Monira Al Qadiri talks about ghost reading as a source for her performance, drag, the post-oil generation and her sculpture »Alien Technology«, which was recently installed in Venice.
Monira Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti artist, who was educated in Japan after being obsessed with manga and Japanese video games since her childhood. Her art is often autobiographical, inspired by Arabic and Japanese culture. She is both a visual artist, sculptor and performance artist. Her performance Phantom Beard had its world premiere in Vienna at Wiener Festwochen on May 17, where she fusioned sculpture, 3D video technique, set design, and Arab men with butoh dance. An interview by Juliana Lindenhofer.
At the beginning of »Phantom Beard«, there is a kind of brain-landscape-sculpture heading to the audience.
It’s meant to be a mysterious object. You don’t know, if it is an organ, or a stone, or what it is exactly. It’s supposed to create this sense of not knowing and that it’s the power that controls us. It’s actually a meteor, that’s found in the desert of Saudi Arabia in the Empty Quarter, which is this vast desert in the south. There is like thousands of meteors there in the desert. My father brought one back to our house and I just thought it was such a beautiful object and so symbolic of also the history of the region, prehistoric and also science fictional history that has to do with space. It just felt like the root of all. Also New Mecca existed before Islam and in the Kaba, which is the house of god, there is a piece of a meteor there and people used to pray to this meteor. So I thought it was just interesting to use this kind of powerful symbol, but also this kind of mysterious, strange brain, heart, internal organ.
Later, about forty bearded men, male ghosts, turn up and want to follow you.
This is a true story – the whole performance is actually a true story. I didn’t create any fiction for it, except the last sequence. Ten years ago when I was living in Japan – I lived there for a decade and left in 2010 – a friend of mine, her mum was a ghost reader, which is a profession in Japan, they read your ghost. It’s usually one or two ghosts: your grandmother is here, she is looking after you, she is telling you this and that. Ghosts in Japan, it’s a reality, it’s not a believe. Everything in life there evolves around praying, appeasing and having a kind of relationship with people who died. So I went to see this woman and she told me that I have forty men stuck to me, and she started screaming. She described what they are wearing – and she doesn’t know who I am, where I’m from, nothing – and she said, that they came to see her the week before and checked her out. She said they are speaking in this language, almost like singing and she doesn’t understand, and she said when I laugh they all laugh and when I am angry they are all angry. And that they think that I’m the chief of the tribe. Basically that they are my ancestors, they have a terrible bloody history and they want to enjoy life with me and die with me.
I loved the story. It explains my work to me – I was always cross-dressing and obsessed with masculinity. Even at that time I was painting randomly men with beards. It grew and grew and now it became this piece. I wanted to talk to them, so if I can do it virtually, I will.
In your performance you also say that drawing was a method for you to get into this male role, for becoming them.
Yes, exactly. I couldn’t become a man, I was a girl growing up in Kuwait, so I would draw myself as a man. That was the way I could feel I was powerful. The problem with me is, when I love something and I’m obsessed with it, I want to become it. I love men so much, that I want to become them. I loved Japan so much, so that I wanted to become Japanese. I love cartoons so much, I want to become a cartoon. It’s all about becoming the thing that you love. It is still a big part of my identity, this kind of in love for the smell and the look of men.
There is a female voice saying: »I yearned for that power. If I only could be that narcissistic. If I could become a he.«
It’s my voice. I’m talking about my life in Kuwait, even though it’s in Japanese. I really wanted it to be in Japanese, because after going to Japan I really lost my language. I really became Japanese somehow. That was the time when I was reflecting on how I grew up and what I was imagining. That scene is really emotional for me, it’s me basically talking about my childhood in Kuwait and wanting to be powerful in a society that doesn’t allow you to be powerful.
You wrote that where you grew up, a man is the messenger of all emotions and the gatekeeper of memory.
The main form of art in the Arab region, especially in the Gulf, is poetry and literature, and all of it is written by men. They narrated all of the history of the region in this form, which is so beautiful. I mean you don’t need images or sound, just by reading this poem you can create images and music. So you don’t need to preserve things, there is something really beautiful about that and it’s so advanced: Arabic has thirteen million words, English has like two. So the literary scope is incredible and I really think it also has something to do with the climate that you can’t really keep things in the desert, they get destroyed because of the heat. So yeah, all the poetry is written by men and as a strange misconception of my »love men« I love that, but I also find it insane. There must be another history that we don’t know about.
On stage your gestures were Japanese, but your voice was speaking Arabic.
It is a reflection of who I am. I grew up in Kuwait until I was sixteen, then I moved to Japan. I’m lost in between the two always. They are vastly different cultures, but there is also something very similar, especially in terms of patriarchy. I went from one patriarchal society to another. My work is also hyper-visual, not because I’m Arab, it’s because I have this Japanese influence. So, I try to mix the linguistic Arab tradition with this hyper-visual Japanese tradition, both in the performance and the set.
What is your relation to Drag?
Since the war in Kuwait in 1990, I felt powerless and the men were doing all the fighting and the war, my mom and me we were stuck at home, when I wanted to be part of the action. I mean, I was just a child, it really started then, I was seven years old. It grew and as a teenager I cut my hair short, was wearing suits at home, drawing beards on my face, pretending it is like an art project. It made me feel much more free and powerful. It was all about power and expression of my narcissism, and also my distorted view that women are not powerful. This continued until I was twenty-one. Even in Japan I was very butch, but the problem was that I was heterosexual. (laughs) I had to become a bit more feminine, in order to realize my love. But it is reflected in all my work, this kind of going in between and not really having a gender per se. I see myself as a woman, but sometimes not.
