The desert of the unreal

Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al-Maria tell Karen Orton about Gulf futurism, and why the oil-rich region's restrictive desert consumerism hold the keys to the future

Fatima Al Qadiri & Sophia Al-Maria. Images courtes
Fatima Al Qadiri & Sophia Al-Maria. Images courtesy of the artists

Gleaming sci-fi skylines against inhabitable barren landscapes feature heavily in western ideas of the future, but in Gulf they are already a reality. Arab-American artists Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al-Maria grew up in the oil-rich region. “The first thing you notice is this unbelievable horizon – deserts with massive blue, pink and green skies,” says Al Qadiri. “It’s like you’re on the surface of another planet… the starkness creates this post-apocalyptic feel. When you’re surrounded by sand and sky, there are no limits to the gargantuanism you can dream of – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Tower of Babel, these are all Arab ideas! And now it’s the space race for skyscrapers.” Together, musician Al Qadiri and writer Al-Maria have coined the term “Gulf futurism” to describe their subversive new aesthetic, which draws on the region’s hypermodern infrastructure, globalised cultural kitsch and repressive societal norms to form a critique of a dystopian future-turned-reality.

For 31-year-old Al Qadiri’s generation of Kuwaiti youth, growing up amid the architectural and technological fruits of recently nationalised oil wealth was jarring in the wake of the Gulf’s pre oil-boom life of mud huts and dug wells. “I feel like we leapt a century!” Al Qadiri exclaims. “When TV came to Kuwait, my grandmother thought the man on the TV could see her, she covered herself! And now we have security cameras all over the house. My girlfriend’s dad checks them on his iPhone in any country just to see what’s happening, to control the youth, to control whoever…”

It was a similar experience to that of Al-Maria, the 29-year-old daughter of a Bedouin father and an American mother. She grew up between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Seattle. “One of the most ancient ways of living came head-on against extreme wealth and capitalism – glass and steel against wool and camels,” she reflects. “There’s been a quantum leap and there’s a temporal gap. The two things have been stitched together and there’s a missing piece of history. (Our idea of) Gulf futurism began to coagulate with that idea.”

Making sense of this extreme shift is at the core of both women’s work. The now Brooklyn-based Al Qadiri’s acclaimed 2011 debut EP, WARN-U, features haunting traditional Sunni and Shi’a worship songs sung over slowed-down electronic beats. For her next EP, Genre-Specific Xperience, she invited Al-Maria and other cutting-edge contemporary artists (including Ryan Trecartin) to make music videos shown at New York’s New Museum. Al-Maria’s video, “How Can I Resist U”, is a love letter to “Lenden” (ie London), a forbidden mecca of alcohol, drugs and sex for wealthy Arabs. It holds a particular significance for Al Qadiri, who remembers spending summers there with her family. “I knew how the northern half of the world lived and I really wanted to live like them,” she remembers, “and I just wanted to get the fuck out of Kuwait!”

In the video, Al-Maria cuts up YouTube footage of taboo Gulf Ma'alaya dancers at men’s only parties with wavering, glitched-out images of Arab “supercars” and monolithic buildings. Tapping into the repressed sexuality and luxury lifestyle that defines the Gulf’s youth, it also explores a contemporary digital-art aesthetic that recontextualises early web and found imagery.

Such ideas are championed by the likes of New York’s DIS magazine and cult art title Bidoun, which both artists write for regularly. It was through Bidoun that they met and helped kickstart Gulf futurism, a collage of themes the women had been exploring separately. For their first project together, they created (with their friend Khalid Al Gharaballi) the world’s first Kuwaiti graphic novella, Mahma Kan Althaman (“Whatever the Price”, from Bidoun #20). It depicted the Gulf’s soap opera obsessions, “interior wastelands” of the home and repressive cultural attitudes through the story of a love triangle between a man, a woman and a transsexual.

“The character of Principessa Fallafen is based on a tranny named Madonna from a well-known wealthy Kuwaiti family who was imprisoned,” says Al Qadiri. “It’s a homage to her fearlessness.” Al Qadiri and Al Gharaballi’s comically expressive characters and luxury interiors combine with Al-Maria’s irreverent dialogue, written in “pigeon Arabic”, a mixture of text-message-speak abbreviations that defy the traditional, obtusely formal dialogue of an older generation.

The Gulf paradox – a headlong sprint into the future tempered by ultra-conservative Islamic codes – defines everyday life in the region, and continually re-emerges in the duo’s work. “It’s a very bizarre, liminal space,” Al Qadiri says, “always looking forwards but clinging desperately to the moral rules of the past.” Despite strictly conservative gender roles, forbidden subcultures flourish in the malls, such as groups of girls called “boyas” (the feminine conjugation of “boy”). “Gender-bending in the Gulf is really interesting,” Al-Maria says. “Boyas trickled down from a lifestyle to a fashion thing for young girls. They’ll wear a men’s Rolex, cologne and basketball shorts and cut their hair short underneath their abayas.” Boyas get sent to rehabilitation centres, “the same shit the Christian right does,” as Al Qadiri points out. Her art WaWa Series (again, with Al Gharaballi) uses the Gulf’s infantilised female pop-star imagery and the nonexistence of images of Arab lesbianism to create lesbian couple portraits in which Al Qadiri takes on the role of the misogynistic butch partner instead of the typically imagined female pop star.

For women, the Islamic cultural codes really come into play once they hit puberty. Protecting one’s “honour and dignity” becomes paramount, as girls don abayas and stop interacting with the opposite sex, resigned to a life at home or at the mall. The indoor life of the Gulf’s indoor life is partly an environmental necessity, due to the extreme heat; nevertheless, Al Qadiri says, matter-of-factly: “Girls are not walking the streets. Maybe I’ve seen it once in my lifetime. It’s just not safe.”

