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Arabian-American Bonafide Sorceress: Q&A With Fatima Al Qadiri

Photo by Dom Smith.

There are artists and then there are artistic polymaths: creative spirits working in the manner of scientists, their work exploratory in theme and clever in its ability to question and reshape broad notions. Born in Senegal, raised in Kuwait, and based in New York, Fatima Al Qadiri dexterously recontextualizes both Eastern and Western socioculturalism through various means as composer, performer, visual artist, and writer of Dis Magazine‘s weekly Global.wav column. In short, she’s a bonafide sorceress.

As Ayshay, which means “whatever” in Arabic, she’s recorded a mini-mix called Muslim Trance, a set of tracks sampling Sunni and Shi’ite prayer that are as much dance bangers as they are meditations. Arguably her most well-known project to date, it represents just a small part of her palette.

Ayshay: Muslim Trance Mini-Mix

With Lyndsy Welgos and Khalid Al Gharaballi, she filmed Yelwa, a deconstructed take on a traditional Kuwaiti ceremony of the same name, with Lauren Boyle she published Pâté, a book documenting Kuwaiti style and decadence. Her youth during the Gulf War is a powerful informant of her work; she recorded her first melody on a keyboard at age nine, immediately following Kuwait’s liberation. The tune was melancholy, a response to having recognized her mortality in the midst of the destruction.

The link Al Qadiri establishes between modernity, religious traditionalism and a contemporary image of the Arabian Gulf are clear, but this is just one concept of many. Lest one tether her work too tightly to her cultural background, her other musical projects (CHLDRN, Future Brown, and the “symphonic diet rave” she created for fashion designer Telfar Clemens’ show) are emblematic of varied influences: the soundtracks of 8-bit video games she played as a child, the Russian classical music so loved by her father, the electro-classical scores she made in college. Her interest in the deconstruction of ideology inspired her upcoming album on UNO, Genre Specific Xperience. Each track belongs to an indeed specific dance genre, defying typical, arbitrary categorization and is accompanied by music videos created by genre-defying contemporary filmmakers like Ryan Trecartin, emphasizing the project’s holistic nature. The release party and screening will be held at The New Museum in NYC this October.

We spoke to Ms. Al Qadiri about her childhood, influences, and what she’s up to now.

Cover of Pâté.

The Creators Project: Tell me about your musical background.
Fatima Al Qadiri:
I started making music when I was nine—that’s when I first made a melody, on a Casio keyboard. This was in 1991, immediately after the liberation of Kuwait. I had experienced a lot of trauma by that time. Toward its end, the invasion was like living in a sci-fi movie: the wholesale destruction of the country, the burning of the oil wells, the day sky that was black. I had my first existential moment—I felt my mortality and knew I had to live like this could be my last day on earth. You know, this was the first time American military used anti-aircraft tracer fire, which are these green laser beams flashing through the sky.

This was the first time they ever used it?
Yeah, for a full-scale war operation. I had not seen Star Wars, but I felt like I saw the real Star Wars. It felt like the apocalypse. During the whole invasion, I was playing video games excessively and listening to their soundtracks. We were indoors all the time—it wasn’t safe for kids to hang out outside, so we spent a lot of time in our own imaginative worlds. I was listening to these concise, eight-bit melodies in the games and looking at all that imagery—the real and unreal, my environmental scenery and the video games. And I started to make music immediately after the liberation. They were melancholy melodies, minor keys. I was basically making these little soundtracks and they started to become more elaborate until my memory started to fail me and I had to record them on tape. My younger sister, Monira, who is an amazing visual artist, was also composing. We would have these very entertaining composition battles. I always feel like competition and gentle sibling rivalry is…

Healthy?
Yes, it was very healthy. We pooled our pocket money to buy keyboards and game consoles. At some point, she started making comic books and I would make soundtracks for them. They were very bombastic. My parents had gone to grad school in Moscow, and my father was listening to a lot of Russian classical music at the time. That would be on in the background while I was making these drawings: Rimsy-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky. My father has a vast record collection; he loves Cerrone, Grace Jones, anything. It’s very unusual for men of his generation to be listening to that music! They grew up in mud houses, drinking water from the well. It was a medieval existence. And the generation gap between me and my grandparents is, I feel, one of the largest generation gaps in world history. My parents saw the old, medieval Kuwait transition to private jets, Rolls Royces, luxury.

