Cristiana de Marchi is an Italian-Lebanese visual artist, writer and poet who lives and works between Beirut and Dubai. Monira Al Qadiri is a Kuwaiti artist and filmmaker who was born in Senegal, educated in Japan, has lived and worked in Beirut and is currently based in Amsterdam. Their own lives are examples of how manmade territorial borders are becoming blurred, or shifting, and the Utopian vision of a nation state based on territorial sovereignty, economy, language, ethnicity and geography is being redefined in today’s globalised world. In a joint exhibition, “Melting the Sky”, the two artists contemplate changing concepts of nationhood, belonging and identity. While navigation and hence map-making once depended on the position of the stars in the sky, the artists have explored the possibility of melting the sky to redesign geography, and change past perceptions of peoples and places.
Al Qadiri focuses on her own legacy and identity as a Kuwaiti to reflect on the past and the future of oil economies in the region, whereas de Marchi’s more abstract approach extends the dialogue to a wider geographic context. The artworks in the show range from Al Qadiri’s poignant, pearlescent and barely visible silk screen print of a faded photograph of her grandfather, who was a singer on a pearl diving boat, to de Marchi’s evocative video of an ice sculpture of the word “FUTURE” slowly melting away. While one work speaks about a vanishing past, the other articulates our anxieties about the future as old ideas of nationhood and visual, collective or geographic identity seem to be melting away.
Al Qadiri’s flower-like sculptures from the “Flower Drill” series speak about the uncertainties of the future. “These sculptures are based on the shapes of oil drills, and this series is about taking a closer look at the inner workings of the oil economy. But I was also thinking that one day these drills may become obsolete and future generations will see them as strange, ancient relics, whose purpose they have no idea about. My grandfather’s image in the silk screen print similarly speaks about the pearl diving culture and pearl trade, which was the main economic driver before the discovery of oil in the region. During my research in pearl diving, I discovered that both oil and pearls have the same dichroic colour scheme. Thus the oily colour of my drill sculptures and the crushed pearls I used in the screen print create a link between the pre- and post-oil history in the region,” she says.
In another installation, “Prehistoria”, she has laser cut patterns based on technical drawings of patented oil drills on to aluminium panels suspended from the ceiling. The panels cast shadows and reflections on the walls and the floors, referencing the dreams and aspirations connected to oil, but also the anxiety about the future arising from the dependency on oil. Next to this is a video of the raging fires from the burning Kuwaiti oilfields after the Gulf War of 1991, that brings alive memories of the oil related turmoil of the recent past.
Drills are also present, but not visible in her video, “Travel Prayer”, which is about the changing culture of camel racing.
“After the ban on child jockeys the camels are now driven by automatic drills modified into whipping machines, concealed beneath decorative fabric. The owners whip the camels from their cars running alongside the tracks, and it is so sad to see that the traditional sport has lost its meaning, and the relationship between the camel and its owner is lost. I put a travel prayer in the background to indicate the need to think about where we are going as we travel towards the future,” she says.
De Marchi’s poetic works include several hand-embroidered pieces. In the “Constellations” series she has used golden thread to embroider what look like constellations on a black background. But the patterns are actually based on historical and contemporary migration maps. “The horoscope is an element that defines identity, and human beings have used constellations to guide them in their travels for centuries. But now we have a new cosmology of people being forced to leave their homelands and facing the uncertainty of an unknown path,” she says.
Her series, “White Cities” featuring abstracted maps of 22 capital cities in the Arab world and embroidered with white thread on a white background, speaks about governance, conflict and a hope for peace in the region.
In another monochromatic series, “White World”, de Marchi has fragmented the world map into several separate panels. “Through these fragments that cannot be recomposed into the frame from which they were extrapolated, I want to question the borders, regional definitions, and political, economic and cultural modes of colonisation; and to introduce an element of destabilisation and margins of freedom into a generally accepted visualisation of the world,” she says.
Other embroidered works include “Possible Worlds”, where she has used different colours to symbolise various Utopian visions of the world, and “The Seven Seas”, where the seas are embroidered and Earth appears as the negative space.
Her sculpture titled “Sustainability” is composed of maps of Arab countries stacked together, subverting borders to convey the idea of support, contiguity, sustainability and the possibility of working together and supporting each other to create a wider impact.
She continues the conversation about migration, displacement and identity with “The Die is Cast”, featuring a set of seven white dice on which are engraved the 42 elements that characterise identity as per international standards, such as gender, age, social and political status, religion and geographic origin. In an accompanying video, hands with different skin colour are seen throwing the dice with different outcomes, highlighting the irrational and random systems of defining identity that determine the fate of migrants.
Summing up the concepts behind this show is “Undoing Memory”, a video of a bar of soap engraved with the word “memory” dissolving slowly in water, and gradually reforming. “Our memory is flexible and constantly reshaped. This work speaks about the transformation, the change in perception, the altered consistency of our self-reference to the past in the perspective of always renewed futures through time, and relates to Monira’s depiction of the transition from the pearl trade to the oil culture and future uncertainty in the region,” de Marchi says.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
“Melting the Sky” will run at 1x1 Gallery, Al Quoz, until October 22.