This photo portrait was originally published as a longer feature on Freunde von Freunden.
“A lot of my work is about becoming your art,” says Monira al Qadiri. “I’ve had that ever since I was a child. If I really like something, I want to become like it.” Giant noodle bowls and fried shrimp add an extra dash of absurdity to the whole thing, as do molded replicas of her own face. In bringing these cartoons to life she has exaggerated the strangeness and artificiality of their forms.
The artist, who is currently based in Amsterdam as a resident at the prestigious Rijksakademie, grew up in the Gulf state of Kuwait where, between 1990-1991, the Gulf War found its nexus. For Monira and her older sister, musician and artist Fatima al Qadiri, these long months were spent indoors, playing video games and watching dubbed Japanese cartoons. The wild colors, simple stories, and playful personalities felt far removed from the brutal realities of conflict. Outside, Kuwait’s oil fields burned apocalyptically, but inside, on a frequently-played VHS tape, Kabamaru and his friends provided more otherworldly narratives.
Monira’s return to childhood vignettes is more concerned with the shape of the present—perhaps inescapable when you have a biography like hers. “Most of my work is about reflection, always from the present moment,” says the artist. “When I went to Japan, I started to reflect on my life in Kuwait. When I left Japan, I started to reflect on my life in Japan.” It was only when the final plane had been taken that she was ready to begin the project.
A series of photographs taken by Monira’s sister, Fatima, shows the former, aged 14, in full masculine drag. Clad in her father’s oversized suits and a neatly penciled mustache, the photographs are an insight into Monira’s early fascination with gender performance. But she is also keen to distance these acts of drag from the contemporary discourse surrounding gender queerness and fluidity. For her, drag was something very different: “It [was] about power, and for me, it was also kind of narcissistic. There was a visual element to it, too. I wanted to look like them very much. I don’t like to think about it as gender. Really it’s about power.”
Over time, however, Monira’s relationship with drag has changed. What may have once been a tactic for individual survival under deeply patriarchal conditions, she now sees as a wider project for collective liberation. “I think if we create more and more categories, we lose the plot. What emancipates people is to have no categories of person—gender, race, and so on. It’s like nation-states, you know? [We’re creating] more and more borders, which is counter-productive. I’m just over that!”
Read the full profile and find more images of Monira al Qadiri on Freunde von Freunden.