Monira Al Qadiri, OR-BIT 1, 2016, 3-D-printed plastic, automotive paint, levitation module, 11 3⁄4 × 7 7⁄8 × 7 7⁄8". From “Crude.”

Monira Al Qadiri, OR-BIT 1, 2016, 3-D-printed plastic, automotive paint, levitation module, 11 3⁄4 × 7 7⁄8 × 7 7⁄8". From “Crude.”


“Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free,” the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński observed in his 1985 book Shah of Shahs. “The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident, through the kiss of fortune and not by sweat, anguish, hard work. In this sense oil is a fairytale, and like every fairytale, a bit of a lie.” Curator Murtaza Vali probed these false promises with “Crude,” a group show that sought to elucidate petroleum’s role in driving post–World War II political shifts in the Persian Gulf, the Middle East, and North Africa. Corralling works by seventeen artists and collectives alongside a wide array of academic research, “Crude” engaged a variety of complex issues surrounding oil, particularly as it has figured in the Gulf: its ubiquity, its ability to resist representation, its physical infrastructure, its centrality to climate change, and its intimate linkage to regional modes of what Vali calls “petromodernity.” Much of the work in the show addressed the discovery of oil in the region in the early twentieth century and its subsequent warping of regional and global politics—especially relevant as the US government’s ever-shifting foreign policies seem to remain permanently tethered to oil’s price and availability. The exhibition laid bare oil’s mid-twentieth-century modernist promise. A sampling of black-and-white photos by Latif Al Ani commissioned by both corporate and government bodies and taken in Iraq in the late 1950s and early ’60s almost ached with the promise of Things to Come: Modernist architecture lives alongside the mosque and the oil refineries in a single frame, while hygienically dressed women work on an Iraqi date-packing assembly line. A set of paintings of petrol workers by Houshang Pezeshknia span 1949 to 1958 and use thick gestural strokes endemic to the style of postwar abstraction to evoke a sense of oil labor’s nobility. One highly charismatic work was a human-height mobile by Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck titled UNstabile-Mobile, 2006. At the ends of its thin fingers, one finds, instead of Calderian colored forms, small, homely pieces of tin cut into the shape of oil puddles. With this work, Balteo-Yazbeck elegantly represents and rephrases the US State Department’s Cold War cultural imperialism, which took place in the Gulf as much as anywhere else.

For all its ambitions, “Crude” was a broad show filled with unexpected wonders. In Monira Al Qadiri’s OR-BIT 1, 2016, an American-made drill bit painted in automotive dichroic purple and teal tones hovered motionless just above a plinth. Disconcerting and even spooky, the work conveys oil’s potent ability to mystically transform whatever it touches. Across the same room, atop a variety of pedestals, were what looked to be inverted jugs, fashioned from a glass internally riddled with bubbles. Titled Aqua Lung, 2018, this piece by Michael John Whelan nodded to the year 1954, when the oil companies British Petroleum and the Compagnie Française des Pétroles (now Total) commissioned a young Jacques Cousteau to conduct an oceanographical survey of the Arabian Gulf aboard his ship, the Calypso. Urban legend has it that Cousteau’s survey, made possible by the Aqua-Lung breathing apparatus he codeveloped, inadvertently and ironically led to offshore drilling. Regardless, Whelan has taken sand from locations in the explorer’s survey and used it to make the glass, poetically and viscerally evoking the imagined sensation of breathing beneath the Strait of Hormuz.

The United Arab Emirates was formed not even fifty years ago, in 1971, and is only now critically evaluating oil’s role in its history, both regionally and globally. In “Crude,” Vali wants to make clear that “something only becomes worthy of heritage once it is understood as firmly being of the past. Positioning oil as such may be an anticipatory gesture towards the inevitability of a post-oil future.” To judge from the vitality of the Emirates’ cities, one wonders if oil still has a bit farther to go in influencing the country’s future, but now that the role of the West seems on the decline and that of the East ascendant, historical anomalies can be openly discussed and reframed. “Crude” does that in spades.