I first discovered Abdullah al Mutairi, an artist from Kuwait but studying in NYC, online on an art competition hosted by 89+ and DIS magazine, called DIScrit. Dubbing its contestants #YoungerThanRihanna, the contest aimed to promote work from artists born in and after 1989 and expose their work to critics, curators, and other young artists. True to its intent, I discovered a community of artists from the competition, including Abdullah, who were interested in concepts and mediums that were generally ignored by the greater art world. Abdullah’s work especially touched on issues and representations that were generally not acknowledged by the art world in the Gulf but were part of the reality of the culture.
Throughout the summer, I had the opportunity of e-mailing Abdullah and talking to him about his work. By this time, we had swapped places across the globe. I sat in a small apartment in East Williamsburg typing away at questions, while he was back home in Kuwait City capturing shots on his instagram. The GCC, an artists collective of which he is a member, had just opened a show in March at the MoMA PS1, and in mid-July they brought the aesthetic environment of the Emirates Palace to the New Museum for the show, Here and Elsewhere.
Now, his work travels across the globe again. GCC: Achievements In Retrospective is on view at Sharjah Art Foundation from October 11 to December 10.
Emily Wang: You’ve been featured on DIS magazine, a “post-Internet lifestyle magazine,” and your video work certainly is familiar to the digital art form. When you think about your contemporaries in the art world, do you see yourself aligned more with Arab artists or with other digital art/video-focused artists? Is there much crossover?
Abdullah al-Mutairi: There really isn’t much crossover, but given our tech entrenched environment in the Gulf you’d think there would be. The main problem I have with art in the Gulf, or what is considered “serious art” here, is that it seems a big percentage of it is produced for and to appease a western influenced audience, heritage pop art calligraphy and the like. I’m proud of my lineage but that doesn’t mean I have to produce neon sedu or easily digestible “local” work informed by an insidious orientalist agenda. I feel that the Gulf mutation of the Internet for me was a porthole to the underbelly of the Gulf I knew, an extremely creative side that I felt was rarely taken seriously because it didn’t follow either mainstream or “indie” western forms that would distinguish it as “art.” It’s not that I believe that technology and the internet are innately superior or interesting but they reflect the current status quo of existence in the Gulf.
EW: What are you working on now and what direction are you moving towards?
AM: Previously I was more focused on personal parts of identity, such as gender and sexuality, and the impact of technology and the internet on the development of liminal identities.
Recently, especially since meeting the other members of GCC, I’ve been interested in the effect of external influences on identity development — in particular the impact of corporate branding and nationalistic propaganda on the Gulf individual and group selves.
Screenshot from AD3 by Abdullah al Mutairi for Global Art Forum_7
EW: When talking about liminal identities, I end up thinking about the advent of the internet age and a rise of new values, especially when you see older generations criticizing the “soullessness” or social ineptitude of the our generation. One artist I look up to called the Internet the new “Wild Wild West,” where basically there are no established rules yet.
AM: I don’t think the Internet is necessarily free of ritual, but it’s definitely opened us up to a global public space. I don’t know of an area elsewhere in the world where the communication capabilities of the internet have been stretched farther than in the Gulf — you have a large percentage of people with one two three or more different emails phones profiles and identities separated for either family members friends or other. This sort of segmentation of personality could be interpreted as “inauthenticity,” but I think that’s bullshit. This type of fluid existence undermines the old western ideal of the “true self” — we’re past that. Why be one person when you can be all people?
EW: You also talk about the effect of external influences on identity development, especially corporate branding and nationalistic branding.
AM: These types of branding … tend to rely on heartstring tugging to get you to align yourself with an idea/lifestyle/group. … I’ve been interested in Gulf nationalistic anthems aimed at children and how pop music video clichés, catchy tunes nonsensical repetitive lyrics etc, are used to reinforce pride in being born in one of the Gulf states.
On the other hand you have corporate entities subtly reinforcing this link between them and deep parts of identity such as religion. We all notice the sudden shift in pious commercials come Ramadan, but then you have things like prayer stools with corporate logos given out to all mesjids in the area. It’s reminiscent of the popular political position of aligning oneself with a higher power to be “allowed” to push an agenda while at the same time being able to denounce any resistance as apostasy.
Photo of recent work, courtesy of Abdullah al-Mutairi
EW: My background is pretty multicultural — I was born in North America to Chinese immigrants — and now I’m living in Abu Dhabi. I’m certainly not rich enough nor old enough nor “white” enough to fit into the adult expat community, which can be very isolated from these efforts of nationalistic branding and completely separated from other groups. Expat life vs. migrant life vs. Gulf life, they all seem to have huge gaps in between each other. Living abroad and part of the creative class, if I may call you so, how do you fit into this new fragmented culture in the Gulf states?
