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Issue 211

Monira Al Qadiri’s Desert Mythology

The artist’s exhibition at Haus der Kunst, Munich, examines empirical uncertainty and political disillusionment 

BY Hanno Hauenstein in EU Reviews , Reviews | 20 MAR 20

‘Holy Quarter’, Kuwaiti artist Monira Al Qadiri’s exhibition at Haus der Kunst, explores the manifold myths of the desert and its creation. The heart of the show is the eponymous video, which starts with the narrator saying ‘we are Wabar’: a reference to the Wabar meteorite craters in the desert region known as the ‘Empty Quarter’ that covers parts of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen. The work is narrated from the perspective of Wabar pearls: glittering, black stones created when the meteorites hit the sand.

Monira Al Qadiri, ‘Holy Quarter’, 2019, installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Maximilian Geuter

In the film, a drone captures the dunes and rock formations while the narrator tells the story of the craters’ discovery, which it describes as ‘a disturbance during sleep’ – a somewhat ironic footnote considering the expedition’s colonial root. In 1932, the British explorer Harry St John Philby traversed the ‘Empty Quarter’, hoping to find the lost city of Ubar, which the Quran described as being destroyed by God. What he found instead were the craters, which he mistook for a volcano. Philby’s desire to bring home the desert’s riches finds a parallel in the oil industry, though the latter holds no regard for the region’s religious and historical significance.

Monira Al Qadiri, Holy Quarter, 2020, The Making Of. © Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Monira Al Qadiri

While the voice’s eerie, computer-simulated monotony sounds alien, the words themselves are poetic, seeming to come from both the future and the primeval past: ‘We are a body of dust, merging and dancing in bursts of heat and atomic love.’ In comic self-awareness, the narrator describes the meteorite’s impact as a calling: ‘This land reached out to us.’ Their evocation of mythology is heightened by the choral music in the background, composed by the artist’s sister, Fatima Al Qadiri. The sense of the pearls’ sacred origin is reinforced by the 46 black, blown-glass sculptures that lie scattered and subtly illuminated in front of the screen (‘Wabar Pearls’, 2020).

In her works, Al Qadiri often accentuates the iridescence of materials, which take on an organic quality in contrast with her use of functional forms. This is most striking in ‘Alien Technology’ (2014–19), a series of sculptures formed like drill bits. One of these pieces is installed in the foyer of Haus der Kunst; standing three-metres tall with serrated edges, and a shimmery black surface that resembles oil, it feels like a violent presence. The connection between petroleum and the pearl – both of which appear repeatedly in Al Qadiri’s work – can be found in the history of Kuwait: before oil was discovered there in 1938, the country’s main industry was pearl diving.

Monira Al Qadiri, ‘Holy Quarter’, 2019, installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Maximilian Geuter

The colours in Holy Quarter also change and meander. The opening scene shows the desert submerged in a Mars-like shade of red. Elsewhere, the drone leaves the bird’s-eye view and zooms in on a mauve-coloured oasis. Al Qadiri’s otherworldly imagery is reminiscent of films like Andrei Tarkowsky’s Solaris (1972) and Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992). They, too, show alien strangeness via real-life imagery.

‘Beware,’ warns Wabar towards the end of the video, ‘for the earth grows thirsty and is ruptured by disease.’ Like a prophetic angel, the mythical pearls insinuate a dystopian future: one shaken by drought and virus, into which we are being propelled. But Wabar offers a way out: ‘Let us choose a different fate,’ the voice says, while the camera rotates hypnotically towards the crater. ‘Kiss us. Worship us. And you needn’t fear.’ It’s an escapist alternative, which favours religious fetishism over the real – and thus feels strangely indicative of our times.

Monira Al Qadiri, ‘Holy Quarter’ is on view at Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 21 June 2020.

Main Image: Monira Al Qadiri, Holy Quarter, 2020, film still.  Courtesy and ©: the artist; photograph: Monira Al Qadiri

Hanno Hauenstein is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. He is founder and editor of the Hebrew-German arts journal aviv Magazine.