Monira Al Qadiri on the end of oil and documenting petro-culture for a post-oil world

Monira Al Qadiri on the end of oil and documenting petro-culture for a post-oil world

Born in Senegal, educated in Japan and currently based in Germany, Kuwaiti visual artist Monira al Qadiri came of age during the rapid transformation of Kuwait from one of the world’s oldest civilizations to a giant of the oil industry. From the beginning of her career, she has paid attention to the turmoil caused by prosperity, religion, and rapid societal transformation. Her performance, sculpture and video work also explores unconventional gender identities, petro-cultures and speculative futures.

At Rome’s Short Theatre Festival 2020, Al Qadiri presents three video works produced between 2010 and 2018. In Travel Prayer (2010) racing camels frantically galloping across the screen to an iteration of the Muslim travel prayer allude to progress in a most ambiguous sense. In Behind the Sun (2013) Al Qadiri revisits the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1991 when multiple oil fields in Kuwait were set ablaze by the invading forces. Having experienced this dystopian reality first hand, she supplements amateur VHS video footage of the fires with audio monologues from religious television programs of the period.

The third immersive installation, Diver (2018), marks a new chapter of her ongoing search for historical ties between the pre- and post-oil worlds in the Arabian Gulf. Diver follows four synchronized swimmers in shimmering body suits that recall the sheen of both pearls and oil, fully choreographed to an early recording of a pearl-diving song, recalling pre-oil socio-economics of the region. Ahead of the Installations opening, GRIOT discusses the three video works with the artist via video call.

Monira Al Qadiri – Photo by Raisa Hagiu

GRIOT: Let’s begin with Travel Prayer, where footage of a camel race is accompanied by this beautiful prayer that reminds us of something most of us have come to take for granted these days: The miracle of arriving at one’s destination safely. Did you actually start from the prayer and the images came later? Or was it the other way around?

Monira Al Qadiri: I was interested in the travel prayer for a long time because in Kuwait and many Muslim countries, when you get on a plane, it is the first thing they play. It sounded intriguing because it is quite specific, it’s about travelling with depressive scenery—which is not the case everywhere, sometimes there’s beautiful scenery— so I always imagined that it’s about travelling in the desert which is really hard. I thought it was interesting how it was geologically specific to us.  At the same time, I just loved how it sounds, I always used to record it.

I was watching this camel race on tv one day and it was so pointless because there used to be riders on these camels who had a relationship to the animals. At some point, because they wanted to win, they started using children as camel jockeys, which got banned by the UN because of human rights. Then they started usíng robots: underneath all those blankets are very crude, badly made robots on the camels. The guy you can see in the car is just pressing a button. The whole ritual became meaningless. It became a metaphor for me because now we are travelling towards the unknown, towards depressive scenery that was kind of the idea.

In what sense is travel prayer a self-portrait as you have described it before?

As someone born after the discovery of oil in Kuwait, I always thought that my generation is a kind of freak generation, because this oil interval history will not last very long. My parents lived before oil, and they had a hard time, they know real life, but my generation is this kind of muted freaks. The oil market will crash at some point which means the country will collapse. So what happens after that? it’s all about this feeling of being lost and just running toward an unknown future.

In Diver, there’s a counterintuitive connection between the  visuals and the sound. While the visuals rely on exclusively elegant and brilliant frames, the pearl-diving song that accompanies them is kind of rough around the edges. How did you come to merge these two aspects of the work?

Pearl diving is a personal story, but also a story of the whole region because for a while, the main industry [In Kuwait] was pearl diving, and my grandfather used to be a singer on a pearl diving boat so that was actually my idea of how it used to sound. It is an early recording from the 60s in Bahrain. The song sounds very different now because it is no longer used for pearl diving, it’s the kind of thing that is done for tourists. It is clean and sanitized whereas older versions are much more like screaming and shouting, and that is lost in the newer, deformed versions of this music. 

I wanted to make an homage to my grandpa, but also at the same time, to express the alienness of his life because his life is like fiction. I can’t believe that this happened, that people were actually diving from a boat, it just sounds like a fairytale. The idea is to reconcile this history that cannot be reconciled and also show a kind of Disneyfication of this history through the swimming actions. Diver is very clean and beautiful and strange but there is something weird about it, it is also rough and unfiltered. That is what I was trying to do.

Monira Al Qadiri, Diver (2013)

When making Behind the Sun (2013), you got very lucky to receive a batch of unseen archival videos of the burning oil fields by photographer Adel Al Yousifi. Do you think you would have made the work with the material even if you hadn’t seen Werner Herzog’s “version of events” in Lessons of Darkness (1992)?

