Monira Al Qadiri's subversive work puts the hired help back into Gulf Arab soap operas and questions the Middle Eastern oil economy.
Two things to note about Monira Al Qadiri: she talks a lot and loves a laugh. A cursory glance at the artist's work reveals an affinity for the latter, whether in the melancholy drag of her bearded 'masculine narcissists' in videos like Wa Waila (Oh Torment) or her Soap series that takes existing Gulf Arab TV shows and transposes the hired help into already existing episodes.
"So they're sitting in these lush, crazy palazzo houses and there's a scene where they all eat, and they serve themselves!" Al Qadiri laughs heartily at the ludicrous unreality of wealth without its servants. "Or they drive themselves to work and it's like, 'what?' This is not how things happen… There are all these labour issues in the Gulf and people have servers; like four, or five, or six. People have ten sometimes. So what are they trying to do here? Are they trying to erase them even from this banal house scene? I just found that really absurd and I wondered what would happen if I inserted them back in". Cue the drama: a father flings a vase at the feet of his daughters while a superimposed South Asian servant sweeps it up.
"They used to be better and now it's just like this mash up of, I don't know, really boring story lines, very bad acting and insane plastic surgery", Al Qadiri chuckles in a conversation that's full of them. She's talking about her Soap Opera muse from her base in Beirut, where she's been living for the last three years, after a decade in Japan and a childhood in Kuwait.
From the First Gulf War, to hyper-capitalism, to the Syrian conflict, those are experiences and perspectives that feed into everything Al Qadiri does. Right now she's counting down to the unveiling of her first public sculpture called 'Alien Technology'. It's a magnificent large-scale oil drill glimmering with the lurid gloss of pearl or petroleum and one of five outdoor artworks commissioned by the Arab Fund for Arts & Culture (AFAC): "My dream is to have a sculpture on a roundabout", Al Qadiri deadpans. Between that and the animated light box, '"Muhawwil" (Transformer)', which features reproductions of bizarre government-sanctioned murals decorating the electric power generators of Kuwait, it's obvious that Al Qadiri has a knack for identifying and extrapolating on modern life in all its inherent weirdness. This is work that is simultaneously funny and incredibly unsettling.
"One woman was wearing these blue contact lenses and this crazy fuchsia lipstick. She's got a blonde wig on, she's wearing pyjamas and she's supposed to be sleeping in bed", Al Qadiri laughs wholeheartedly as she goes on to describe the incongruous attitude towards extreme body modification between genders in her Gulf Soap Operas. "...and then her husband looks completely normal. He just looks like a normal guy. But the women are usually a very strange kind of mash-up of, I don't know, all these different ideas about pop culture".
That's a pop culture, and an art culture, even an economic standpoint, that is what Al Qadiri calls highly "Americanised". This is reflected not only in her US English-tinged accent - she attended a British school and was brought up on North American entertainment - but in the corporate language and concern for endless market generation that appears to have infiltrated every aspect of Gulf life. That's why Al Qadiri's Alien Technology, a sculpture of these dazzling oil drills - made from diamonds for their utility but becoming beautiful by default - points to the recent "oil heritage" of the Persian Gulf. It has been made in response to foreign interests and built behind a façade of a symbolic connection to the historical fantasy of what Al Qadiri defines as "camels and pearl diving boats". She adds, "Why don't we just admit that we live in this post-oil economy that's completely alien to this area?".
But before that can happen there's a sea of ambiguous political language in an increasingly outward-looking Arab world to sift through, which is something that Al Qadiri also does in the eight-strong GCC 'delegation' - along with her sister, producer Fatima Al Qadiri. It's a collective that has exhibited across London, New York, Berlin, mirroring and exaggerating the pointless ceremony of global diplomacy in shows featuring trophies, protocol videos and ribbon-cutting events celebrating an unknown and unimportant 'achievement'. "A lot of people in the Gulf see our work as being funny and they accept it because it's funny," says Al Qadiri about humour in both her own work and that of GCC, "but actually the underlying message is quite hardcore. The way we do it is that we take things that already exist and we present them in a different way, or a different context. Some people get offended, but they don't know why".
Hence, the disruptive power of the Almighty Joke: Because as Monira Al Qadiri belly laughs at the ridiculous "funky murals" of those Kuwait power stations with their "threatening hardcore messages" and chuckles at the characterisation of GCC's work as "subversive positive realism", she's pointing to a much darker consciousness that's all-too-aware of a self-destructive civilisation: "I'm confused about the fate of the world, you know. I'm just waiting for what's going to happen next."
Text Steph Kreotiwcz
Portait Yasmina Haddad