So your own music was influenced by your dad’s love of music?
I was definitely influenced by my father, by video games, and by the Gulf War. Another transition came when I was nineteen, when I did a year of contemporary composition at the University of Miami. That was my goal in life—to be a visual artist and composer of pseudo-classical music I could make on piano and keyboard. But I had not been trained; it was all instinctive and self-taught. When I tried to enroll, the professor told me you had to have a certain level of theory already because you had to hand in scores. I played him one of my compositions and asked if he could make his decision based on that. And he allowed me into the class! I was lucky because of computer technology. I used software that allowed you to play with a MIDI controller and a laptop and it would record the score for you. That course really helped me in realizing that what I was doing was kind of false, in a way, this pseudo-classical work.

I want to ask you about Yelwa, your reinterpretation of the wedding ceremony. Why did you pick this particular tradition?
Khalid [Al Gharaballi], Lyndsy Welgos and I wanted to do an all-male Yelwa ceremony, because it’s traditionally all-female. As a child, I thought it was so magical. I had never actually witnessed one in real life; they’ve become rare, as it is a traditional ceremony and Kuwait has become more globalized. The bride and the mullaya, which is a female cleric, sit face-to-face under a cloth held by one woman at each corner. It’s fanned up and down to remove the evil eye and evil spirits from the bride immediately before she consummates her marriage. I was fascinated with the idea of ceremonial language and how arbitrary ceremonial language is. To make this idea more pronounced, we replaced Kuwaiti women with blonde, Aryan men, dressed in Arab clothing, with the exception of the bride. He is naked except for the thob, which is worn by the bride, and underwear. We did this to emphasize the notion that the bride is going to consummate the marriage after the ceremony.

Yelwa by Fatima Al Qadiri, Lyndsy Welgos and Khalid Al Gharaballi.

Tell me about your lecture with Khalid in collaboration with Dis Magazine—“Going Over: The Social Dimensions of Men’s Hairstyling in Kuwait and Beyond.” You presented it in Dubai, and I understand it’s about changing ideas of masculinity in Kuwait—traditionalism juxtaposed with boys’ contemporary hairstyles.
Well, Khalid’s and my interests, like most of our work, almost always stems from what we’ve seen in the mall.

From the Bored series (2007).

Why the mall?
That is where trends become visible, or where they’re born. We started seeing this particular age group of boys with this Dragon Ball Z hair, and we were just like, “Who is behind this? What is their reference point?” We wrote the lecture in collaboration with Dis Magazine. I did a field study—I went through specific malls in Kuwait trying to ask young men about their hair. It proved very difficult, but I got more concrete information by interviewing barbers in Kuwait. It’s interesting because, if you look at men’s hair in the Gulf in the early twentieth century, it’s long. Their sideburns were braided. It’s very interesting how it went from that to this extremely short style or shaved heads, à la Vin Diesel. Vin Diesel is a huge pop [culture] figure in Kuwait.

Really? Vin Diesel?
Big time. R&B and pop stars, too—a lot of African-American music is extremely popular in Kuwait. So the shaved head look was very macho. And then, suddenly, this really bizarre trend started happening, and it’s all because of David Beckham. He is the one that started this trend we were seeing. But because of the way the internet filters images, these trends are always several years late. The boys in Kuwait were looking at old imagery, and that haircut captured their imagination. In Iran, it became illegal; the government issued a catalog of acceptable haircuts for men. In Kuwait, it was never a legal issue.

You just mentioned that certain trends arrive to Kuwait several years late, having gone through multiple layers. Can you tell me about how that happened with goth subculture there, too? You examined this in Goth Gulf Visual Vortex with Khalid.
The manifestation of goth subculture in Kuwait kind of happened simultaneously with the growth of tabloid journals that were obsessed with the idea of Satan worship and elements of evil spirits in the country. It began as early as the nineties, but it gained more prominence with the proliferation of Twilight and internet imagery of these melancholic subjects—pop melancholy or cyber melancholy. Religiously-inclined tabloid journalists started lambasting goth culture as being equivalent to Satan worship.

Sharshabila from the Dragas series (2009), with Khalid Al Gharaballi.