AW: Class and representation are important here. There’s so much that goes unquestioned in the formulation of what we perceive to be normal or business-as-usual to us, particularly when it involves cultures outside or on the fringe of globalized western culture. I wouldn’t describe Gulf culture as fragmented, though I could understand how it would be perceived that way. In a sense it’s as if groups exist in parallel universes that occupy the same space — you need to know someone in a particular universe to see how that faction lives.
I come from a biracial/bicultural background as well — white New Englander mom and dad with Gulf tribal background, and up until I met the other members of GCC I had barely known anything about the upper or creative classes of Kuwait. My thoughts were a mix of Arabic and English and I found it hard to relate to other kids who for the most part thought in only one language. Even those kids from biracial backgrounds seemed to always have “modern” dads — a biting term used to [differentiate] the lineage of “city dwellers” from the “Bedouins.” It’s likely these early feelings of “not-fitting-in” have fueled my eventual distrust/interest in those who strongly identify with a label.
Why be one person when you can be all people?
EW: Do you think going to public school has influenced your work in any way? From what I understand, Kuwait has one of the most private schools per capita in the world.
AM: In hindsight going to public school was probably my most formative experience to date. I resented being in public school while going through it but I’m extremely grateful for that experience now. It’s allowed me to relate to and identify with margins of society that I probably wouldn’t have been able to otherwise as an English school outsider.
I don’t think I’ve met anyone who went to a private school whose knee jerk reaction wasn’t: “Oh you went to PUBLIC school? How was THAT?” It makes me wonder what type of sheltered bubble existence it takes to be so disconnected from local reality. It’s typically those types who sneer at things like public health hospitals, co-op grocery stores, etc., but love orientalist shit like Rick Owens or his Gulf protege Thamanya. If you wouldn’t be caught dead in local wear why would you drape yourself in outsider imitations? That’s a major problem for me — this perception that anything local isn’t really valuable until a western institution points it out and serves it to you.
EW: Considering your answer about the audience for your work, creating work that validates the non-binary existence, how is it different having an exhibit in NYC, like PS1 and New Museum in comparison to in Kuwait and the Emirates? Do you or the GCC prioritize having work shown in the gulf?
EW: Of course we’d all rather be physically showing in the Gulf, but it’s not that easy … There are only a few galleries interested and only so much they can do on their own to support us.
But that’s where the internet comes in for me — it’s not really about me directly confronting an audience but uploading things and letting people discover things that have been circulating and mutating … online. There’s one particular image I created years ago — one of my best friends in a niqab made out of shima’3 material, and I love randomly happening upon a mutation of the image on some Saudi blog or other — I’ve seen it a few times on Gulf comedy insta[gram]s with different hilarious captions.. I feel that’s more validating — finding/altering something you think relates to you instead of being spoon fed someone else’s perspective.
EW: This “finding something that relates to you,” I think, is perhaps the entire basis of an internet community, why Tumblr can be so important.
AM: As a platform I think tumblr is powerful. Sure, it can be very superficial but it’s crazy to me to see Gulf kids on there reblogging kids in the US using terms like cisgender and preferred gender pronouns — it can be very empowering.
But the lack of diversity in this sort of global-teen-citizen sphere is noticeable — especially a few years ago when the “burka” aka 3abbah/niqab/7jaab became very trendy — you see the difference between those who can actually relate that to real life experiences and beliefs and those who see it as another kitschy trend that’s “sort of hilarious.” The ability to relate doesn’t flow both ways. But that’s who I’m trying to address: the Gulf kids who acknowledge but aren’t fully acknowledged.
That’s a major problem for me — this perception that anything local isn’t really valuable until a western institution points it out and serves it to you.
EW: What was the first moment you decided you were going to be an artist?
AM: I never really had that Oprah a-ha moment, but I think that’s important to admit. The label of “artist” is pretty archaic to begin with — who really is just “an artist”? does anybody have enough time to be that indulgent?! probably — but I can’t relate to that. I don’t remember a time I wasn’t thinking about liminality, even without having the knowledge of terms — I grew up using a computer and that’s what made sense for me to continue using. I did have a period where I wished I painted but then I thought … lol why?
I do remember one moment where I really felt validated and excited — 2011, while watching the premiere of “How Can I Resist U” during Fatima’s “Genre-Specific Xperience” release party at the New Museum: the double whammy of Sophia Al-Maria’s visuals and Fatima Al Qadiri’s music had me teary! I think I’ve had that song on repeat almost every time I’ve been to the avenues mall.
EW: Do you have any advice for people who want to devote their life to making art, following their ideas and going through with it?
AM: I wish I had advice to give! I’m still trying to figure out if I can live off it myself. I’m privileged to be able to currently work on my own stuff while studying on a governmental scholarship, but once that’s up it’s time to face reality. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to live that artistes lifestyle you imagine in your head to be able to produce work — it’s pretty delusional and very westernized anyway. I think as long as you have something to convey you’ll find a way — there’s no one way to “success.”
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]