ALIA FARID: An artist contemplates
the need for meaningful spaces in a
hyperactive region. 

WRITER Farah Adsani

The AramcoWorld Issue (no. 66)
Nov 2017

Raised in Puerto Rico and Kuwait by architect parents, Alia’s practice is drawn from a multitude of places and disciplines. In her work for the Kuwait Pavilion at 14th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia and her most recent and first solo exhibition in Paris, Between Dig and Display, the Kuwait National Museum (KNM) is examined critically in relation to a nation’s dream of modernization and the difficulties of representation in a predominantly aniconic society.

The resulting confusion can be seen in a selection of documentation images Alia found in the basement of the KNM which she empties out from a drawer and places around her while sitting on a carpet in her workspace. Her work as an exploration in the physical sense can be seen in her studio which is cladded with books, notes and sketches, and objects she’s collected over different times and places. These images of items ranging from artefacts discovered in Failaka Island and a wooden comb, to pieces of a broken flask all placed against the same lopsided red backdrop are, as Alia explains, “in themselves objects” worthy of documentation and display.

Alia’s conversation is punctuated by a selection of items she brings to illustrate her ideas further. One of the books, Rifat Chadirji’s Concepts and Influences: Towards a Regionalized International Architecture, demonstrates values held high in her practice, which lie in striking a balance between the conscious merging of heritage and modernity.

FA: Tell us about your latest project.

AF: At the moment I’m between projects. My solo exhibition at Galerie Imane Farès in Paris (Between Dig and Display) just closed, and soon I’m off to Brazil for the inauguration of the 20th Contemporary Art Festival Sesc_Videobrasil. Regarding new work, I’m applying for funding for a project I’m developing here in Kuwait on the public education system.

FA: Much of your work explores the links between Latin America and the Middle East. What similarities have you seen?

AF: My work is ingrained in lived experience. I grew up in Kuwait and Puerto Rico, two ostensively very different places that actually have a lot in common. Both of them are places in transition. Places that subservient to more powerful nations. It’s fascinating how they are so far apart (geographically and otherwise), and yet so similar.

FA: You tend to use a variety of resources in your work. Can you explain this approach?

AF: I don’t have a fixed way of doing things, nor is my work bound by medium or format. My work is oftentimes an excuse to explore something I’m interesting in knowing more about. It’s a learning venture. I often start with observing the urban environment and how it works, and noticing how things are designed into and out of our daily lives. In terms of materials, I’m constantly on the lookout for ways of representing my thoughts. It isn’t the fastest way of working, but I do learn a lot.

FA: What is your background in architecture?

AF: Architecture is discipline that has surrounded me my entire life. My parents, Fareed Abdal and Norma Figueroa are both architects. For 15 years they ran an office together in Kuwait until, as a result of the 1990-91 Iraqi invasion, their practice began to suffer and we moved to Puerto Rico. Following undergraduate studies in Puerto Rico, I joined the Visual Arts Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology– a tiny program with only 10 seats nestled within the School of Architecture and Planning. It was a jarring transition coming from a fine arts! I If your work resembled art in the slightest it was condemned. The program was really geared at challenging expectations of art. It was more concerned with issues of the built environment like public space, public art, gentrification, density, immigration, and aesthetics across different disciplines.        

FA: What made you alter Biennale’s title from “Absorbing Modernity” to “Acquiring Modernity” for the Kuwait Pavilion?

AF: Absorbing Modernity, put very quickly, was envisaged by international curator Rem Koolhaas as a retrospective exhibition; a revisiting of the last 100 years of architecture and its impact on local cultures. This was the overarching theme, to which we responded with “Acquiring Modernity” as modernity was already a full-fledged global movement when it arrived in Kuwait. And like many introductions that came with the advent of oil, it was unprecedented. Kuwait when from being a mud city to a “modern” city in less than 30 years. It wasn’t a gradual process of assimilation and absorption, but rather a accelerated period of urban development predominantly reliant on acquisition and importation. Along with the design of buildings by international architects, the country was importing foreign ways of doing without really assessing their relevance in the local setting. A museum in an aniconic society is an oxymoron. And yet there are plans to build seven new museums and cultural centers in Kuwait!

FA: So you focused on the museum as an image rather than a place, what were the historical and social reasons for this portrayal?

AF: The architecture of the Kuwait National Museum was used a fiction. In a 1989 video of Princess Diana’s visit Kuwait, which can be found on Youtube, she is taken to the museum and followed into courtyard surrounded by the four museum buildings and planetarium. She is then seated inside of a half-open traditional tent, also outdoors. Never is she shown inside of the buildings. I share this story to illustrate how the museum was used as façade, a cosmetic institution, imported as if to fulfill an image of modernity.

FA: Given that that history of museums, what impact do you hope to have on the the local cultural development?

AF: I don’t think museums should be a prime concern in this context. What’s more important is encouraging diversity and allowing people to practice whatever rituals they may have. Museums are great, but they should be supplementary to activities and movements already taking place. Not as a fiction, which is how it’s being treated in the Gulf. We’re fragmented in this part of the world, infinitely segregated by gender, class, tribe, sect, bedouin (nomad) vs. hathar (sedentary), local vs. foreign. What’s more important than museums is establishing settings that engage and can therefore be meaningful, and which do not revolve around consumerism.

With an academic background in fine arts and architecture, Alia Farid describes herself as a ‘reserach-based artist whose work is about analysing environments’. Her chosen mediums range from sculpture, video and public intervention to weaving.

When she is not working, Farid spends her time horse-riding at the stables designed by the Kuwait Engineering Office in Wafra, an area of Kuwait known for its farms. ‘It’s were I go to find clarity,’ she says.

01 Farid pulls out ‘The Kuwait Urbanisation’ by architect Saba George Shiber from a shelf in her studio – a rare 1964 book that includes arial photographs and the author’s sketches

02 The artist’s studio in Mahboula is scattered with found objects, as well as copies of photographs from the Kuwait National Museum’s storgae basement. 

03 Designed by French modernist architect Michel Écochard in 1960 and opened in 1986, the Kuwait National Museum is currently undergoing renovation.

04 Farid is a former employee of Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, the organization in charge of KNM.