Fatima Al Qadiri Interview: Art Came First But Music is My Forte

From sons playing their mothers to politics as performance and dance music about dissent, the work of Fatima Al-Qadiri is an assault on the sensibilities of her age.


Fatima Al Qadiri, Berlin Biennale
Fatima Al Qadiri

Fatima Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti musician and artist, and one of the nine members of GCC, an artist collective that takes its name and inspiration from the Gulf Cooperation Council. 2016 saw the release of her second album, “Brute”, on Hyperdub records. A mixture of off-kilter beats, gunshots, explosions, news samples, moody chord progressions and icy strings, it was created in Kuwait while Al Qadiri recovered from a knee-injury, watching the post-Ferguson protests unfold, transforming their dissent into her record’s message. Sleek caught up with the multi-talented artist at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, one of the locations for the 9th Berlin Biennale.


Fatima Al Qadiri, Berlin Biennale
Fatima Al Qadiri


Which came first for you, art or music?

My mother, Thuraya Al-Baqsami, is an artist, and my role model. She worked at the Ministry of Communication in Kuwait and would bring in stacks of old communiqués, and we’d draw on the back of them. So my first exposure was to visual art. During the occupation of Kuwait, when I was nine, my sister Monira and I wrote our first song. That’s when I started making music. So I guess art came first, but I feel like my forte is music!

How was GCC founded? What was the first work you made collectively?

Khalid al Gharaballi and I have been collaborating since 2006, and in 2012, we won a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture for the piece “Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM)”. The project was a large-scale installation of a Kleenex box, which contained a film about the Kuwaiti ritual of Chai Dhaha, a meeting of women for pre-noon tea. But, in a twist, these are young men in drag performing their mothers, and the film is narrated from the point of view of a tissue box. It’s now against the law to “imitate” the appearance of the opposite sex in Kuwait, but that wasn’t always the case. The protagonists are seated in a ballroom with the box in the middle, and a maid pushing a trolley of tea and biscuits, while the women gossip and discuss their lives. Every now and then, a woman gets up and takes a tissue. We hired almost all current GCC members to work on the piece, and it’s the most successful work that we had done at that point, too. After that we realised how well we function as a unit, and decided to become a collective.


Fatima Al Qadiri, Berlin Biennale
“Positive Pathways (+)” by GCC (2016), installation view


Is GCC’s output a critique of contemporary Gulf culture and politics, or are you participating in it as well commenting on it?

Imagine that question being asked of you. How are you engaging or contributing to German culture or Western culture? It’s so broad.

For us, the Gulf region is a closed society. It’s not really a region that embraces outsiders, with the exception of Dubai, which is the Gulf version of Vegas. But, while in the Gulf there’s a culture of hospitality, you’re not going to access the society’s rituals because they are closed to outsiders, and that’s the one part of the Gulf that we’re really interested in. Without getting into the ‘native informant’ scenario or into the simplistic polarities of East vs. West, we’re trying to understand these processes as much as anyone else is. There’s a huge gap between the rich and the poor, between the expat labourers and which jobs they have access to. Being a woman I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. Strangely, the governments of the Gulf region always seem to be ten steps ahead. Positive Pathways (+), for instance, is about co-opting self-help and self-optimisation as a path to economic prosperity. And a month before the opening of the Berlin Biennale, the Dubai government opened a Ministry of Happiness!


Fatima Al Qadiri, Berlin Biennale
“Brute” (2016) album cover


What about Positive Pathways (+), is it a comment or a cultural artefact?

It’s not intended as an artefact. Many of our works are about how the government positions itself, and how politics is like a drag act. I loved the theme of the Biennale, “The Present in Drag”. There’s so much drag in our work.

Especially in works such as your 2013 work, “Inaugural Summit, Morschach”.

That piece is about governance as a type of performance. It’s about diplomats performing their ‘work’ of handshakes, drinking champagne and eating caviar. We were looking at the performativity of diplomatic and bureaucratic summits; here the photo op is the work. And we feel that what we represent is so universal, so relatable, because so many governments and politicians operate this way. They wear a different outfit, a different costume, or eat something different. But, fundamentally, they’re all performing the same act.


Fatima Al Qadiri, Berlin Biennale
“Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM)” by Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi (2012), installation view


You made a track, Nothing Forever for “Anthem”, the soundtrack for the Berlin Biennale, with Hito Steyerl and Juliana Huxtable. How did that happen?

They [the biennial curators] approached me and said, ‘We’re making an album, we would love for you to collaborate with Hito.’ She’d already used my music for one of her installations at the 2015 Venice Bienniale. I’d never met her in person, but when we started talking it was obvious that we were both obsessed with the subject of the apocalypse. I wanted to write a national anthem for the end of the world. The one thing that connects all these types of anthems is this idea that we fight and sacrifice ourselves for the greater glory of the nation. But what is the function of glory when there’s nothing to glorify? When all your plants are dead, and humanity is dead, and the world is extinct, what is its purpose?


Fatima Al Qadiri, Berlin Biennale
“Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM)” by Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid al Gharaballi (2012), film still


Despina Stokou, Galerie Eigen + Art
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