Art

A Kuwaiti Artist Contemplates the Failure of a Museum that Never Opened

Alia Farid, for her first show in Paris, uses the graphic look of conceptual art to fashion an installation that explores a museum’s failure.

Alia Farid, “3 Burqas” (2017) silkscreen print, 87 x 116 cm (all images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Imane Farès)

PARIS — Galerie Imane Farès maintains a conspicuous and valuable niche within the Paris art scene, showcasing contemporary art from West Asia and southern Africa. Madame Farès strikes again with her show of artist-researcher Alia Farid, who is based in Kuwait (historically a gateway between East and West) and Puerto Rico. Farid’s enquiry-heavy works “act from the peripheral” (as she told me) and tilt towards the post-conceptual, postcolonial and autobiographical. Specifically, Between Dig and Display, her first show in Paris, scrutinizes the connotation of display within aniconic societies.

Generally, Farid works on the sensitive subject of unreconciled values. To address this issue she functions as cultural arbitrageur; creating acts of interpolation and assemblage, such as her “Monument to the Creative, Local, Informal Economy” (2008), a work of sculpture, video, and Islamic prayer rugs embroidered with images of Caribbean mosques.

Installation view of Between Dig and Display

In this show she uses the graphic look of conceptual art to fashion an installation that explores a museum’s failure. The installation, taken as a whole, probes a selection of material and documentation found in storage of the never-completed Kuwait National Museum. Bombed and plundered during the Iraqi invasion of 1990, the deserted, unfinished museum lost many of its historic and contemporary artifacts: Mesopotamian sculptures, slippers, coins, earthen pitchers, and such. Farid’s show draws from the archival ruins and records of this kitty: for example, with the image of a clay mother goddess (an image-concept that is problematic within Islamic fundamentalism) called “Untitled” (2017). It is essentially a 1985 record of two Assyrian goddess artifacts with severed limbs and head unearthed at Failaka Island — made poignant in light of recent ISIS beheadings. Such images contain a black and white rod set alongside the unearthed matter that provides the reader with a sense of scale. This rod has been recreated by the artist and placed throughout the installation to good effect, recalling to mind the bâton that the insouciant French conceptual artist André Cadere ubiquitously utilized in the 1970s.

Alia Farid, archival photograph, 72 x 92 cm part of the installation Between Dig and Display, 2017

The conceptual point of Between Dig and Display, it seems to me, is that culture is born out of exchanges and thrives on perceived differences. So a Kuwaiti national culture (or any national culture) is a self-contradiction. On the other hand, multiculturalism is a redundant pleonasm. The end of any culture lies in self-obsession and isolationism. So living cultures always require something between (and beyond) these two polar ideals.

Farid’s betweenness stems from her working in the gap between art, architecture, and urban anthropology — with an eye for demonstrating how informal networks are forced to make up for lack of formal structures. Thus, her work, as she is herself, is much harder to pin down, and it and she join in what Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls in Cannibal Metaphysics the “permanent exercise in the decolonization of thought.”

Details ofBetween Dig and Display (below) photograph of where the artist lived during her childhood, (architect Georges Candilis), 50 x 56 cm ; (above) cotton bag with ceramic reproduction of the artist’s toy

Born of a Puerto Rican architect mother and Kuwaiti architect father in 1985, Farid obtained a Master in Visual Studies degree from M.I.T. and one in museum studies from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona. So, her cerebral chops are unimpeachable. But I also really like the way she boldly mixes in narcissism-free autobiographical material here — like the white, cotton net-bag embracing a pale ceramic reproduction of Gumby, one of the artist’s childhood toys. This is hung over a photograph of where she lived in Kuwait during her childhood. The addition of such personal detail woven seamlessly into the installation sets up a situation in which the mind vacillates between state narratives based on objective records and self-portraiture. Such vacillation opens up her life to unexpected, and novel creative potencies and territories.

Her show assembles disparate things and images, yet hangs together beautifully: unified in predominantly post-conceptual palette of black, white and gray. This unity of tone allows the artist to mix boldly ancient artifacts and new things, illustrating the ongoing mêlée within the social fabric of Kuwait. One of the best examples of this fracas is the hydra-spouted “Porcelain Teapot” (2017) painted with flowers and images of a mother and her child, with the mother’s face excluded. This exclusion alludes to the history of Persian miniature painting, where in order to sidestep the prohibition against actually depicting Mohammed, artists in Muslim societies sometimes showed him with his face blank. This way, it could be claimed that they never actually drew Mohammed — only his clothes. In that history we also find faceless Mohammeds who originally had faces which were later scratched out. This restriction on showing face was the preference of one of Farid’s female relatives, whose face has been removed on her request from “Untitled” (2017), a family photograph placed next to “Porcelain Teapot” that depicts Farid’s father having his hair shorn. Another semiotically rich work is the limestone sculpture “Lovely Gift from Blessed Land” (2017) that looks like a gas can, but is in fact a replica of a portable container of holy water. Also there are multiple versions of the silkscreen “3 Burqas” (2017) that haunts and amuses. The menacing but madcap imagery of free floating burqas struck something deep in me that may have to do with my juvenile passion for Mad magazine and recent events around Je suis Charlie.

Alia Farid, “”Porcelain Teapot” (2017) unique porcelain teapot

In the basement gallery I dipped into “Theatre of Operations (The Gulf War seen from Puerto Rico)” (2017) (excerpted here), a gurgling and wobbling four-hour video of unadulterated footage from 1990 and 1991 — the period when Farid’s family escaped the Gulf War in Kuwait and fled to Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, news reporters closely followed the family’s lives and the effect the vertiginous whirl of war had on them, turning their intense experiences into a proto-reality TV show something along the lines of An American Family. This spin of media attention paralleled the media attention that the Gulf War itself received: a war waged by coalition forces from 35 nations led by the United States against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait. Indeed the artist cited to me as influence on her work, Jean Baudrillard’s book of essays The Gulf War Did Not Take Place which makes the point that media representations made it hard to distinguish between the experience of what truly happened and its stylized simulacra. Excellent. The video also contains a segment where a Puerto Rican reporter goes to Kuwait after the war to interview relatives of the artist who stayed in the country, and interviewed Puerto Rican soldiers who participated in the liberation of Kuwait.

Alia Farid, mounted re-touched photograph, 29.7×42 cm, part of the installation <em>Between Dig and Display</em>, 2017
Alia Farid, mounted re-touched photograph, 29.7×42 cm, part of the installation Between Dig and Display, 2017

For Farid, the Gulf War changed the way the world absorbed images, and her video appropriation conveys the complexity of Western Asia’s political landscape from the vantage point of Puerto Rico, in its own subservient position to the United States. But even though the destruction of war is foregrounded, what I really appreciated about her show is how it pushes back against a lack of concern for heritage, a lack which is the salient feature of both war and neoliberal consumerism worldwide. The exhibition also suggests to me that the visibility of what can be desired, demanded or attended to, is arbitrarily autobiographical, and thus potentially meaningless to others. But, on the other hand, by publicly injecting her story into two national histories, she gives those nations additional meaning — just as they give meaning to her art. Finally, Farid’s work suggests that what the world requires now is not national cultures but cultured nations.

Between Dig and Display continues at Galerie Imane Farès (41, rue Mazarine, 6th arrondissement, Paris) through September 18 (except the month of August, when the gallery will be closed).

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