Oil and pearls are not a usual combination in the world of art, but in Monira Al-Qadiri’s art project “Spectrum I,” currently showcased at Jeddah’s Athr Gallery until April, a link is drawn between the two precious materials produced in the Gulf.
Her solo exhibition is demonstrated with four other artists from the Gulf who participated with their contemporary artwork under the theme “And Along Came Polyester,” organized by the 21,39 initiative.
Al-Qadiri is an Amsterdam-based Kuwaiti artist, born in Senegal and educated in Japan for 10 years.
She did her Bachelors and Masters, and received a Ph.D. in inter-media art, from Tokyo University of Arts.
Her research focused on the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East stemming from poetry, music, art and religious practices.
Her international experience influenced her understanding of art and enriched her creativity. She is currently doing a two-year artist residency at The Rijksakademie in the Dutch capital until 2018.
“My work in this exhibition is a new body of work... It’s an idea I started in late 2014,” Al-Qadiri said. “I made a public sculpture of a giant oil drill, which was commissioned, in Dubai. I was thinking of public monuments in the Gulf. They’re always a camel or pearl-diving boat and things like that.”
The artist, born in 1983, told Arab News that her generation, which was affected by the oil boom, is underrepresented in art.
“We don’t know anything about the oil industry, even though it has affected our lives so much,” she said. “I feel like it’s in my blood. It’s kind of this mysterious thing in the background. We should formalize it, create monuments of it, and remember and think about it.”
Al-Qadiri’s grandfather was a singer on a pearl-diving boat who she has never met or known anything about.
“His life feels like some sort of a fiction. It’s so detached from our lives in the contemporary Gulf. It feels unreal. So this monument was made in relation to him.”
The oil-drill monument was installed at the Shindagha Heritage Village in Dubai, which is an old port that had pearl-diving boats.
The public sculpture, covered in pearlescent paint, creates what Al-Qadiri said is a “formal relationship between pearls and oil, to create a continuity of history in the Gulf.”
Through her public artwork, she drew an analogy of the connection yet detachment between her generation and that of her grandfather.
“I discovered that they (black pearls and oil) have the same color, but in lighter and darker shades,” she noted. I thought this color could represent the pre- and post-oil (generations) through this color, so the drill is a self-portrait and the boat is my grandfather.
“The funny thing is, when I made this sculpture in late 2014 it was just two weeks before the oil crash, and it hasn’t stopped since. I think the work two years ago and now has a totally different meaning.”
She then developed the idea and produced smaller oil-drill sculptures. Six of those are displayed on the purple wall of her solo space of the exhibition.
“It’s really exciting to be approached to show this work in Saudi Arabia. I thought it’s the most important place where it should be shown.”
She added: “The idea from that work is that I’m imagining it from a futuristic perspective. So when oil is finished or when it’s worthless in the future, which will happen eventually like it happened to coal before, there’s going to be a new technology that will take over from this industry.
“We should have to try to think about it like it’s something from the past. So people in the future can look back at these objects that they don’t know what they were for, in their beautiful shapes and colors. Maybe they’ll think they were things used in some kind of a ritual or an archaeological artefact. So I’m trying to force people to think about the future.”
Most of the work was accomplished in Amsterdam, where she also worked on carving a real pearl into the shape of a drill.
“A pearl, like oil, is an invader (of our world). It’s a bacteria that enters the shell, and the shell wants to protect itself so it ends up making this beautiful thing (pearl).
“I always think of oil like an alien that came to us and then it will go away. The pearl feels like this kind of an alien as well.”
Art as a source of empowerment
When asked how art can empower women in the Gulf, she said: “I have a very unique background when it comes to this. My mother is also an artist, and she started in the 1960s. Her work is very much about women empowerment and rights. I grew up in this atmosphere, and to me it’s completely normal. She — Thuraya Al-Baqsami — is a painter and print-maker who showed her work worldwide.
“I never actually thought about women not having rights. In our house it was the norm. I do feel a sense of empowerment (as an artist). Of course it’s there, that I am a girl from Kuwait.
“We always look at the Gulf as a whole, but every country has its individual experience and history. Kuwait in particular had its own renaissance era in the 1960s-70s, so we’re second-generation modernized Kuwaitis.”
After she left Japan in 2010, Al-Qadiri lived in Kuwait for a while then moved to Lebanon, where she lived for five years with her Lebanese husband, who is also an artist.
“Beirut is very interesting. It felt like it’s the most advanced art scene in the Middle East. There are so many artists and so many exhibitions and events going on. I learned a lot from being there. Also the way they treat contemporary art and talk about it is completely different than what I was used to in Japan, which was interesting and eye-opening.”
About her future plans, she said: “I have one year left in Amsterdam, and after that who knows? I think artists should be free and uncomfortable and live in places they don’t know, because you have to transform yourself and grow, and you never stop learning as an artist.”