Alia Farid was born in Kuwait in 1985 and grew up in Kuwait and Puerto Rico, countries whose complex colonial histories she reveals through drawings, objects, spatial installations and film.
Tell us a little bit about your work and how you entered this field.
AF: It never really felt like I was “entering the field”. I was born to architect parents, so aesthetics was naturally a household concern from the time I was very small. I first properly started studying art, however, in 2002 at la Escuela de Artes Plásticas de Puerto Rico. Before it was made into an art school, the building served as a psychiatric hospital. The joke is, it hasn’t changed! Anyway, it’s a very traditional art school sort of like the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Students have to ascribe to a discipline, that is, choose whether to focus on sculpture, painting, printmaking or new media. It is all very last century though many of the professors are incredibly avant-garde and encourage students to explore artmaking beyond the limits of medium and format. Some of my professors there included Zilia Sanchez, Ada Bobonis, Tony Cruz, Haydee Venegas, and Julio Suarez. I started in printmaking, but then switched to new media where I began experimenting with moving images. While I was still an undergraduate, one of my videos was selected to show at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico in an exhibition showcasing latest tendencies in video art. This is what I think paved my admission into the Visual Arts Program (now ACT) at MIT. At MIT my professors were Antoni Muntadas, Joan Jonas, Kryztof Wodizcko, and Ute Meta Bauer. It was a tough transition coming from a fine arts school. Unlike la Escuela de Artes Plásticas, the Visual Arts Program was consciously geared at challenging expectations of art. If your work looked like art it was often dismissed. Topics analyzed included anti-monuments, the politics of dress, fear and the end of public space, the panopticon and other forms of surveillance. It was insatiably critical.
After MIT I thought I should spend some time in Kuwait as I’d been gone for eleven years. I had an acceptance letter to do a second Master’s Degree, this time in Museum Studies and Critical Theory at the PEI-MACBA in Barcelona. My deferment period lasted two years, which meant I had two years to scope out what Kuwait and the region was offering. Needless to say, I took up the offer in Barcelona!
In hindsight I don’t think I was ready to move back. It didn’t feel like I could apply what I had learned through my western education in this context. And being young and naïve as I was, I was eager to apply what I knew towards “fixing” things. I now understand that change isn’t about implementing what you think you know, but learning continuously from each context and responding sensitively. I actually find much comfort in the “developing” world where things don’t always work. It’s more human. It’s also where I’m from, both when I’m in Kuwait and Puerto Rico.
You studied the Kuwait National Museum in preparation of the Pavilion of Kuwait at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition at la Biennale di Venezia. Modernist buildings designed by foreign architects dominate the built environment landscape in Kuwait, most of which lie empty with a constant threat of demolition. How has this shaped the relationship between citizens and their places?
The prevailing attitude in Kuwait toward the city as ever expendable is something we discussed at length as a group while working towards the final version of the 2014 Pavilion of Kuwait. It was an especially strong topic amongst our publication team: Aisha Al Sager, Hassan Hayat, Sara Saragoça Soares, and Dana Aljouder. There is a tendency in Kuwait to demolish architecture rather than to preserve it. The mud architecture of old Kuwait was flattened to make way for a supposed modernity, and now we’re witnessing the demolition of our modern heritage and the overnight appearance of poorly constructed skyscrapers and flyovers that are destroying the social fabric of neighborhoods. It’s a completely capitalistic way of doing things: fast, disposable and at the convenience of the individual before all else. And in my estimation it is reckless, hasty, and immature. A developed country is compassionate towards its disenfranchised and vulnerable constituents as the objective is to uplift by facilitating opportunity. A city does this by making itself accessible, by offering various modes of public transport so that people can get to places without having to own a car. Shared transport is not only for those who can’t afford their own vehicle. It’s a social and environmental duty. People who could easy afford a car in cities like Paris, London, or New York are not interested. Owning a car in any of these cities is perceived as vulgar and uncouth. It’s actually an anti-status symbol. Anyway, there is no need to compare Kuwait with cities like Paris, London, and New York to understand. We can look to Iran and India. People in Tehran share cabs without any fuss. The city also has a metro. In Kuwait there is a preconception that a metro system wouldn’t work because of tensions between gender, class, ethnicity, etc., tensions that are a consequence of segregation in the first place. In Tehran, a conservative Islamic city, women can choose whether they feel comfortable in a mixed passenger car or women’s only passenger car. It’s very lax!
But going back to the built environment, every time I drive past Khazal Palace –such an important and irreplaceable historical monument– I am maddened at the sight of it crumbling. The sheer negligence! This is a Grade I building on the Kuwait Heritage Building Registrar, equivalent to both Seif Palaces. To patch it up through a routine Ministry of Public works contract with unskilled labor and inexperienced architectural and engineering supervision would be disastrous. It would be an enormous loss to Kuwait’s heritage and history.
Though from a different era, the Michel Écochard version of the Kuwait National Museum (which Khazal Palace was the predecessor of) is on the same path. Could the museum have been preserved in the way that honours the original vision for the space and the period in which it was built?
By hastily altering and demolishing our buildings we’re not just destroying the old city, but old ways of living. I am in favour of a slower, more historically sensitive and egalitarian urban development. Capitalist if need be, but with socialist values.
