Monira Al Qadiri is the fourth participating artist in the Digital Arts Resource Centre (DARC)’s 40th-anniversary exhibition Tending Land, which explores our relationship with land, themes of displacement, and the consequences of colonialism. Al Qadiri’s work, Behind the Sun, combines VHS footage of the burning oil fields in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War with a beautiful poem about the beauty of nature and the divinity of it all, taken from Kuwait TV programs.
Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti visual artist born in Senegal and educated in Japan. In 2010, she received a Ph.D. in inter-media art from Tokyo University of the Arts, where her research was focused on the aesthetics of sadness in the Middle East stemming from poetry, music, art and religious practices. Her work explores unconventional gender identities, petro-cultures and their possible futures, as well as the legacies of corruption. She is currently based in Berlin.
I first saw her 10-minute film on its own, without knowing the backstory. I felt deep-seated horror and disturbance upon viewing the great fire walls, changing from yellows and reds to magenta. The deep voice reciting Arabic poetry feels God-like, divine, speaking the penultimate truth. The images feel apocalyptic, as if this is what hell looks like. But it’s not—it’s the real world, the real land, the real trees, all burning in all-consuming fire. Not only is the film a representation of one of the biggest human-inflicted environmental catastrophes in the world, it’s also a pertinent relevant image of our world right now. The urgent climate crisis, the Don’t Look Up dichotomy.
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After viewing the film on my own, I attended a conversation with Al Qadiri, led by Murtaza Bali, a critic, curator, and art historian, to learn more about the film and how it came to be.
“I lived through the Gulf War myself, in Kuwait, in 1991, when I was seven years old. When I was living in Lebanon in 2012, the war in Syria was raging on, and the situation in Beirut was volatile too. I started getting flashbacks to 1991 and thought, ‘What if I do something about the war that I lived through, that people don’t talk about anymore?'” said Al Qadiri.
“When I was very young, right after the war, I watched a film by Werner Herzog, Lessons of Darkness, featuring the burning oil fields from a helicopter, scored with Wagner music, presented as an Armageddon, with text about the fictional end of the world. Although I love some elements of his work now, this docufiction made me really angry and I couldn’t forgive him.” In an interview with Griot Mag, Al Qadiri elaborated on the 1992 film: “As a child, you don’t understand what docufiction is. I just felt that this German man was making up stories about ‘our’ war, and it was all based on lies. I was so upset, I had no idea who he was but I remembered being this very angry child. I had that irritated and frustrated reaction that I couldn’t get rid of.”
In conversation with Bali, Al Qadiri shared that Herzog’s film and the “God perspective” he used to tell the story was the driving factor for Behind the Sun. “I decided to make my own film, to present how the events actually unfolded, from my own experience. I found a photographer, Adil Al Yousifi, who took 25,000 photos of the burning oil fields and he had shaky VHS footage of him approaching the fire from a road, which I used in the film.”
“As a child in war, you don’t understand what’s going on,” said Al Qadiri. Perhaps making the 2013 film was her way of making sense of things, as an adult, processing what she lived through as a child. “After making this film, I started to think of oil as a character in my life, a jinn spirit. I started to think of myself as a post-oil baby. In the Gulf, there is a pre-oil world and a post-oil world—in the “pre” times, my grandfather was a singer on a pearl diving boat. This is our heritage and history. It was very distant from me, almost like fiction, that men would go out for six months at a time to fish for pearls.”
Behind the Sun was also the impetus for Al Qadari’s future work: “I started to address the disconnection between the before and after oil. I realized that both pearls and oil have an iridescent quality that is similar. So I made an art piece—a three-ton oil drill bit juxtaposed next to old diving boats. I am represented in the oil drill bit, and the boats signify my grandfather.” She strongly believes that oil is going to collapse. “I am making these sculptures to mourn the oil, as a tragic character, when it inevitably leaves.”
Catch Behind the Sun at DARC until May 20, free and open to the public Monday to Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.