Monira Al Qadiri has the ability to freely roam between artistic formats and mediums, attaching herself to different cultures and detaching herself from the familiar to look at it in different ways. Producing works on topics such as dysfunctional gender roles, aesthetics of sadness in Middle East and cultures of corruption , some of which have a new found significance and visibility in Turkey since Gezi Parks events last year; Qadiri's insight to such issues has made our interview timely meaningful.
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You were born Senegal, grew up in Kuwait until you went to Tokyo at 16 for education. A lot of your work is related to analyses in culture, especially gender roles. I am curious, how did you as a person as well as your work was influenced by the different cultures these countries have?
I grew up in Kuwait watching Japanese cartoons dubbed in Arabic. The flat, two dimensional Japanese drawings, and the over dramatic Arabic voice performances complemented each other wonderfully in them. At some point, I also absorbed this “conflated” aesthetic – over dramatic but flat imagery - in my work, and it obviously only intensified after going to Japan. I like to think that I reflect the best of both worlds in my practice, even though it’s not always a conscious decision to do so. As for Senegal, I was only born there and my parents left after six months, so I don’t remember it at all. I just see myself being there in old photos and videos, so its like seeing an image of a fictional exotic childhood for me. A place of fantasy.
How did you end up getting education in Japan, a country and a culture that is far removed from where you were? What did attract you about it?
When I was 7 years old, the Gulf War (1990-91) erupted in Kuwait, which me and my family lived through. After that, I became obsessed with Japan and Japanese culture. I guess it was just a way for me to escape from the harsh reality I just experienced by discovering the farthest country from where I was at the time. Escapism can have its advantages, as well as downfalls.
From video works to installations, sculpture and wood prints, your body of work definitely has a diverse quality of formats and mediums. How did you achieve this freedom to roam between different styles of creativity?
Up until this point in time, I feel a lot of artists were forced to restrict themselves to one medium, just because they didn’t have the skills or knowledge to access the others. But in our present age, you can be totally free to choose whatever medium you want, because technology and networking has made the tasks much, much easier to facilitate. The process of imagining new works becomes exciting, and each time you execute a project it feels like a different experience. I feel very lucky to be living in these times, where all these restrictions have really collapsed.
And how do you decide on what the format and medium will be when you have an idea for a new project?
It really depends on the overall concept of the project. The format is usually connected to the idea I’m trying to express. The medium itself has a direct meaning, so I try to think about that while making the work.
From formats to ideas; how do you get engaged in a topic, what have been attracting your interest in terms of giving you ideas to work on?
I’m interested in topics that are not only related to my personal vision, but speak in collective and shared ideas. I think the age of pure individual expressionism has ended, and the artists needs to find spaces outside of him/herself to reflect upon. Society, history, politics, religion – these are really my areas of interest at the moment. I am very skeptical of radical individualism, and how “flat” it has become over time.
Some of your work deals with dysfunctional gender roles in Arab societies. Which - to my mind - the brings this question: can "gender", as defined by modern societies, be ever functional? Do you think there is a functional masculinity and feminity being performed anywhere in the world? Or could we say that "gender" is inherintly dysfunctional?
I completely agree with you. Gender is like a ritual that we are obligated to perform. In some societies, this “performance” is demanded in a much stronger way than others, which breeds even more dysfunction. But, I don’t see that dysfunction as a negative phenomenon, it’s just a natural outcome somehow, so I like to look at it as being fun and comical too.
You have a P.H.D in inter-media from Tokyo University of Arts and most of your research focuses on aesthetics of sadness in Middle East. What have been your own personal accounts that made you wanting to explore this particular aesthetic of this particular geography?
Over the years, I have felt that there is this wave of “oppressive happiness” coming from the West (mostly American culture). This oppressive happiness dictates that any dark, melancholic emotional state other than that incessant upward cheerfulness is wrong, and can be even an illness or a disease. But in Arab culture, as well as Turkish, Persian and others, melancholy is seen as a romantic, even noble form of human experience. I have always loved this sense of beautiful “Huzun” (sadness) in this region, as Orhan Pamuk so elegantly described in his book “Istanbul”. He said it was like an invisible fog floating over the city. In my research, I tried to explore this aesthetic, to reveal how suffering has the capability to inform our lives through poetry, religion and art. I think looking at human emotion that way is actually a more positive outlook on life than creating forced illusions of perpetual joy.
One of your video projects, "Rumours of Affluence"" (2012) explores the topic of corruption and affluence that comes with it. This is a topic that Turkish public can relate to immediately, especially more so nowadays because of the infamous telephone tapes that leaked online before the local elections in April, giving numerous accounts of government officers making deals of bribery, staffing positions, so on and so forth. Some of these were so striking, like the one where our prime minister was telling his son to hide the 30 billion of Euros they were keeping at home, that one would expect the government would fall, and the officers would somehow forced to resign. Yet none of this happened and AKP came out as the leading party from the local elections again. What do you make of this situation, depending on your observations and thoughts on "cultures of corruption" ?
Corruption, like many other traditions, can have a legacy and history of its own. It gets cultivated over long periods of time, and in certain places has a stronger and deeper “culture” than others. But this tradition usually goes undocumented, and people have to rely on rumors and word-of-mouth to speculate about what’s really taking place. As you say, even if sometimes the truth comes out, it has no consequences because of all the different versions of facts and rumors flying around. The facts are so surreal that it becomes even harder to believe. In my film I tried to play with monologues of real accounts of corruption that people admitted to, and others that were more speculative, but damning if true. I also tried to embody the corrupt figure myself, to try to see the view from the other side, and how greed justifies itself.
"Rumors of Affluence" (2012)
In the "The Tragedy of Self" (2009-2012), you depict an androgynous figure with a saint-like pose, in the self-portrait form. This figures' androgyny doesn't necessarily come from an ambiguous or asexual depiction, on the contrary, it comes from the collision of a very feminine symbol with a very masculine symbol; bright red lips and beard. Can you tell us a bit about the ideas behind this work, and this particular way that you convey androgyny?
In this series, I tried to tackle ideas about narcissism and individuality, and how those things can be heightened to the realm of the sacred in modern times – which is why I acted as the central saint-like figure in the work - I wanted to make a point of performing the narcissistic individual myself. While growing up in Kuwait, as in my youth I believed that to be someone powerful in the public realm you had to be a man, so I toyed with this idea by repeatedly dressing up in male costumes and attire. It was not about confusion of identity rather than being a narcissistic impulse; a psychological reaction to a social reality. I was interested in how I “gendered” narcissism in my mind, and wanted to push the limits of that idea.
Finally, what are you working on nowadays, any upcoming projects, new ideas that you would like to share with us?
Recently, I have been working on a series of different works dealing with my biographical relationship to oil (petrol). These range from its economic significance, or its materiality, and also its political dimensions. Even though oil fully controls how societies are shaped in the Gulf region, not many people have explored it as an artistic source. Its an almost invisible, metaphysical entity, which is why its beginning to spark my interest.