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Westernized beyond recognition, Kuwaiti youth are in the eternal search for reclamation of identity. In the recent years, the creation of trite Pop Art-inspired artworks with subjects traditional music legend Awad Al-Dokhi, indicate that the exorcism of Western influence from Kuwaiti culture is quite ill-fated when attempted via the manipulation of Western art aesthetics.
This is certainly not the case with Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM), a multimedia installation that took place in January 2012 at the Contemporary Art Platform Kuwait warehouse. Khalid al Gharaballi's and Fatima Al Qadiri's work is a sophisticated attempt to not only reclaim the essence of Kuwaiti culture and society, but to fully repossess it, using a pristine lens to channel baroque-chic Kuwait at its finest. With the astute use of humor, symbols, character and costume, Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM) faces the inherently claustrophobic cascade of self-consciousness that comes with facing one’s own video image, and to an extent facing one’s own culture, all the while interpolating the laughing audience into its social commentary.
In al Gharaballi’s and Al Qadiri’s latest work, Mendeel Um A7mad (NxIxSxM), Nadia, Iqbal, Sarah, and Majida gather for the women-only ritual of Chai Dhaha, a pre-noon affair of tea-drinking and shit-talking. The multimedia installation is composed of a 12- minute film projected inside a tissue box of unreal proportions, measuring 7 x 7 x 30 meters. The artists identify the tissue box as a national icon of Kuwait—not a single room in the country is considered inhabitable without one, and the post-oil boom population’s hyperbolic emphasis on cleanliness and grandeur is astutely communicated via installment of the "Hi Tissue" box, sponsored by the National Paper Company of Kuwait itself. Of equally epic proportions as the giant tissue box cum screening room of Medeel Um A7mad are the diverse personalities portrayed in the looping fifteen-minute film—intimating that their conversation is one that eternally circles around itself.
Majida, the vivacious hostess, offers neutral territory for the critique of Kuwait as an Iraqi woman. She encourages inter-racial marriages in the interest of genetic diversity, extols European history and museums, and dares to wear hip-hugging Roberto Cavalli, which according to Sarah, makes her look "like an African woman"—the "ladies" go on to tease Majida about her obsession with slimming techniques and fetish for blondes. Majida compensates for her slight diversion from Kuwaiti norms by sing-songing phrases like "oh, how shameful" intermittently.
In her dark abaya, fellow tea-time partaker Sarah stakes a space on the conservative side of the spectrum—Sarah’s standpoint functions as a good backboard for controversy within the artwork’s conversation. She calls others out on a number of topics: their preference for gold, sequins, and embroidery despite their inability to afford such extravagant embellishments; the new trend for sending wedding invites via text message; her own son’s penchant for bringing back women with him from Thailand—wearing out her voice and citing Anginova as her talismanic pharmaceutical. She decries the queer state of Kuwait, with its "boyas" (dykes) and extreme courtship rituals. Sarah’s conservatism (her name being the most traditional of the four) is rife with the opportunity to scandalize and be scandalized, and her scatological humor is unexpected and somehow appropriate. There is a kind of bursting forth that Sarah’s self-righteous self seems entitled to, and her spontaneous expressions add tension rather than catharsis.
Iqbal is perhaps the best representation of the tension that lies within the "never-enough" mentality that underlies Kuwaitis’ approach to wealth. As a PE teacher at a public school, her character is styled with an "odd minimalism," according to al Gharaballi, the oversized linens and monochrome earth tones of her outfit being characteristic of the nineties. The hardworking mother and PE teacher is the most sympathetic of characters—Iqbal works hard to "run after those girls" at her school, she takes home baby formula as part of the government grocery subsidy for Kuwaiti citizens even though she doesn’t have any babies, and she participates in a rally with the hopes that the government will forgive her loans. When she gets up to make her pilgrimage to the tissue box Iqbal takes her prized Coach purse with her—it is a rare glimpse into the concerns of such a doggedly mediocre and yet poignant character.
When it is Nadia’s time to walk over to the Hi Tissue centerpiece, she struts, quite well for a man in heels. The adaptable Nadia has converted—to technology. It is the most progressive of all four women that is the most disconnected, changing the subject without segue to the latest free iPhone apps and taking it upon herself to give the ladies a crash course in the wonders of personal computers. Nadia could be a wealthy woman anywhere, from Palm Springs to Hong Kong to Kuwait. She brings the gathering of NxIxSxM full circle—from campy conservative Sarah, to soccer mom Iqbal, to pseudo-outsider Majida, to her budding Technorati self.
With the authentic nature of each character, it becomes almost negligible that male actors play all of the female characters. As highly observant men, the actors have subconsciously culled the speech patterns and the expressions of the women they portray, distilling each character to her very core. The actors channel their characters organically—without depilation or hesitation. This is an aesthetic choice on the part of al Gharaballi and Al Qadiri, who explain that they didn’t want to take the route of satire, and aimed more for a documentary style, which they achieve in their characteristically unique way. An effort is made to avoid camp, and the work comes off as a lighthearted homage to the women and the rituals of Kuwait that go largely undocumented.
In their previous work, al Gharaballi and Al Qadiri have collaborated to document niche sexualities within the queer community of Kuwait, a country that is so affected by gender politics that heteronormative dynamics seems to pervade even the most fluid of sexual spaces. In the WaWa series (2011), the artists portray the intersection of the female Arab pop icon and Arab lesbianism—the lines between infatuation and idolatry are blurred and the consumptive nature of sexuality compounded. There is awareness within the work of its own transgression, the photograph WaWa Complex subtitled by بدي عيش or "Let me live" in the Lebanese Arabic dialect of most pop songs.
What sets apart the practice of al Gharaballi and Al Qadiri is the extent to which their work simultaneously and fully inhabits individual characters. Their work Dragas in 2009 refers to the nexus where man meets woman, appearance meets fetish, and local Kuwaiti tendencies meet global trends. The portrait series presents four drag queens in such a way that transcends prevalent stereotypes of over-fashioned femininity and sassy monotone, each of them taking on a nuanced manifestation of what it means to be a woman with a penis. Getting to know each of the "Dragas" sets a precedent for the intimate look at the dynamics of NxIxSxM (Najla x Iqbal x Sarah x Majida).
In their artistic statement for Mendeel Um A7mad [NxIxSxM] al Gharaballi and Al Qadiri explain: "Chai Dhaha, as opposed to the Diwaniya, remains a largely undocumented phenomenon. The results of Googling the words 'Chai Dhaha' (in English or Arabic) are negligible, not garnering an image, video or a single definitive text." Thanks to their efforts, as well as those of Nadia, Iqbal, Sarah, Majida and the exponentially large personalities of Kuwaiti women, that’s about to change.
Curator, consultant, journalist and teacher. Co-founding director at Contemporary Art Platform Kuwait in 2010. Lives in Beirut, Lebanon.