Monira Al Qadiri On The End Of Oil And Documenting Petro-culture For A Post-oil World

by Eric Otieno Sumba - Published on 02/09/2020
Monira Al Qadiri, frame of DIVER(2013) - All the images - Courtesy of the artist

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. What was the creative process like for this work? 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 quite a long time because actually in Kuwait and many Muslim countries, when you get on a plane, it’s the first thing they play. It sounded intriguing to me because it’s quite specific, it’s about travelling through depressive scenery which is not the case everywhere (sometimes while you travel you see beautiful scenery) so I always imagined that it’s probably about travelling in the desert and the harshness of that journey. I thought it was interesting how it was kind of geologically specific to us, and at the same time I also just loved how it sounds, I always used to record it.
One day I was watching this camel race on TV and I felt it was so pointless in a way: there used to be jockeys riding on these camels who had an intimate relationship to the animals, but at some point, because they wanted to win more races, the owners started using children to ride them because they were lighter. Eventually, that practice got banned because of human rights issues. In order to continute their quest for speed, the owners started using robots instead: underneath all those blankets are very crude, badly made robots sitting on top of the camels. The guy you can see in the car behind them is just pressing a button. So this whole ritual was rendered meaningless, and the scene turned into a metaphor for me: we are now aimlessly travelling towards the unknown, towards that ‘depressive scenery’.

In what sense is Travel Prayer a self-portrait as you have described it before?

I guess for me as someone who was born after the discovery of oil in Kuwait, I always thought that my generation is a kind of freak generation, because the oil interval history will not last very long. My parents lived through life before oil, it was difficult and real, but people from my generation are mutants of sorts. The oil market will crash at some point meaning the region will collapse. So what happens after that? It’s describing this feeling of being lost and just running towards 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?

The story of pearl diving is a personal one, but also the story of the whole region. For hundreds of years, the main industry [In Kuwait] was pearl diving, and my grandfather used to be a singer on a pearl diving boat. The sound I’m using is an early recording from the 1960s in Bahrain. Nowadays, the pearling songs performed sound very different: they are not actually used for pearl diving, it’s more a kind of revivalist ritual that’s staged for locals and tourists alike, so the music is distorted, it’s a cleaner more sanitized version of what once was, whereas the older songs contain much more violent sounds like screaming and shouting. That part is lost in the newer, deformed versions of the music. I wanted to create an homage to my grandfather, but also at the same time to express the alienness of his life because his life is like a fiction to me. I can’t believe that this happened, that people were actually diving from a boat to get pearls, it just sounds like a fairytale. So I’m trying to reconcile this history that cannot be reconciled and also show a kind of Disneyfication of this history through the swimming actions. It’s very clean and beautiful and strange but there is something off about it, while the sound is also rough and unfiltered. So this is what I was trying to do.

Monira Al Qadiri, Diver (2013)

When making Behind the Sun (2013), you were 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’s very directly related to that film. I watched Lessons of Darkness 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 watched it, then I felt so angry with it. As a child you don’t understand what Docu-fiction is, I just felt that this German man was making up stories about ‘our’ war, and it was all based on lies. I was so upset, I had no idea who he was but I remembered being this very angry child. As I grew older, studied art and found out who Werner Herzog was I became interested in his work and began to understand it almost, but this work I could never accept, because there was always this feeling – even when I was 25 or something and watching it – I was still that angry kid. I had that irritated and frustrated reaction that I couldn’t get rid of. When I made Behind the Sun in 2013, I was living in Beirut and the war in neighboring Syria was worsening day by day. There were a lot of car bombings at this time and that situation started to remind me of the war. In Kuwait especially the history of the war wasn’t highlighted for a long time, it’s almost as if it’s embarrassing to talk about it, whereas in Beirut memoirs of war are visible everywhere.

Within this environment I thought I could create my own version of the film but in a completely different way, without the helicopter angle or the God perspective that Herzog uses, but something more close to what I felt and saw at the time.

At the same time I also wanted to reclaim the context of where this happened. I started working on the project but the problem was that it’s very difficult to find footage from 1990 and 1991. I spoke to a photographer named Adel Al Yousifi who told me he had some tapes, and I asked him to show them to me. They were very beautiful. As I watched them for the first time I cried because I hadn’t seen that scenery since I was a child, it was really raw.  I also asked him why he shot these tapes, because he also took 25,000 photographs of the burning oil fields. He said he only wanted to show his family who were outside of Kuwait at the time the extent of the destruction in the country. I thought that his answer was interesting because maybe that’s the reason he told himself but surely it must have been more than that: you don’t risk your life every day for a year and a half just to show your family thousands of images of destruction. I think he was obsessed, in a way I thought he was a kind of Herzogian character, he was fascinated by the beauty of destruction which is was what I also felt when I was a kid. As a child you don’t have a clear sense of morality, you can’t differentiate right from wrong. For me, this image that I saw was just like the image of hell as they told us in scripture, when the world was ending. I thought it was a really special moment to be able to see.

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 is 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’s 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’s really a very terrible moment. At the same time, it does feel like something has ended, but we don’t know what that ending is. In the beginning, I felt that nobody could stand for something like this, but surprisingly the politicians are playing with the same tropes they did before, so who knows what will happen. It’s very traumatizing, it could be even more traumatizing than war itself. Somehow the collapse, the corruption and the destruction of the state has physically entered your home.

Even during war time people somehow manage to live their lives and be safe in their homes, they go out for food or there’s fighting outside but unless your building is bombed, the war can be pushed away momentarily, you can create a distance between yourself and what’s happening outside. But this is on a different scale, it’s almost like a mini nuclear explosion so I don’t know what’s going to happen after this, I really can’t say, it’s very difficult to talk about it.

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’m trying to create monuments 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’s also a miracle. It’s a very strange alien character that landed here from outer space and who will leave at some point. Do we have anything to remember this alien force by? Maybe not. So I’m trying to create this merger between the past the present and the future so that we have some kind of emotional objects left to reflect on. I am preempting the end of oil, I really want it to end its reign. It’s a terrible curse, completely mad, extracted from the earth, and it’s destroying the environment. With all of the political and social consequences it generates, it really is a monster that must be killed.

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