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Portfolio: Monira Al Qadiri

With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images

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Video still from a Hardeez television commercial in Kuwait in the 1980s, featuring a flying hamburger and Ghanem Al-Saleh, a very popular local comedian

Video still from a Hardeez television commercial in Kuwait in the 1980s, featuring a flying hamburger and Ghanem Al-Saleh, a popular local comedian

Junk Food

I was born in 1983 – the same year the chicken nugget was invented. It’s no surprise, then, that my entire generation in Kuwait was named after these deep fried pieces of processed chicken. Artificial yet addictive, they were crunchy brown on the outside, fluffy white on the inside. This naming was very much relevant to how we were described, as most of us spoke English better than Arabic – our supposed mother tongue.

We were quintessential products of American cultural hegemony, spoon-fed to us through television and pop music in the 1980s. But beyond the usual tropes of pop culture, just as the chicken nuggets entailed, it was first and foremost a cultural invasion of our guts – an imperialism of the stomach. As the oldest carrier of culture, food was at the centre of our naive imaginations. The ideology embedded within the deep fried batter taught us to become individualistic, streamlined, space-aged, and prosperous.

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Igano Kabamaru (lit. Hippo Mouth of Iga) is a Japanese cartoon character created by Yu Azuki. He is a ninja who has an insatiable appetite, and eats mountains of yakisoba noodles every day

Igano Kabamaru (lit. Hippo Mouth of Iga) is a Japanese cartoon character created by Yu Azuki. He is a ninja who has an insatiable appetite, and eats mountains of yakisoba noodles every day

Kabamaru (Hippo Boy)

Driven by my obsession with Kabamaru – a cartoon ninja character with an insatiable appetite for noodles – I moved to Japan at the tender age of 16 and lived there for ten years. The impact of popular culture on our collective imaginations is somehow always seen as secondary, debased or illegitimate, but for me personally, it shaped the course of my life quite dramatically. So I always go back to these deep-seated childhood obsessions for inspiration. This year I created an entire theatre performance around this naïve infatuation, tracing my life story through Arabic / Japanese cartoon dubbing, and viewing the voice as an object.

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The Sheikha Fatima Mohammad Ali’s Mosque in Kuwait, built in 1976 (architect unknown)

The Sheikha Fatima Mohammad Ali’s Mosque in Kuwait, built in 1976 (architect unknown)

Space Age Architecture

Very often, I wondered if it was reality or a dream I was experiencing. Very often, I felt alienated, agonized, depressed. For, I argued to myself, instead of creating a great “school” of contemporary architecture in the great Arabian desert, we were being blinded by a maze of architectural gymnastics of no architectural substance or significance.

Forms, shapes and fetishes, proliferated and multiplied by the day. The color schemes were too “rich” for description.

Architecture became an exercise in aerobatics, and not an endeavor in creation, economics and organicism. It has become rare to find lines anchored to the earth. Instead, they all seem pivoted to point restively to outer space.

An excerpt from the book The Kuwait Urbanization (1964) by Saba George Shiber

The 1960s was the high summer of American cultural expansion in the third world, and also the arrival of modernity and statehood in my native Kuwait. So far, this is the only accurate text I have found that likens the arrival of modernity to an alien invasion. Ultra-futuristic modern architecture in Kuwait always triggered subconscious images of spaceships and other galaxies, appearing in our dreams at night.

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Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) directed by Paul Schrader

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) directed by Paul Schrader

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

This is a film about the life and writings of Yukio Mishima, one of the most controversial postwar Japanese writers. In 1970, he committed suicide in an extremely dramatic way, on the balcony of the headquarters of the Japanese defense forces after he had hijacked their offices. In essence, he was trying to embody and ‘become’ his mad obsessions, a tendency I also often have as a person and as an artist. I passionately read his novels and books as a teenager. This film is a beautiful depiction of his inner worlds, although it is an equally disturbing and traumatic portrait of a mad man, hell-bent on realizing his megalomaniac fantasies. The set design by Eiko Ishioka is the best I have ever seen on screen. 

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Abdul Aziz Al-Nimsh (a.k.a. Um Alewy) 

Abdul Aziz Al-Nimsh (a.k.a. Um Alewy) 

Abdul Aziz Al-Nimsh

My work always involves elements of cross-dressing, whether visual or vocal, as a vehicle for transformation and chameleon-ism. Abdul Aziz Al-Nimsh (also known as Um Alewy – Ali’s Mother) has been an inspiration for me ever since I was young. He was a widely known socially-accepted cross-dressing actor / actress, who regularly appeared in Kuwait’s theatre scene (and later on television) from the 1940s until his death in 2002. His grandmother impersonations were so convincing it was almost as if he was possessed by an old lady’s soul. Some even say he was a collector of female oral histories, as his knowledge of local dialects was close to encyclopedic.

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Illustration from Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence) composed in the 13th century by Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini

Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence

For a few years now I have been fascinated by a 13th century manuscript called The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence written and illustrated by a medieval Iraqi judge called Zakariya Al-Qazwini. In addition to being the most thorough book about natural history of its time, complete with hundreds of drawings and illustrations, Qazwini decided to illustrate mythological creatures and djinn (spirits) alongside the regular flora and fauna within his masterpiece. The djinn look like animal / human half-breeds, and even alien-like sometimes. I think one can easily read this manuscript as a legitimate form of early science-fiction, as he also wrote a story called Awaj Bin Anfaq (The Height of the Tunnels) about a man who travelled to earth from a distant planet.

Monira Al Qadiri's exhibition ‘The Craft’ runs at Gasworks, London until 10 September 2017.

Main image: Illustration from Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt (The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence) composed in the 13th century by Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini

Monira Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti artist born in Senegal and educated in Japan. In 2010, she received a PhD in inter-media art from Tokyo University of the Arts, where her research was focused on the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East stemming from poetry, music, art and religious practices. Her work explores unconventional gender identities, petrocultures and their possible futures, as well as the legacies of corruption. She is part of the artist collective GCC.

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