In a more regional perspective - we find the The Louvre opened in Abu Dhabi this year, alongside other established mega museums that have already opened. What does this mean for our national museums – and what does it mean for local cultural production?
Twenty years ago the Guggenheim in Bilbao was inaugurated. It marked the beginning of the museum-franchise trend since it was effective in turning around a city in decline, afflicted as it was by Basque separatist terrorism. But because it worked for Bilbao doesn’t mean this model should be applied in every city seeking a bit of stardom. There are more dignified ways of highlighting cultural activity than importing a foreign museum to show us how it’s done.
The museum-franchise is, to me, unappealing, disenchanting even, especially in the context of Kuwait or the Gulf, where it acts as a continuation of colonialism through soft, seemingly inoffensive power. I’d much rather a museum conceived on our own, with our own way of operating and serving the public. Or no museum at all, but living, breathing culture!
Regarding local production, the advent of oil in Kuwait ended autochthonous ways, but we cannot forever import food and architecture and clothes and supplies. It’s just not feasible. It also leaves us deskilled, unimaginative and empty consumers. This is something Laila Al Hamad talks about in her previous interview with Sijal, The Demise of Khaleeji Craftsmanship. We need to rethink the way we live and objects we surround ourselves with. The desert is ostensibly an austere place, but really it has so much to offer.
Are museums necessary for culture?
Museums undoubtedly serve a fantastic role, but no. To expect museums alone to generate culture and bring people together is simple-minded. Museums need to be an afterthought– places that survey and display activities and movements already taking place. More important than museums is allowing people to practice whatever rituals and customs they may identify with without prohibition and without censorship.
“How to get to Share3 il 7ub” - your collection of maps and directions to the ‘love street’ in Kuwait City where - in the absence of public spaces - young people go to flaunt, flirt, and share numbers. What made you want to document this?
I often start projects by observing the urban setting and noticing how things are designed into and out of our daily lives (including paths). I study attitudes, values, and perception and how these things take shape on the physical plane. Regarding “How to get to Share3 il 7ub”, when I came back to Kuwait in 2008 I was fascinated by how people found ways of interacting in a society where social interaction is restricted, and how they pursued their desires and pleasures under strict conditions.
There are many stories about how Share3 il 7ub got its name. Some say Fairuz, driving down the Second Ring Road on a visit to Kuwait, said she thought country was so beautiful it only invited love. I find this hard to believe. Others say it is because the Second Ring Road acts as a place of confluence for young women and men leaving their gender segregated schools, thus allowing them a moment to interact and exchange phone numbers –mind you, from the windows of their cars– before returning home from school. Today, activity on Share3 il 7ub peaks on Friday nights, not even on a weekday! People go all out by dressing up and sometimes even renting exotic cars. It’s absolutely bizarre! Although this is not unique to Kuwait. There is a similar street in Tehran called Jordan Street, which I have visited. It’s the same thing. Lots of peacockery!
In an age of globalisation and increased interconnectedness, how relevant is local identity? Is there a need to solidify and preserve situated, locality-based identities even when it comes at a cost to ‘progress’?
No matter how technologically advanced and interconnected we become, our locations vary and this inevitably has an impact on the way we live and behave. The internet is a fascinating place, but one thing should not replace the other. It’s important to be sensitive to the geographical and climatic conditions that define us, and maintain a first-hand relationship with nature and the surrounding environment.
Avenues Mall in Kuwait, Dubai mall, and Bahrain City Center all coopted Khaleeji aesthetic styles in their modern departments, how does this re-interpretation of design utility affect perception of identity and heritage?
Pastiche, gimmicky, and blatantly commercial. It’s expected that this sort of thing be done in malls. What’s concerning is how some people cannot distinguish between malls and life outside malls. But that is an education problem.
How can we teach future generations to observe and think critically instead of just mimic? Our schooling system assumes the existence of a unilateral relationship, while the idea of possibility proposes an operative field in which one learns to question. This is critical thinking, and it’s very underdeveloped in this part of the world because questioning in this context is perceived as defying (the state, religion, rule, etc). It’s a very paternalistic attitude and needs to change.
Regarding higher education in the country, I have taught both at Kuwait University and the American University of Kuwait as an adjunct professor and have noticed a tendency in students to want to imitate things seen elsewhere without taking into account the context, its history, geography, political and social climate. There is a lack of holistic thinking, which is why if you look at the urban landscape, it’s an absolute hodgepodge. There are tons of trendy small businesses incongruous with anything beyond their doors. There is no unifying theme or vision that brings things together. This is perhaps more the responsibility of urban planners and higher ups, but the community needs to insist that things be done correctly for there to be diversity within unity. Late Kuwaiti architect Ghazi Sultan writes a lot about how architecture needs to be accommodating in order for a city to thrive. I have been working on digitalising his works intermittently for the last three years.
Can you illustrate how metaphysical values can manifest themselves in physical structures?
This is most noticeable in the residential architecture of the GCC where a lot of the houses have few windows and the windows are almost always covered in some sort of reflective material or rolling shutters that go over them like garage doors. Houses are configured similarly to the way people dress conservatively to maintain privacy and distance (inwards). There is an instagram account of Saudi houses that a friend showed me, and on it a video of some guys driving around a house with absolutely no windows. The house even has a hooded shoot for getting rid of garbage without having to step outside or even expose a hand! Attitudes do take on forms. Just have a look around you.