You also say that the common thread in you work is the extension of your body, and that Japan is in your body, too.
Yes, it is. After living ten years in Japan I really started to hate it. I went so deep into the society that you really start to see the dark underbelly of Japanese society. Women in Japan have such a difficult life, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. For a time, I really wanted to get rid of this part of myself, but I can’t. It’s embedded in me now. It physically changes your body, the way you think. Just living in a different linguistic sphere, when you start to think and dream in another language, this language takes over your thoughts. I’m a different person, because of the ability to speak Japanese.
In your performance there are voices saying: »When you are sad, they feel the pain«. Your Ph.D. thesis is also touching the aesthetics of sadness.
One of the central themes in my work is always the suffering, sadness and tragedy. In the Arab world this is seen as a noble emotion, it’s not something bad that you should hide. It’s something that informs your life and makes it more rich. In this work the ghosts went through something, through some kind of tragic event. I’m also reflecting on parts of our history that have been concealed and lost, purposefully erased.
I also find the last scene of »Phantom Beard«, which is in between future or purgatory, to be very tragic, because I’m also trying to reflect the status of the Arab world today, which is in this kind of purgatory state. There is suffering everywhere and we don’t know where we are going. The ending of the piece is quite abrupt, because of this, because there is no conclusion, nowhere to go.
The fact that I live in Berlin, so many colleagues of mine have moved to Berlin from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, it’s our new artist hub, because it’s also the only place that accepts us. Our societies are pushing us out, they don’t want intelligent culture people to create things that have meaning. It’s a reflection of my status now, I feel like I’m in an in-between state.
In the end of »Phantom Beard« the ghosts say it’s the day of reckoning, while you are dressed in golden silk.
The day of reckoning in Arab »Yawm al-Hisab« also could mean the day of accounting, and I also wanted to play with the accounting aspect. Some of the text is from pre-Islamic religions in the Gulf region. They all talk about, if you go to heaven there is this gold silk and pearls. It also reflects this part of history we don’t know about.
The sound design to me appeared harsh but hypnotizing, circling and drawing the audience into it.
The sound is by an Indonesian band called Senyawa. They do experimental, improvised noise music and I really wanted someone who could understand both worlds I’m trying to talk about in this work: which is the world of ghosts, which is very heavily present in Indonesia, and also the world of Arab culture and Islam, which is also heavily present in Indonesia. When I listen to it, it feels like something from another world, you are not here.
Are you borrowing the ghosts from Japan as a remedy for the desert, as remembrance is a sin at your geography?
Religion changes a lot. What Islam was in the fifties is not what Islam was in the eighties and is not what Islam is now. The way religion is practiced now in the Gulf is very much related to a certain sect and this sect believes that history has no value. I really think it comes from certain kind of tribal conception of life in the desert. I mean there are urban centers and even Islam was conceived in an urban setting, a big part of it has to do with trade, laws and all about the city. This part is kind of subdued now towards this very puritan idea about behavior. I wanted to give a different perspective on history.
I learned this from being in Japan. History, it obviously can be really informative to your life, but it can also be a burden obviously. I think we need a little bit. A little bit that is not just this mainstream thing we have been taught, because there are so many histories.
Your sculptures are also approaching the oil and pearl industry. Are you trying to remember the forgotten pearl industry?
My grandfather was a singer on a pearl diving boat. Pearl diving was the main source of money making in the region for about two thousand years on the Gulf coast. After oil came this profession disappeared, because it was really difficult. People lived in poverty and suffering. It was a tough life; they would go to the sea for six months. The state tries to create an image that this is your history, your past and heritage, but they do it in such a sterilized way that it seems fictional.
Your sculpture »Alien Technology« is also placed in a fake village, right?
Yes, it is Heritage Village in Dubai, it’s next to these fake pearl diving boats. It was there, because this is who I am, I’m not the pearl diving boat. I’m this weird mechanical object that goes into the earth and gets this black liquid. This oil generation that I belong to is going to be very short, I don’t know if it’s even gonna continue ten more years. And then what happens to us after that? As the post-oil babies, we are lost in the world. We are kind of mutants. There was something that existed, something real, before and this strange explosion of dinosaur blood created us. In a hundred years will people even know what this oil drill is? They might think it’s some crown or some artefact. So yeah, I was playing with this kind of time travel.
Speaking of sculpture, you did also the set design for »Phantom Beard«?
I did it with the director Raed Yassin, who is also an artist and musician. The cube with the camel-humps-beard-thing in the end is an artwork by a friend of mine, he is an architect, called Aziz Al Qatam. Many years ago, we were in a show together and he made this piece. I felt like it was the homes people will live in after the apocalypse in the Arab world. They will travel on these humps and these tiny cubes, because of the heat. So, I asked him for permission to use it in my piece as a symbol for what I’m trying to express.
You are a shortlisted for the »Future Generation Art Prize« in Venice. What are you showing there?
I’m actually showing my sculpture »Alien Technology«. The one in Dubai unfortunately got destroyed many years ago. It was supposed to be a permanent installation, but as many things in Dubai this Heritage Village changed into a construction site. So, we remade it and I’m happier with the new version.