Somewhere between the internet, Kuwait, the dystopian future, and the club you will find the music and art of Fatima Al Qadiri
Fatima al Qadiri is kind of from the future. Specifically, she grew up in Kuwait, but, as she explains and illustrates in her music and art, the Kuwait of her childhood basically is the future. Most people in the 31 year-old’s generation experienced the first Gulf War through television news. She lived through it on the ground, playing video games with her sister to mentally escape the destruction that surrounded her home. At one point after the war she found herself addictively playing a Sega game called Desert Strike, a violent, thinly disguised cash-in on the real-life Operation Desert Storm.
Her new EP, also called Desert Strike, is inspired by that period. The songs are composed of sparse grime-inspired beats, threatening bass, artillery sound effects, and elliptical references to the music of the Arab World. With synths that evoke wide, gleaming surfaces and cavernous space, it’s futuristic and all the more disturbing for its sensual beauty.
Today, the Brooklyn-based electronic music composer, conceptual artist and Dis Magazine blogger occupies multiple locations in terms of cultural territory. She’s incorporated her music into performances at galleries and museums such as the Tate Modern, and her music videos are more of a second, visual, component to her music than they are promotional tools. But, these days, you might have an easier time catching her DJing in a club or, more, likely, encountering her work on the internet. To find out where this elusive artist is coming from we interviewed her about her work and influences and then broke it down.
I consider myself a conceptual artist, but the music is more emotional. It’s not something rational. I can try to package it and form it and give it my ideas and my narrative but the intent is not in the work. If somebody were to play a track and it just said “track one” how would they know it was from Desert Strike?
There’s a visual component to my work as well. But the visual side is more time consuming than the music side. In the past few years, I’ve done a couple of art projects a year and tried to record a record a year. So, that’s my basic agenda for the coming years. I’ve always done both and I just didn’t want to do one. Both of them are expressing my upbringing, really. The vast majority of the subject matter is Kuwaiti.
If it wasn’t for the internet, I might not have reached the kind of fans that I wanted to reach. I don’t know. It’s just changed everything. Everybody is talking about internet art and internet music, but it’s just missing the fact that the internet is our reality now. Our previous reality is no longer relevant or valid as far as cultural dissemination, distribution and consumption is concerned.
My father is a political activist, he was an ambassador. He’s just very much concerned with diplomacy, politics and protest. My mom is an artist. She’s a printmaker and a painter. And they both went to grad school in Moscow in the ’70s during communism, so they raised us with very radical ideas in comparison to the rest of the children at school.
It was a problem because we had a secular upbringing at home, which wasn’t the case at school. And we were always brought up to challenge authority, to be critical thinkers, just not to accept society as it is. That’s that house that I grew up in. And Kuwait is very much a tribal, status quo kind of environment. It’s a very secret kind of environment. If so much of my work is about my country it’s because it’s hidden, it’s covert. There’s not a lot of real information you can find out about it on the Internet.
For the people who live there now, the internet is doing amazing things. Everything is breaking down. You can see what it’s done for the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring wouldn’t have happened without the internet so it’s definitely influencing everything, but Kuwaiti society is still very very conservative.
Our biggest cultural export to the Arab world, and not to the west because still you have the language barrier, is our theater. Kuwaiti theater is well known and it’s all tragicomedy. I feel like there’s a tragicomic element to my visual work, but it also has a lot to do with when I was in college and I was obsessed with this class I took in linguistics that was about gender and language and gender and performance. I feel like that really affected me, but also, growing up in that kind of male dominated environment, as a girl with two sisters in an all-female household except my father, just being a young girl in Kuwait, knowing that you have all these disadvantages, it really fires you up.
Obviously there are a lot of beautiful things about being a woman, but I feel like I’ve had penis envy from birth, only because every time I go back to my country there are so many things I can’t do, so many places I can’t enter, I can’t access.
It’s an aesthetic borne of an environment and architecture. I’m not the one who coined the term, so this is my interpretation. The Gulf environment is super stark. It’s just horizon and earth. There’s no hills. There’s very little features in the environment. That already feels like you’re on the surface of another planet. And then Star Wars re-established deserts and dunes as being some kind of galactic location, so that already was embedded. For instance, Saddam was a huge fan of Star Wars. Part of his elite guard wore helmets that were designed according to Star Wars characters, which is crazy.
And then the architecture they brought in the ’70s, they brought Norwegian and Swedish, a lot of Scandinavian architects, and they made crazy buildings. If you can imagine, this Scandinavian vision of architecture in the middle of a desert. That inspired me. Our parliament building, for instance, is so futuristic. And you’re driving past that every time you go to the market, it’s on a major corridor.
For me partially, part of the futurism occurred during the bombing of Kuwait, the destruction that occurred, seeing the destruction of the country, experiencing that, seeing the weaponry, being in a zone where a working week didn’t exist, where working time didn’t exist. That was the future part for me.
I usually play rap mixed with an unrelated beat. I’ll play Kid Ink or Soulja Boy and I’ll have that track riding on another beat. That’s because I love rap music and that’s what I want to hear in the club right now. Rap is the most influential music in the world. For producers it is. You can find people making trap in Kuwait. I’ve just discovered some trap artists in Kuwait.
I’ve found grime very influential to me personally because I’ve had a close relationship to the UK from very early on. My family owned property there, so we would go there every summer and I went to a British private school in Kuwait. I’m an Anglophile because of my education, etcetera. So, when grime became relatively popular so that it traveled to the States (I was still a student at NYU at the time) I just found it immediately captivating. The beats were so futuristic and otherworldly. And then, in 2010 I met my best friend Jamie and he’s the grime encyclopedia and he introduced me to even more obscure and rare parts of grime. And that re-influenced me all over again. So that was a huge musical inspiration for the record.
I was talking about this to someone else, about how children didn’t feel themselves to be agents in the adult world and then found themselves as agents in the video game world. I developed the addiction during the invasion. It was because what was happening outside my door was so foreign and so alien, I turned to video games as the only way to pass time and not be concerned with what was happening outside, which was really surreal and bizarre and completely outside of my realm of understanding even. I couldn’t comprehend what was going on, because of my youth.
I was inspired by the darkness of the game. I wasn’t inspired by the soundtrack. Specifically, the Desert Strike. I just feel like that game crossed a boundary as far as marketing to children was concerned. This was not a game for kids. It was made for the military and games like that are still being made today that are being consumed by children. But this was the first of the games that were actually made for the military but were available to the public.
I don’t [play video games] because I associate it with depression and pain. The last time I played video games was when I was 16 and I’m 31 now, so it’s been awhile. Whenever someone is playing video games I feign interest and feign a smile but inside I just want to go away. It’s very dark for me. During the war and up until I was 16 I played video games manically and this is why I can’t play them anymore. I just associate them with very horrible times.