The Artists of 2021: Monira Al Qadiri
By Nicole M. Nepomuceno
Full text also available in Chinese.
Before the 20th-century discovery of oil, the Arabian Gulf traded another coveted resource extracted from beneath the surface: pearls. Though it defined the region for more than a millennium, pearl diving has been quickly severed from contemporary Arab culture since the dawn of black gold. With the movement towards alternative energy sources, oil now faces obscurity. In her works, Monira Al Qadiri excavates the forgotten histories of pearling and fuses them with present-day petro-cultures and speculative post-oil futures that define identities in the Gulf.
Bumps and swells of the iridescent Chimera (2021) glistened under the sun at Expo 2020 Dubai, during the July debut of the festival’s public-art program. A magnified oil drill head, the nearly five-meter-tall sculpture draws attention to the largely invisible mechanical components of the industry. Its shimmering coloration alludes to surfaces of both oil and pearl, uniting them aesthetically, as it foretells a post-petrol future when drills become fossils of a lost era.
As a Senegal-born, Japan-educated, and Berlin-based Kuwaiti artist of a historically detached generation shaped by petrol, Al Qadiri calls herself a “mutant” and her practice—an amalgamation of video, sculpture, and performance—self-portraiture. Her autobiographical tendencies are present in the video installation Diver (2018)—an ode to her grandfather who was a pearling boat singer—which was shown in solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Burlington (3/1–8/28) in Canada and Berlinische Galerie (11/3–29) in Germany. Diver depicts synchronized swimmers in sheen bodysuits moving to a traditional pearl-diving song while submerged in a dark liquid reminiscent of oil. In unearthing her own ancestral cultural history, Al Qadiri also uncovers collective memories drowned by crude.
Beyond oil, Al Qadiri explores unconventional gender identities and the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East through cross-dressing performances, such as Abu Athiyya (Father of Pain) (2013), referencing an Iraqi saga, and Phantom Beard (2019), based on a Japanese ghost reading. After participating in more than 15 exhibitions in 2021, the artist will hold solo exhibitions at the Guggenheim Bilbao in March 2022, as well as the UCCA Dune in Beidaihe, China, and the Blaffer Art Museum, in the oil capital of Houston, both in July. Her new public commission by Qatar Museums will be unveiled in Doha later in the year.