“It’s not as naïve as it looks, you know”. That’s how artist Monira Al Qadiri once described to me the public art covering the Kuwaiti electricity generators that inspired her ‘“Muhawwil” (Transformer)’ (2014) 4-channel video installation. Currently on show at the Never Never Land group exhibition at London’s EOA.Projects, running November 28 to January 31, it’s a 350 x 350 x 260 cm lightbox featuring exact reproductions of these government sanctioned depictions of crudely-drawn figures performing tasks in lurid colour, with the added element of being animated. On a pedestal nearby, there’s a book with English translations of the Arabic bubble text that appears with these images reciting their rather unsettling religious aphorisms, moral advice warning “God is great” and “collect what you want, you will leave as you came”.
It’s appropriate that most of the work in Never Never Land, curated by Amal Khalaf and Edge of Arabia co-founder Stephen Stapleton, would feature a language largely alien to an English-speaking audience. There’s Abdullah Al Mutairi‘s ربحت معانا!!! series, with what the exhibition catalogue describes as “post-millennium Gulf gameshow” videos screening hyperreal CGI stock footage of city scapes engulfing their grinning contestants. “It’s true, the best things in life ARE free! Call in now, you’re already a winner!!!!!” they say, deadpanning the bizarre combination of ancient tradition and modern (see: ‘Western’) materialism that permeates much of a post-oil boom Arab region. Much like Al Qadiri’s ‘Muhawwil’, which she calls “advertisements of moral conduct”, all of Never Never Land‘s artworks are teeming with codes and signifiers that reveal a political undercurrent in opposition to the one being mediated in the Middle Eastern mainstream.
Hence, the horror of youth recruitment in Cairo and Amsterdam-based design duo Foundland‘s ‘Destination Paradise’ (2014) keffiyeh scarf. It’s a pretty Snakes-and-Ladders-themed pattern displaying a faceless Mickey Mouse head with a target on its brow and the promise of “angels with words of peace” under machine gun emblems, if you play the game right. This is very much a game of hide-and-seek –echoing Metahaven’s “transparent camouflage” in their 2010 Wikileaks scarf merchandise –where the same tool of surveillance is used as one of insurgence. That’s whether it’s the “networked swarm of resistance activists” appearing as cartoon character aliases on social media in Foundland’s ‘Leaderless Revolt’ (2014), or Ahmed Mater’s sacrificial Yellow Cow intervention series, presented in a grid of photos from a 2007 performance where he dyed a cow yellow and set it free in a village. Inspired by the symbol of idolatry also known to Jews and Christians as the ‘Golden Calf’, its image reappears as an “ideologically free” consumer product in ‘Yellow Cow Cheese (Red)’ (2010) silk-screen print beside it –a thing to bind us together.
“It is very easy to draw an Arabian horse using a pencil and some colours… you too will be among the elite artists of the world”, writes Hasan Hujairi‘s artist statement for ‘10,000 Simple Steps to Perfectly Draw an Arabian Horse’ (2014). It accompanies the sound artist’s audio-instructions on illustration, delivered by a young boy through headphones on a school desk facing the wall of screenshots of Mater’s unifying ‘Yellow Cow’.
As an exhibition that aims to reveal “the rebellion inherent in humour” –as announced in a panel on entry into the darkened EOA.Projects space –its appropriate that it should take its title from Arwa Al Neami‘s drolly understated Never Never Land series. Presented in two ceiling hung screens, they feature a single shot video of women at the Mahrajan Abha theme park in Saudi Arabia that “forbids screaming and shouting on rides and ‘careless’ lifting of abayas.”. The moving image of bumper cars is eerily silent, as is the repetitive 2:41 minute video of a Drop Tower, as one woman mechanically readjusts her abaya in time with each fall.
Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? ask Metahaven in the title of their 2013 e-book. The answer to that remains to be seen but in the meantime exhibitions like Never Never Land are doing their part to find out when they “criticise the old world in content and advocate a new one in form”. **
Exhibition photos, top right.