three years now, where she enrolled in the second edition of Ashkal Alwan’s independent study program Home Workspace, Qadiri was intrigued by how artists continue to reflect on the Civil War. The main inspiration for the video was, however, Wener Herzog’s 1992 sci-fi film, “Lessons of Darkness,” made using documentary footage from the Gulf War. So when Qadiri stumbled upon an amateur film of the burning Kuwaiti oil fields, she intuitively worked with it to put forth her personal experience.
The 1991 Gulf War was defining for Qadiri in other ways too. She watched men go out to fight everyday while women stayed home with the children.
“I started having this weird idea that men were the best thing ever, and I wanted to be like them,” she laughs. “Men are cool, I thought.”
On her laptop, she keeps a photograph of her teenage self with short hair and fake moustache; she’s dressed in a pale blue suit, complete with shirt and tie. The artist laughs while showing me the picture, explaining how she has always been interested in playing around with culturally constructed gender roles in the Gulf countries. Now 30, she still keeps her hair short, Manga style.
Since 2008, Qadiri has been making “music videos” that remix and perform folk songs from the Gulf. In each, she performs the role of a male singer in despair, lamenting the loss of love and happiness. She comes off as a theatrical yet highly charismatic androgynous figure. In “Oh Torment” (2008), the five chorus members who accompany her in singing an old Kuwaiti folk song are men dressed in black gowns, long curling wigs and make-up. The song is about loneliness in life and long pearl-hunting trips away from home. “Abu Athiyya” (2013), which translates as the father or origin of suffering, shows Qadiri in a white galabeyya and turban, lip-syncing “I Spent Years of my Life with You” by Iraqi singer Yas Khodor.
Qadiri says she selects songs based on the lyrics. She has a special interest in how Eastern communities convey sadness through poetry and music. To her, these “dying aesthetics” are quite unique and portray a lot about the region’s popular culture. In fact, “The aesthetics of sadness in Eastern cultures” was the focus of her doctoral thesis at the Tokyo University of the Arts.
“I wanted to explore what sadness was like, visually,” she says. “In the West, and particularly American culture, being sad is synonymous with being ill. This is not true of the places I’ve lived in.” Being sad can be beautiful, she adds, “a kind of dark, melancholic beauty.”
She adopted an anthropological approach to survey these practices and their origins. She toured the region, collecting stories from Yemen, Iran, Syria, Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. She delved into their history and found “something very artistic and contemporary about them that could be experienced in much deeper ways.” Qadiri is now translating this research from Japanese into English and Arabic for publication in a book later this year.
Her incorporation of these themes in her artwork is very different. The elements making up the two music videos are fantastical. “Abu Athiyya” shows the artist as a male figure, looking somewhere between ghost and puppet, rising from a funerary position to dance with daggers, while glittery party paper showers her from above. In “Oh Torment” dancers walk around carrying colorful fish-shaped cutouts, while Qadiri appears in one scene with her face circled, wreath-like, in blue nightingales.
On some level the videos are tragic. On another, they are humorous. Audiences have diverse reactions, she explains. When she screened them in Dubai people laughed their hearts out, while in Tokyo they were found to be heartbreaking. German audiences described them as highly artistic.
Qadiri likes that her works have such different effects. She admits that no matter how hard she tries, she seems incapable of producing art that is conventionally tragic.
“Sometimes when you try to make something too tragic, it becomes absurd,” she says. “Very funny.”
The work is also multi-layered, with references to history and cultural practices. Qadiri speaks of the superficially rigid gender roles in her home country, of the narcissistic idealization of males, and of the covertly growing male homosexual community that is generally frowned upon. She contrasts this with the way male performers are historically dressed as women in Kuwaiti theater. “It was very popular and acceptable in that context,” she explains.
Perhaps it’s the humor in her work that allows her to get away with such contentious topics. And the visual language that she uses. The images she creates are so captivating, even enchanting, that one cannot look away. Iconic Georgian filmmaker Serjei Parajanov is Qadiri’s idol. His influence is clear in her work, which she describes as different forms of painting; the way she constructs her films is more like a visual tableau than a set or story. She completed her first animation in 2005 while studying in Tokyo, titled tellingly “Visual Violence.”
“It’s a composition of images in the form of a film. I like to call it ‘film painting,’” she says. Her third film, “The Black Moon” (2007), dealt more clearly and visually with sexuality and perceptions of masculinity.
Qadiri’s latest project, “Muhawwil” (Transformer), premiered in January at Kuwait’s Sultan Gallery. It’s a four-channel animation projected onto a cubic structure similar to electric generator boxes in Kuwait. When I first met the artist last November in her Beirut flat, she was still in the middle of production. The walls of her studio room were lined with 120 sketches. One showed a shrouded body lying on the ground next to a treasure trove. “Gather what you may, you will leave [this world] as you came” was printed underneath. Another showed a man’s mouth and chin with the tongue replaced by a snake.
She had spent months photographing such mural designs on the walls of public generator boxes around Kuwait. They are the work of religious preachers hoping to guide people on Islamic teachings, and their figuration is rare quality in Islamic art, particularly in the Gulf. So she decided to document them and make an animated film to highlight the new trend, which she explains as “attempts to cope with the visual culture of mass media and advertising.”
As with most of her work, the artist’s approach in tackling this phenomenon is open-ended. The powerful visuals of “Muhawwil” stay with audiences long after they see the work, allowing them to reflect on their own.
Her next project seems likely to do so as well, although the topic is very different. Having been fascinated by dubbed Japanese animes since childhood — one about a ninja named Kabamaru was the reason she decided to study in Japan — Qadiri is looking at the Arabic dubbing of animated films. She learnt that most of it was done in Beirut’s now-closed Baalbeck Studio, and is now set on finding and interviewing William Atteak, the man who dubbed the voice of Kabamaru.
Qadiri also works with the eight other artists, architects and researchers that make up GCC. The collective from the Gulf was founded last March and includes Qadiri’s sister Fatima, Abdullah al-Mutairi, Amal Khalaf, Aziz al-Qatami, Barrak Alzaid, Khalid al-Gharaballi, Nanu al-Hamad and Sophia al-Maria. GCC’s work is also humorous, but less subtle in its critique of its topics, namely the bureaucracy and futurism of Gulf states.
“We try to explore the aesthetics of bureaucracy,” Qadiri says. They produce videos of never-ending ribbons to be cut at official ceremonies, offer rides in Rolls Royces with sound installations, and build miniature meeting tables.
Qadiri explains that the collaboration is meant to explore the Gulf countries’ cultures more deeply than merely shunning or ridiculing them, and much of it looks at the possibility of sustaining current lifestyles in the future.
“It’s a beginning,” she says. “We’d like to think of it more as a nascent movement though. And maybe one day, when one Googles ‘GCC’, it’ll be the news about the collective’s work that will come up.”