The extreme level of everyday sexual harassment in the Middle East was a strong influence on Al-Maria, who lives in Doha, Qatar. She went to university in Cairo, where “crazy shit like 10-year-old boys grabbing your crotch every day” was the norm. “When I saw the images of Tahrir (Square, during the 2011 Egyptian revolution), the first thing I thought was, ‘I’m worried about the women…’ It’s become a weird crusade.” Now she is preparing to direct her first feature film, a rape-vigilante thriller called Beretta that sees a mute lingerie-salesgirl going on “an apeshit killing spree, which is how a lot of us feel!”

In what Al Qadiri calls the Gulf’s “consumer-culture robot desert”, teenage life revolves around the mall, video games and satellite TV. Al-Maria remembers sneaking into the mejus, the men’s side of the house, once everyone was asleep, and spending long nights playing video games and watching global satellite TV. “That was a very unique Gulf experience, existing purely inside the television, the video game, then later my phone and the internet.”

Al Qadiri was nine when Iraq invaded Kuwait during the 1990 Gulf War. A year later she was playing the Gulf war-inspired Desert Strike video game. “It was the most terrifying sci-fi experience of my childhood,” she recalls. Her new album, also called Desert Strike is an audio memoir of that time. “The most surreal thing was the breakdown of society, and when they burned the oil wells and the sky turned black. It felt like being on the surface of the moon. This record is about the relationship between the virtual and reality of war.” She spent the entirety of the period playing video games indoors, and the 8-bit game soundtracks influence her current sound. She and Al-Maria are working on a music video for the title track that’s inspired by Gulf war memorabilia, such as toy stealth-bombers and children’s playing cards.

A recurring theme in Gulf futurism is the ubiquity of the shopping mall, the location for everything from covert meetings between the opposite sex to women’s exercise-routines. “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a woman in abaya and Nikes jogging through the mall,” Al-Maria laughs. “It’s a beautiful sight!” As a teenager, she remembers leaving the mall with rolled-up pieces of paper with phone numbers that guys had surreptitiously slipped into her bag. “People were having so many boyfriends on the phone.” These days, anonymous teenage sexting means you’re just as likely to get an explicit Bluetooth picture at the mall as a scribbled phone number, which might be why Saudi Arabia banned Bluetooth in malls in 2007. “Back (in the 90s) we’d send pre-internet viral videos, these really primal and bizarre moments,” Al-Maria says, remembering her clandestine teenage communications. “The Gulf is such an extreme place of disconnection that the only thing to do was send videos of other people or animals doing things that you wish you could.”

Al Maria’s Sci-fi Wahabi is a continuing art project in which she becomes a fierce, laser-sunglasses-wearing, abaya-clad alter ego, reminiscent of something from an 80s Gulf Star Trek remake. It began as an essay written using Ballard and Baudrillard to explicitly explore the dystopian Gulf, and has since manifested into a series of real-life appearances and hologram projections at international galleries and art fairs, including Art Dubai and the Global Art Forum in Doha. The latter is where she presented the “Gulf Colloquy Compendium”, a vernacular lexicon of real and imaginary Gulf phrases that she invites people to contribute to online.

Gulf futurism is most explicit in its oil-wealth-funded architecture, including Kuwait’s Scandinavian-designed water towers. “I saw them from kindergarten and imagined aliens and spacemen in them,” Al Qadiri remembers. Over the last 30 years money has been poured into attracting the world’s super-architects to rebuild ancient cities. “Huge swathes of Gulf cities are being knocked down for like, this insane skyscraper with a laser on top of it pointing to Jerusalem!” Al-Maria laughs. She’s not joking. “Gulf futurism is really about this destruction and rebirth,” says Al Qadiri. “We lost our architectural and cultural identity and had to start over. There’s a secret, hidden history and then this horrifying, stark future.”

For women in the region, a major preoccupation is renovating the ‘interior wastelands’ of homes. “You constantly have to abandon or destroy the old,” says Al Qadiri, who describes Gulf homes as “vistas of marble, air conditioning, Kleenex boxes and fake plants.” The restlessness of women like Al-Maria’s aunts is expressed by trading furniture every season. “They’re always doing whatever they can to refresh the browser of their home,” she reflects. The iconography of Gulf interiors and social rituals is explored in Al Qadiri and Al Gharaballi’s installation “Mendeel Um A7mad (N x I x S x M)”, in which a short film is shown in a giant-sized Kleenex box. In the film, a cast of young men in drag as middle-aged women hilariously recreate the pained formal social niceties and gossip of the informal "chai dhaha" tea ritual in an absurdly oversized ballroom..

Al-Maria and Al Qadiri are acutely aware that there is a certain beauty to the shopping malls, marble interiors and sci-fi modernist monoliths of Gulf culture, but their fascination is mixed with an awareness of its absurdity and artificiality. “It’s the weirdness of this endless naïve optimism which doesn’t exist in the west anymore,” Al-Maria says. “These are places where the oil is going to run out, and they’re investing their money into shock factor, to put a stamp on the future. Also, with the coming global environmental collapse, to live completely indoors is like, the only way we’ll be able to survive! The Gulf’s a prophecy of what’s to come.”

Al Qadiri nods in agreement. “Because of this new wealth, we wanted to consume the entire world. The states didn’t give a shit about sustainability, and these countries have major environmental problems. I guess we’re just a more extreme version of the future – a really creepy future!”

DESERT STRIKE is out 23rd October 2012

THE GIRL WHO FELL TO EARTH is published by Harper Collins on November 27

Photography Lyndsy Welgos

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