Illustration by Adele Bea Cipste and Tobbitan Wu. Image courtesy of Monira Al Qadiri
#5WomenArtists: Monira Al Qadiri and Gulf cultural traditions
Mona Al Qadiri, born in Kuwait and educated in Japan, explores gender roles and identities in the Gulf context by visually representing written history. Read about her in the second article of the #5WomenArtists column.
This article is part of a temporary column in collaboration with The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery featuring 5 Arab women artists who have exhibited their work in The Art Gallery's main space. #5WomenArtists is a worldwide campaign for art institutions to increase awareness of gender inequity in the art world and beyond.
Monira Al Qadiri, a Kuwaiti artist currently based in Berlin, boldly addresses important issues of cultural traditions, history and gender roles within the specific context of the Gulf. Born into a creative family, Al Qadiri was exposed to art practice from a young age through her mother and older sister, who, like Al Qadiri, are both artists. Her work is influenced by Kuwaiti folklore and Arabic-dubbed Japanese anime that she watched as a child. At 16, Al Qadiri was awarded a scholarship by the Kuwaiti government that was initially targeted toward young boys to study in Japan. She eventually spent a decade living abroad and earned her doctorate in Intermedia Art from Tokyo University of the Arts in 2010. She credits the time she spent in Japan toward her creative development. Al Qadiri has exhibited her work in numerous solo and group exhibitions both regionally and internationally, including Holy Quarter at Haus Der Kunst in Munich, Germany, 2020, Our World is Burning at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, 2020, Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011 at MoMA PS1 in New York, USA, 2019-2020, the 2018 Abu Dhabi Art Fair and 50/20 at Sultan Gallery in Kuwait, 2011.
Through her work, composed of music videos and short films on Kuwaiti folk songs and poetry, Al Qadiri points out that the cultural history of Kuwait and its neighboring countries is rooted in literature. She is especially fascinated with folk songs that have not been visually represented and attempts to understand why that is the case. In her 2013 work, “Abu Athiyya,” which is Arabic for “Father of Pain,” Al Qadiri created a music video by visualizing prominent Iraqi singer Yas Khodor’s song, “I Spent Years of My Life With You.” Through her music videos, she seeks to represent lyrics that she finds peculiar, such as those in Khodor’s song, which, contrary to typical love songs, speaks about insomnia.
Growing up during the Gulf War, the artist was fascinated by gender roles in Kuwaiti society. She noticed that the men were in the midst of action while women were told to stay indoors. In an interview with BerlinArtLink, Al Qadiri explained how she viewed gender roles as a seven-year-old: “[Seeing men go defend the country] gave me the perverse impression that women were submissive and weak, and that men were “really cool” because they were doing things in the world and changing the status quo.” As a result, during her teenage years, Al Qadiri cut her hair short and dressed up in drag on a daily basis. Although she grew out of this phase during her twenties, she remains fascinated with drag and continues to show it in her work. She is clear that her work on gender roles is not solely focused on sexuality but also motivated by narcissism in a social context. In her 2008 performance, “Wa Waila,” she works with an old Kuwaiti folk song and reverses the roles so that women play men and vice versa.
Wa Waila by Monira Al Qadiri
Through her series, “Alien Technology,” (2014-2019) as well as the works "OR-BIT" (2016) and "Spectrum 2," (2016) Al Qadiri explores the Gulf's cultural and economic history. The artist narrates the Gulf's history of economic dependency by creating sculptural representations of the drill bits that are used to extract crude oil, in gleaming colors and a shiny finish that resembles both pearls and crude oil. In her choice of colors, she highlights the shared history of the Gulf region as dependent on pearl diving and trading to survive before the discovery of oil. Just like traditional folk songs and dances, Al Qadiri believes that the drill bits are important representations of Gulf history. She was prompted to create these sculptural representations of drill bits by realizing late in life that she did not even know what they looked like despite their historical importance.
In 2016, the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery exhibited Al Qadiri’s “Spectrum 2” in the exhibition, Invisible Threads: Technology and its Discontents, curated by Scott Fitzgerald and Bana Kattan. The exhibition explored the relationship between humans and technology.
As a female Emirati national whose country's cultural history is not much different from Kuwait's, I relate to the works that Monira al Qadiri produces. I find her work to be ambitious and bold as she chooses topics like gender roles and identities in a cultural context that are often only discretely discussed in the Gulf and the greater Arab World. Her work inspires me to further research the progression of gender roles from the Gulf War until today. Similarly, I had not known what drill bits looked like, even though I have a petroleum engineer for a brother, until I encountered "Spectrum 2" at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery in 2016 and again at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair in 2018.
Hessa Al Nuaimi is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org