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AL QADIRI, Monira; Diver

Growing up in Kuwait on the Persian Gulf, Monira Al Qadiri saw many monuments to the pearling industry; one of the most recognisable was the Lulu Roundabout in neighbouring Bahrain.1 The Persian Gulf coastline has a long history of pearling, and in the 1800s, it was a central driver of the region’s economy, until it was supplanted by the oil industry in the mid 1900s. By the 1980s, the pearling industry had all but disappeared, with its technology and culture relegated to museums. Given the significance of the oil industry to the region (and the world), the artist questions why there are no public monuments dedicated to the newer industry.

Through her work in sculpture and video, Al Qadiri has been exploring the historical and aesthetic connections between oil and pearls, imagining how we might look back on oil when it declines as an industry. What will be the relics of the oil boom? In Dubai, Al Qadiri’s public artwork Alien Technology 2014 takes the form a giant oil drill covered in a dark paint reminiscent of an oil slick. With this artwork, Al Qadiri places on display the infrastructure of the oil industry that is otherwise invisible in the cities built on its wealth. With a pearlescent surface, the sculpture addresses the artist’s interest in the similar aesthetics of oil and pearls due to their dichroic surfaces that reflect multiple colours at once. This visual overlap then triggers a discussion of their interconnecting histories.

These ideas are also explored through the medium of video in DIVER 2018. In the gallery space, the four-sided video installation conjures a large-scale aquarium. Onscreen, swimmers perform in a dichroic body of water with synchronised routines mimicking the repetitive movements of the pearl diver, with their actions choreographed to a contemporary recording of Kuwaiti pearling songs.

The music pays homage to the artist’s grandfather, who was a singer on a pearling ship. All boats were assigned a singer, as it was hoped the songs would boost morale in this precarious occupation. With the loss of pearling traditions, these songs — some date back 800 years — are now only played in tourist centres or found in anthropological recordings. In Al Qadiri’s installation, sound and image come together in a combination of technicolour aqua-musical and haunting mourning ritual.

Australia has its own pearling history, and in the late 1930s, the Australian maritime writer Alan Villiers travelled with Arab sailors on dhow boats — including a Kuwaiti pearling ship — and documented his observations in the book Sons of Sinbad 1940.2 Family legend says that one of the pearling singers mentioned in Sons of Sinbad is Al Qadiri’s grandfather.

Monira Al Qadiri’s DIVER closes the gap between two seemingly disparate moments in the history of the Arabian Peninsula. Exploring the often financially difficult lives of the historic Gulf pearlers — documented in oral histories, books and museums — and the incredible wealth and metropolises generated by the modern oil industry, Al Qadiri immerses herself in the stories and issues common to both.

Ellie Buttrose

1 Lulu Roundabout (also known as the Pearl Roundabout) was destroyed in 2011.
2 Alan Villiers, Sons of Sinbad, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, and Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, London, 1940.