Fatima Al Qadiri talks to Sohrab Golsorkhi

Text by Sohrab Golsorkhi

Photography by Lyndsy Welgos

Fatima Al Qadiri is an artist and musician who lives and works in New York. She was born in Senegal and grew up in Kuwait. Al Qadiri's visual work deals with aspects of Kuwaiti culture through photography, video and installation. The Mendeel Um A7mad installation, produced in collaboration with Khalid al Gharaballi for The Arab Fund for Art and Culture earlier this year, investigates "Chai Dhaha", a tea ritual popular among middle-aged Kuwaiti women. Al Qadiri's music, though, is more directly influenced by western culture. Last year's Genre-Specific Xperience EP reinterpreted five sub-genres of dance music.

Fatima Al Qadiri talks to Sohrab Golsorkhi about being an alien, the trouble with pseudonyms and the story behind her forthcoming album Desert Strike, released this autumn.

Sohrab Golsorkhi I first came across your music and later found out about the work as a visual artist. Do you see a distinction between your work as a musician and composer and what you do as a visual artist?
Fatima Al Qadiri I'd say the distinction is that one is more Kuwaiti, the artwork, and one is less Kuwaiti, the music.

SG What then makes parts of your work more or less Kuwaiti?
FAQ I mean it literally. One is more readily recognised as emerging from Kuwaiti culture while the other less so. The majority of my work stems from investigating a given aspect of Kuwaiti culture. In the case of music, my stylistic influences are largely western.

SG How did you start out making art and music? What came first?
FAQ I started making music shortly after the war early in '91. As far as artwork, I drew profusely as a child but really didn't make anything worth considering until 2006. My mother is an artist and her studio was at our happy disposal. I studied linguistics because it was the only scholarship offered in New York City by Kuwait's Ministry of Education at the time. It was a random but enlightening choice. It radically altered my understanding of language, particularly its covert functions in society, which naturally would affect my work. Although, to be frank, I was much more influenced by a couple of art and music composition courses I took than by studying linguistics.

SG Why did you decide to release the WARN-U EP (constructed entirely from samples of her own voice) under the name Ayshay?
FAQ Ayshay, meaning "whatever" in Arabic, was purposely chosen for that project. It was loaded with religious undertones, so I had to self-deprecate from the outset. The more I try to control the number of pseudonyms I go by, the more I want.

SG Do you have a favourite pseudonym?
FAQ I have a bad relationship with words so a favourite pseudonym would imply a favourite set of words - I don't have one.

SG You live in New York, but your work is still very much about the place you grew up in and especially topics relating to being a woman in Kuwait. Can you tell me about your relationship to where you are from? I'm assuming you consider yourself Kuwaiti (despite being born in Dakar)...
FAQ Well, I wouldn't say any of my artwork has to do with being a woman in Kuwait. I'm much more fascinated by gender as performance, and by that I mean all genders.

SG How do you divide your time these days? Do you still spend time in Kuwait? How are you and your work received there?
FAQ I go to Kuwait about once a year, sometimes twice. I go solely for work, whether to produce and/or exhibit. I'd say the last work produced with my main visual collaborator, Khalid Al Gharaballi, had a wider appeal than any of our previous work. I genuinely feel like an alien in Kuwait. I'm finally coming to appreciate the advantages of that feeling. It's a tiny art scene over there, with very few players. I have as many fans as I do enemies, so the reactions are anything but boring.

SG What are the benefits of being an alien, besides the spaceships and bulging eyes obviously?
FAQ The benefit is you can assume the role of outsider. You can pass undetected through a maze of social mores, particularly in public spaces. In private spaces, however, the reverse is true. The benefits of being an insider greatly surpass those of an alien.

SG You frequently work in collaboration with other artists, whether it's to create music videos or, as you mentioned earlier, with Khalid al Gharaballi on your most recent video installation. Is this something you consciously seek to do? Or do you simply consider this the most normal and natural way to work?
FAQ When you work with the right people, it's so much fun. It's not about what is the norm in work methods, that's a given. Working with Khalid, in particular, has been rewarding in every possible way. Producing work in Kuwait is a manic adventure. In New York it's different; it's a safe, easy atmosphere. Everything is straightforward here.

SG The set of videos you made to accompany Genre-Specific Xperience have a coherent feel to them even though each was made by a different artist. How much influence did you have? As someone who operates as a visual artist as well, it must have been tricky to pass on the responsibility?
FAQ As the record was rooted in a fixed conceptual framework, I met with each artist and guided them towards what I envisioned. They weren't natural collaborations, more like commissions. But they felt like collaborations because it was between friends and peers. As the record was heavily based on the notion of interpreting genre, each video was the artist's interpretation of my interpretation, i.e. exactly what I wanted.

SG In another online interview you talk about your experience growing up in Kuwait in the '90s being surrounded by this great wealth; women walking around in couture and this shared experience with the west via the products people were consuming. As I've been living for 18 months in Shanghai, where there is an emerging consumer class,it struck a chord with me. Do you feel critical of it?
FAQ I'm less interested in consumer culture as a phenomenon, more in the spreading of global trends via consumer culture. How trends trickle down in an incalculable, abstract manner the further they're removed from the source. I understand that consumerism will end up killing us and this planet if we're not careful - that's the sad and critical part.

SG So do you seek to control this trickling down effect in any way through your work? Is it even possible or desirable?
FAQ The point is to explore and investigate the results of the trickle down effect. I don't think it's possible or desirable to control it.

SG You write a column for DIS magazine on world music. I've also read a piece you wrote in Bidoun about Egyptian music, and you write about Bulgarian and Nigerian music too. Where do you find it all?
FAQ It's all on YouTube. You just need to be curious enough to search for Bulgarian or any other country's music. I stopped going to record shops years ago.

SG What are you working on at the moment?
FAQ Most of my time now is spent on finishing up my next record, Desert Strike. It's an homage to terror and child-like wonder, the strategies of imagination and gaming, based on my experience of the first Gulf War.

SG You mention growing up during the first Gulf War. What effect do you think this had on you?
FAQ It's an eerie sensation, surviving an apocalypse. At the end of the war, Kuwait was decimated, reduced to rubble and burning oil fires. Visually speaking, it was stunning. Total destruction is an awesome sight. I was a kid, nine years old. It all looked really sci-fi from my perspective (and height).

SG Your website is quite amazing. Did you make it yourself?
FAQ Thank you. The website was my concept but all the credit - realising, refining and programming - goes squarely  to Nick Scholl. Without him, it wouldn't even exist.

SG Finally, I notice you don't have an FAQ section on the site. What would be in your Frequently Asked Questions section if you had one?
FAQ God, I need a FAQ... That's another potential pseudonym, obviously. The funny thing is, I never remember FAQs. I'm really forgetful when it comes to tedious things like that. Having a desired FAQ is pretty narcissistic though. I'm no agony aunt. In fact, why would anyone want to ask me anything aside from, "Do you own any camels?" Answer: "Yes, four to be exact!" §

Desert Strike is released on Fade To Mind this autumn. 


  • Fatima Al Qadiri