Why did you choose to discuss this aspect of the culture?
All of our work is about stylistic trends—whether via the internet or through organic channels. We deal with these trends through a queer lens.

The description of Goth Gulf Visual Vortex also mentions the Muslim belief in evil spirits.
That always captured my imagination as a child. I was fascinated by the Muslim belief in evil spirits, Jinn. The word “genie” comes from the singular, Arabic term, Jinni. The genie in a bottle is an evil spirit in a bottle. Ever since I was a child, there were all these stories about Jinn being seen everywhere. It’s a taboo subject because it’s believed to be real. I’ve always been fascinated with it because I feel that the Gulf is an extremely haunted, haunting environment—these low-lying buildings with an arid climate. There’s nowhere to go; you just have the horizon and desert. I feel their presence!

You dressed up as one in one of your photo series, Specter.
I was trying to visualize them in the context of these abandoned, post-war landscapes and interiors. You can actually see them at any time, in any given context. It doesn’t have to be a typically haunted place—the word for “haunted” in Arabic is maskoon, which means “lived in,” so they’re spiritual inhabitants of the location. I just felt like these abandoned, un-restored locations in Kuwait lent themselves to an imaginative storyline of spiritual inhabitation.

From Spector (2006)

I like the idea that it doesn’t have to be a “haunting,” that they can be anywhere.
Yes, it’s funny; I’m not afraid of ghosts when I’m outside of the Gulf. It just doesn’t seem like they would appear to me. But in Kuwait, even in my own home, I’ll look behind my shoulder or have trouble sleeping because I feel so frightened! My imagination really runs astray.

I want to go back to what we were discussing earlier: your reinterpretation of the Muslim tradition. Can you talk to me about your upcoming album and Ayshay?
I began that project in 2009. I was going through some kind of internal crisis and felt that my music had become stagnant. I had never experimented with my voice before and I wanted to use it as an instrument. I was fascinated with this notion of acapella as instrumentation for music, because, by religious decree, Muslims were not allowed to use instruments. These anthems are meant to be like pop soundtracks for the faithful. There are two kinds: the prayers of the Shiite sect that occur once a year during the holy month of Muharram, and the Sunni acapella anthems, which are more uplifting. I made the first Muslim Trance track in 2009, where I used the sacred acapella and added music to it for Telfar [Clemens]’s fashion show.

“Corpcore” by Fatima Al Qadiri; Video: Ryan Trecartin and Rhett LaRue; Produced in collaboration with TELFAR for the presentation/installation of his Spring 2011 collection.

Tell me about your other upcoming musical projects.
The next record that comes out will be released a month after the Ayshay record. It’s under my name, and the EP is called Genre Specific Xperience. It’s about the expression of genre in the music industry and how record labels today—especially independent record labels—curate their sound through this idea of genre, and how they’re very particular about the sound that they curate. This also exists in the way galleries curate their artists. I wanted to begin a conversation about this, especially focusing on the idea that if you want to make a record that’s releasable on a label, all the tracks have to fit into a certain genre. So the record is made up of my to and reinterpretation of five distinct genres of dance music.

What are they?
Dubstep, hip-hop, juke, electro-tropicalia and Gregorian trance, which are all very random and arbitrary. It’s coming out on UNO. I told the label owner that I wanted each track to have an accompanying video that’s a reinterpretation of the visual language of the musical genre. It’s a holistic project, a giant collaboration. I specifically approached artists working in film rather than music video producers so that each video would relate to the conceptual framework of the record. Ryan Trecartin already made one of the videos. The record cover is being made by another artist, Daniel Keller of AIDS-3D. I was so lucky to find a label that respected my vision of this record.

Can you tell me anything else about you’re working on?
I’m working on Muslim Trance 2. It’s a continuation of the initial Muslim Trance, but instead of making it into an uninterrupted mix, it’s going to be updated, individual tracks. I’m simultaneously working on Future Brown, too, which is me, Venus Iceberg X of GHE20 GOTH1K, and Asma Maroof of Nguzunguzu. We’re three brown girls, but that’s the simplified, literal meaning of the name. Solomon Chase, the editor and creator of Dis, invented a color two summers ago called Future Brown. It’s a metallic shade of brown that doesn’t exist in nature. I like that concept a lot.

Fatima Al Qadiri (Ayshay) performing “Shaytan” in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during No Soul For Sale.

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