PRINT May 2015


Monira Al Qadiri, Travel Prayer, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 2 minutes 40 seconds.

COMING IN at just under three minutes, Travel Prayer, 2014, one of Monira Al Qadiri’s latest videos, is brief, but its focus is precise: The artist distills into this short span the momentous collisions between tradition and technology, desert culture and global capital, that increasingly define the Gulf states. The work consists of a tightly framed view of a camel race that the Beirut-based artist recorded from a television broadcast, slowed down just enough to turn a gallop into a glide. The found footage has a grainy, almost nostalgic quality to it, which the artist has emphasized by tinting the sky teal, only to counter such softness by toning the racetrack, its fence, and the animals with a bright, otherworldly fuchsia filter. Al Qadiri also composed an electronic score to accentuate the movement—a few notes forming a wistful lullaby—and paired it with a recording of a voice melodically reciting a prayer dedicated to safe travel.The first line—“Sublime is the one who created this for us”—underscores a subtle cruelty permeating the scene: The camels are outfitted with remote-controlled whipping machines, which their owners operate while trailing the race in SUVs.

Travel Prayer is a study of “progress” in its most ambiguous sense: a step forward that is also a step back. The camels are an example of an age-old tradition tragically caught up in the accelerated development that has propelled the Gulf since the second half of the past century. (Al Qadiri offered a commentary on oil’s central importance to this process in Alien Technology, 2014, a giant, iridescent sculpture of an oil-drill bit that was recently exhibited at the Al Shindagha Heritage Village in Dubai.) The camels’ robotic appendages were, in fact, invented in response to a 2002 law banning what had essentially become a trade in child camel jockeys conducted with Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. And the impact of such fraught transformations extends to Gulf residents themselves: Al Qadiri has referred to Travel Prayer as a self-portrait, suggesting that the historical and ethical issues raised by the work are as intertwined with individual identity as they are with the broader culture and politics of the region.

This combination of pathos and perspective makes Travel Prayer an exemplary work in Al Qadiri’s practice: a concise meditation on the zero-sum game induced by modernization, wherein advancement for some occurs at the expense of others.It expands on recent videos such as SOAP, 2014, in which migrant workers are digitally superimposed onto scenes from popular soap operas. In a complete departure from reality, these shows suppress the foreign labor force ubiquitous in the region, depicting wealthy main characters driving or cooking their own food—domestic tasks they would not perform in real life. SOAP insists on authenticity in a world of constructed denial, where the selective presentation of reality in popular media tends to omit uncomfortable truths. Such explorations of the social cost of the region’s progress are made even more explicit in Rumors of Affluence, 2012, a video that examines the devastating 1982 crash of Souk al-Manakh—a market, set up in parallel to the main Kuwait Stock Exchange, which became the third largest in the world before its bubble burst. Al Qadiri uses the event as a starting point from which to draw out a history of rampant corruption in Kuwait, which culminated in the dissolution of parliament on three separate occasions from 2011 to 2012 amid a series of bribery scandals.

Al Qadiri’s visualization of Gulf culture is vast and relentless, but she has also trained her lens on herself in works that are far more personal than the metaphoric self-portraiture of Travel Prayer. Take “Eternally Out of Place,” 2007, a photographic series that explores cultural, ideological, and personal displacement by depicting the artist as a bearded priest in a Japanese cemetery, an androgynous holy figure who reappears in another series, “Tragedy of the Self,” 2009–12; both were produced during the decade Al Qadiri studied in Japan. These meditations on identity continue in the music video Abu Athiyya (Father of Pain), 2014, in which the artist lip-syncs to a lamentation song originally performed by Iraqi singer Yas Khodhor while engaging in a knife-dancing ritual traditionally identified with the Iraqidancer Malayeen. Here, the transmutation of cultural traditions into unexpected, idiosyncratic practices points to Al Qadiri’s own hybrid background. Indeed, because she was raised in multiple religious traditions and is fluent in Japanese, the artist often refers to herself as a “Sushi”—half Sunni, half Shia.

In recent years, Al Qadiri has expanded her perspective to include not only the construction of identity and culture but also the recollection of history itself. Behind the Sun, 2013, for example, is a video about the burning of the Kuwaiti oil fields by Iraqi military forces on their retreat in the first Gulf War. The work is composed from found footage of the apocalyptic blazes filmed from ground level, accompanied by an edited compilation of voices reciting Arabic poetry—much of it visualizing God through metaphors of nature—borrowed from popular regional television programs. The video deliberately inverts Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992), which combines footage of the burning fields taken from a helicopter—what Al Qadiri calls “a godlike perspective from above”—with a narration of Christian biblical texts on the apocalypse. Al Qadiri’s version is a (literally) more grounded view of a historical event that continues to resonate throughout the region, and a way of addressing the almost mythic qualities of the resource that has enabled remarkable progress and caused untold devastation.

In 2014, Al Qadiri revisited the aftermath of the first Gulf War with “Myth Busters,” a series of digital ink-jet prints that visualize a thesis advanced by political scientist Alexandre Kazerouni, who argues that the current museum boom in the region is, paradoxically, closely linked to the destruction brought about by the conflict. These megaprojects include I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, inspired by the desert sun and shifting sands, and Jean Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar, designed in the shape of a desert rose, also in Doha.Kazerouni calls such projects “Visibility Museums”: structures that have been integral to maintaining successful defense policies that encourage foreign—namely, Western—allegiances in the form of cutting-edge building designs by prominent architects that meld contextual history with projections of a progressive globalism. In this sense, “Myth Busters” resonates with the robotic accessories of Travel Prayer, which ensured a kind of benevolent continuation of camel racing through modernization. In both works, the artist’s subject is not so much the representation of a societal spectacle as it is a bewildering anachronism: a culture racing to the future as it holds on to its past.

Stephanie Bailey is managing editor of Ibraaz and a contributing editor of Art Papers and Leap.