Freunde von Freunden: Kuwaiti artist Monira al Qadiri on Japanese cartoons and the body as art
First published at Freunde von Freunden
The main character in Monira al Qadiri’s favorite childhood cartoon, Igano Kabamaru, is a hyperactive, food-obsessed boy. In the first episode, Kabamaru is removed from the only context he has ever known—the rural mountains of Japan’s Mie Prefecture—and sent to Tokyo, where his coarse manners and predilection for filling his belly earn him few friends. He’s too loud for his new home, too strange, and he drools uncontrollably at the mere mention of noodles.
“Of course he was my favorite character. I saw myself in him, and wanted to be him.” Monira is speaking from her studio in Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie, where she is currently completing a two-year residency. She has recently returned from Brussels, where she performed a piece based on the cartoon and its role in shaping her own life. In the work, ‘Feeling Dubbing’, she takes on the role of Kabamaru, reenacting his wild mannerisms and enthusiastic eating. “A lot of my work is about becoming your art,” she says. “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 the form.
Monira 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.
The Japanese cartoons of Monira’s childhood were dubbed in Arabic at Studio Baalbeck in Beirut. During the 1980s, when the Igano Kabamaru recordings were made, the city was experiencing its own devastating war. This backdrop of conflict, culminating in the eventual ruination of the studio building itself, lent a dramatic and urgent quality to the dubbing that was simply not present in the original Japanese recordings. A character would change voices halfway through an episode, depending on which actor could make it to the studio that day. It was this, Monira found later, that drew her to return to these cartoons as an adult: “I was completely not interested in the cartoons, but this theatrical, Arabic voice.”
As a fluent Japanese speaker, Monira is able to compare the dubbed cartoons of her childhood to the originals. At just 16 years old, fueled by cartoon consumption, Monira sought—and won—a scholarship to study in Tokyo. She then spent the next ten years there, studying the language and learning to make art. “This artistic intervention [of the dubbed cartoons], let’s say, guided the rest of my life. I wonder, if that didn’t happen, would I have gone to Japan? And there’s sometimes a strange feeling of regret.”
Much like Kabamaru, Monira was a child pulled from one context into another, struggling to make sense of her new surroundings. After a childhood spent obsessing over Japan, she soon found herself unable to reconcile the fantasy of the place with the reality. “Japanese society is very conservative. To a point where it’s difficult as an artist to live there,” she says. “Japan is part of my body now, I can’t just boil it out of myself, but there are parts of my life there that were very strange and limiting, in a different way to how life in Kuwait was limiting.”
Unlike nostalgia, Monira’s return to childhood vignettes is more concerned with the shape of the present—perhaps inescapable when you have a biography like Monira’s. After leaving Japan, she briefly returned to Kuwait before moving to Beirut. It was during this time that she first encountered Studio Baalbeck. “That’s when it hit me that this triangle of my life is somehow complete! I had to pursue this, and also put it behind me. Most of my work is about reflection, always from the present moment. 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 drawn that she was ready to begin the project.
Feeling Dubbing is not the first time Monira’s past has found its way into the present. A series of photographs taken by Monira’s sister, Fatima, shows the former, aged just 14, in full masculine drag. Clad in her father’s oversize 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.”
Monira traces this masculine drag back to the Gulf War. “I would watch my father and other men fighting outside, being in the resistance, while us kids and my mother were all stuck at home. It felt like there was a big gender gap between what these heroic men were doing, and the feeling that we weren’t able to protect ourselves. I think it implanted some really weird ideas that men were really cool, which I obviously started to understand as wrong later. At the time, though, it just felt right.”
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!”
Despite this, Monira is wary of affording her art—or indeed any art—the status of activism. From her own work, she is most proud of a set of oil drill-heads; made of iridescent Murano glass, they are alien and beautiful. Useless for drilling, they preempt Gulf oil running out—estimated to happen between five and forty years in the future—when drills and other objects associated with the industry will be little more than strange artifacts of the past, devoid of meaning. “A hundred, or two hundred, years from now, when they look at these oil drills that I’ve made, will they think it’s some kind of ritualistic object that people used in religious ceremonies?” This impulse to look at the present from a hypothetical future infuses her work, and sets up a premise that deviates from social healing.
As part of the so-called ‘post-oil generation’, Monira’s whole life has been shaped by oil; each chapter from Monira’s life is glued together by this ancient black substance: her Japanese scholarship, her parents’ air-conditioned home. “Sometimes I think it’s part of my body almost,” she says, “in my blood or something.” But she is also acutely aware of oil’s expiry date, and how arbitrary it is that she has benefitted from its existence. “In Kuwait, people always talk about how God blessed us with this thing, this magic potion. But it’s just random! Nobody blessed you with anything! It’s just some old dinosaurs that died there!” Monira raises her palms, a little exasperated. “We have these bubbles of air conditioning where we escape all this heat. But what happens when there’s no air conditioning? When it’s 60 degrees, do you know how to survive that? How do you cool yourself when you no longer have oil?”