No, it is very directly related to this piece. I watched the film by Werner Herzog when I was seven, maybe eight, basically right after the war. My dad had it on a VHS tape at home, I didn’t know what it was. I just put it on and I watched it then I was so angry with it. As a child you don’t understand what docufiction is, I felt that this German man was making up stories about our war, and it’s all lies (laughs). I was so upset and angry. I had no idea who he was but I remembered this angry child. 

With time while studying art I found out who Werner Herzog is and became interested in his work and then understanding it almost, but this work I could never understand because there was always, even when I was watching it at 25, I was still that angry kid. I had that irritated and frustrated feeling that I could not get rid of. When I made Behind the Sun in 2013, I was living in Beirut, and the war in Syria was very bad, there was a lot of bombing which reminded me of our war. In Kuwait the history of the war was erased for a long time, it is almost embarrassing to talk about it, whereas in Beirut it was everywhere, and I thought i would create my own version of Herzog’s film but in a completely different way, without this helicopter angle, this god-perspective that he uses, but something more close to what i felt as a child.

At the same time I also wanted to reclaim the context of where this happened. The problem was that it is very difficult to find footage from 1990 and 1991. I met this amateur photographer, Adel Al Yousifi who told me he had some tapes, and I told him to show me. It was very beautiful, when I saw it I cried because i hadn’t seen it since that time, it was really raw. I also asked him why he took 25,000 photographs of the burning oil fields, while not  being affiliated to any newspaper. He said he wanted to show his family outside Kuwait the extent of the destruction. I thought that was interesting because maybe that’s the excuse he tells himself but surely it’s not that: you don’t risk your life every day for a year and a half to show your family destruction. I think in a way he is a kind of Herzogean character, he was obsessed with the beauty of this destruction which was kind of what I felt when I was a kid. As a kid you have no morality, you don’t understand right and wrong, for me this was just like hell as they told us, the world was ending. I thought it was really special which is cute (laughs).

Unfortunately, a few weeks ago, there was a massive explosion, followed by mass protests demanding accountability in Beirut. You mentioned that while you lived in Lebanon the war was ever present even in the artistic discourse, as opposed to Kuwait. Do you think that the Beirut port explosion will play the same role for young artists as the War in Kuwait and the burning oil fields did for you?

I mean I don’t know because it is still very raw, my husband is from Beirut and i lived there for seven years, and i have a lot of friends there who lost their homes and it is really a very terrible moment. At the same time, it does feel like something has ended, and we don’t know what it is. It could be that the country has ended, who knows! In the beginning I felt that nobody can stand something like this but surprisingly the politicians are playing with the same tropes as they did before.

I think that it is very traumatizing, it is even more traumatizing than the war i have to say. Somehow the state, the corruption and the destruction of the state enters your home, it is very different I think because even in war people manage to live their lives and be safe in their house, they go out for food or there’s fighting outside but unless your building is bombed, the war is far away somehow and you can create a distance between yourself and what’s happening outside. But this is a different scale, it’s almost like many nuclear explosions so I don’t know what will happen after this, I really cannot say, it is very difficult to talk about this.

Do you feel like your collected works could one day be documents of petro-culture in a post oil-world?   

That’s exactly what I’m doing, I am trying to create a monument through these artworks to this strange time because when it’s over we will have nothing to commemorate it by. Oil is such a destructive force but in a way it is also a miracle, it is just a very strange alien character that has landed from outer space  and will leave at some point. Do we have anything to remember this alien force by, maybe not: so I’m trying to create this maze between the past the present and the future so that we have some kind of emotional objects to go back to (laughs) i am preempting the end of oil, I really want it to end. It is terrible, it is complete madness, it is extracted from the earth, it is destroying the environment, all of the political and social consequences, it is really a monster.

DIVER – Behind the Sun – Travel Prayer
Friday 4 | 6:00 pm – 12:00 am
Saturday 5 | 6:00 pm – 12:00 am
Sunday 6 | 6:00 pm – 12:00 am
WeGil – Sala rossa, Salotto, Auditorium
video installations

national première
free entry subject to availability

GRIOT is media partner of Short Theatre 2020. Check out the full programme.

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Main image | Frame of Diver (2013) by Monira Al Qadiri – All images | Courtesy of the artist

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Eric Otieno

Eric Otieno

Eric Otieno decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar