Aseel Al Yaqoub: Culture Fair
The Sultan Gallery, Kuwait
13th February - 29th March, 2017
Generally speaking, the word “culture” is often used interchangeably with the word “heritage,” or “lineage” to delineate something that has happened in the past instead of being considered for its scientific understanding as a mutation in progress. Here, culture is understood as a tool of the social imaginary instead of an ongoing speculative evolution. It is this confusion in tenses that seems to inform Aseel al-Yaqoub’s direction in her second solo exhibition Culture Fair, where the artist appropriates the visual language of postage stamps in an attempt to underpin a certain hypocrisy in national nostalgia.
Beyond being a nostalgic collectible harkening back to a pre-internet time, the postage stamp is an object of study containing, within its epochal visuals, clues to understanding the evolution of cultural ethos. The form assumes a utilitarian function, but its value today lies in what it implicitly signifies both in the historical worth attached to the medium itself as well as in the portrayed image. Al-Yaqoub specifically concerns herself with stamps created during Kuwait’s so-called Golden Era, the period from the 1940s through the 1980s, when the country witnessed its first wave of rapid development. This period coincides with Kuwait’s independence from British administration, beginning the period of modernization, and resulting in many changes that include the production of state-issued stamps with local references for the first time.
Our relation to images has changed so drastically since then that it becomes difficult to imagine now how an image came to be prior to the democratization of image-making. With the technology and skill needed to develop popular visuals limited to appointed specialists, imagery of the Golden Era tended to be more performative than documentative, where the lack of image saturation and the influence of Western professionals led to the crafting of national compositions that tended toward the iconic and utopian. The top-down nature of this type of visual culture, particularly during this period of self-determination, results in imagery that tends to fluctuate between a utopian vision and propaganda to the contemporary viewer’s eye. This is all to say that what al-Yaqoub is underlining in this exhibition is not the hypocrisy of an image in itself but the confusion that may result from taking images as historical “fact” rather than understanding the ways in which they can be reappropriated or potentially weaponized.
At first glance, the dry title of the show brings to mind several things at once: a naive English school event, a government-sponsored craft fair, or the orientalist strains of the World’s Fair. What ties these thoughts together is the juxtaposition of “tradition” with “modernity” within a sterile environment, the natural conclusion of which is not unlike Disney’s EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) center. This push towards a very specific understanding of modernity shaped the urban fabric of modern Kuwait, influencing the construction of new neighborhoods that in some ways defuse any future beyond that of the American nuclear family. In her article on Kuwaiti urban modernity, Asseel al-Ragam describes the prevailing idea at the time that “to be modern in Kuwait meant living in a single-family house using modern materials and techniques in segregated neighborhood units outside the city.” Similar to how a shift in the perception of what we lost to modern architecture “inspired a turn to nostalgia,” we are witnessing the sentimental return and appropriation of imagery from the past depicting a bright future that in actuality never exactly happened.
Culture Fair aims to make clear the distance between the creation of an image and a reality, specifically the disparity between a utopia imagined at the beginning of Kuwait’s modernization and where society is now. It attempts to do this through the slight twisting of familiar visual forms, emulating banal governmental displays to underline the performativity of modernity. The artist expertly employs the material tropes of bureaucracy in the main floor of the exhibition, aggrandizing doctored documents on equally spaced wooden plinths. Each layered stamp is placed under a gold trimmed dome magnifier, this installed on top of what appears to be a wood veneer board reminiscent of modest VIP office detailing. It is the more subtle gestures mimicking corporate indifference that, similar to the work of the regional art collective GCC, nudge the work past classic satire. The subtitle of the exhibition, “Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow,” further connects this spectacle of development with corporatization, neatly segmenting the show into three Disney-esque parts. Reading the exhibition text, it becomes clear that extra attention was given to the creation of a cohesive concept, which for the most part succeeds in achieving al-Yaqoub’s aim. Yet, it is this attention to detail that at times shoehorns meaning into forms and potentially dilutes the potency of the artist’s attempt as a whole.
Al-Yaqoub marks the beginning of her interest in postage stamps at the moment she happened upon one bearing the face of Saddam Hussein at a vintage shop in Salmiya a few years ago. The ensuing price dispute with the shop owner over this particular stamp led to the artist’s consideration of the relationship between an image and its value. What is it exactly that gives a particular image worth, and how is this decided? It is the realm of semiotic value that the artist is interested in questioning. Formally, the show succeeds in grabbing attention through its clean, high-definition, presentation of a nostalgic imaginary. Any viewer aware of local visual culture would immediately register the cachet of such imagery—the artist knows this; that is the point. Al-Yaqoub attempts to hijack meaning through juxtaposition, crafting collages that skim the line between importantly banal and subdued ridiculousness. The mere knowledge of these images being composites of multiple stamps immediately leads the viewer to draw meaning from the relationship between the parts, a classic trick that in this case comes off as too obvious at times.
While the stamps are conceptually and aesthetically strong, some of the resulting compositions could come off as morally heavy-handed. That is to say, there appears to be no ambiguity in the work. The simplicity of the concept and amount of skill apparent in creating the stamps is admirable, yet one cannot help but sense precise value judgements within each image that leaves no room for speculation. Here lies a critical issue: how do you subvert a form without substituting one neat belief system for another? Then, is it even possible, or desirable, to influence morality through images? For example, one of the stamps features a text reading “Freedom From Hunger Campaign” while the image above features a plethora of fish imposed on a scene of a traditional Kuwaiti family meal. The message is apparent but the argument is vague. It is possible this is part of the nature of satire, although a space beyond prevailing morality that is critical yet not exacting does exist. The debate al-Yaqoub wants to engage viewers in is certainly important, and she is undoubtedly versed in local politics, though it is uncertain if the result of framing this contemplation, beautiful as it is, can contend with her in conversation.
Walking past the spaced plinthes of the main room, you come upon the remainder of the works, all of which supplement the central interrogation of stamps. Against the back and left walls of the gallery hang six blown-up mockups of potential stamps. These are thematically split between current affairs and future proposals, clunkily completing the concept of “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” On the one hand these prints seem somewhat hammered-in in an effort to maintain a cohesive framework, lumping in “today” and “tomorrow” almost haphazardly. On the other, they are fun, sellable works that are more digestible for audiences unfamiliar with contemporary approaches to art, which is an important link to include. These prints are a fine addition overall, though they might have worked better in a less central position in the gallery.
The final work in the exhibition is a video hidden in the back room that smartly ties the show together. It is the standout piece of the show. The video cuts between close-ups of an X-Acto wielding hand extracting pieces of stamps and Photoshop screen recordings, showcasing the planning of the collages. Besides being compositionally remarkable, the video centers the artist’s craft directly and places it outside of the digital-based marketing world that these visuals are currently associated with. You immediately register the analytical intent of the artist that would have possibly been lost in the popular newstream of nostalgia.
Despite the recent proliferation of cultural centers in the region, it is surprisingly rare to find an artist who engages with visual culture beyond the superficial or simply aesthetical. Though there is an impression that the show is to be graded according to an academic rubric; this is not entirely a bad thing. It is almost refreshing to encounter a show conscious of itself and the ideas it is working with in a climate where most shows function to simply uplift the artist and add to their clout. As far as popular consensus goes, the owner of the gallery mentioned this show being one of the most popular shows she has hosted in years both in terms of attendance and sales. It becomes clear al-Yaqoub has thought hard about every single element of the exhibition, both to the work’s benefit as well as its detriment. The artist confirms this show to be the polished conclusion of a concept she conceived of in graduate school, expulsed after years of consideration that cemented some choices while giving enough time to doubt the potency of a simpler resolution. That said, with a bit more assurance and some spontaneity, al-Yaqoub has the potential to be one of the more conceptually driven artists to watch for in the region.
All images copyright the artist. To view more of Al Yaqoub's work visit: http://www.aseelalyaqoub.com/
The next World Fair, Expo 2020, will be held in Dubai.
Asseel Al-Ragam, “Towards a Critique of a Kuwaiti Nahdha: Al-'Imara al-Hadītha and the Competing Narratives on Architecture and Urban Modernity”.
Modern Architecture Kuwait, Vol. 2: Essays, Arguments & Interviews edited by Ricardo Camacho, Sara Saragoça, Roberto Fabbri.
Interview with the artist. May 5th, 2018.