Fatima Al Qadiri is a conceptual artist and music producer who was born in Senegal, grew up in Kuwait, and has just released a debut solo album that she describes as a “meditation on China”, a country she’s never visited. Mostly instrumental, it plays with the sort of tinny, electronic, quasi-“Asian” sounds you might hear in a Hollywood kung fu movie or at a dim sum joint in New York, the city where Al Qadiri has been living since 2007.
It fits in with the theme of several other art installations, videos and music EPs she’s made during the last half-dozen years, which look at cultural conventions and the way their meanings can become garbled when their context changes. One of these is a performance piece, created with fellow Kuwaiti artist Khalid Al Gharaballi, that stiffly re-enacts a women’s tea gathering in a giant ballroom in Kuwait. Another is the exhibition currently on at PS1, an offshoot of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, by the collective GCC, which is made up of nine young artists with family ties to the Gulf. A series of trophies, photographs of handshakes and an upbeat, nonsensical promotional video make fun of empty achievement ceremonies and diplomatic propaganda.
Even the title of her new album, Asiatisch [Amazon.com], from the German for “Asian”, is designed to disorient. “So much of the record is about dislocation from a native reality,” she says over Skype from London. “I can’t speak from a native Chinese perspective, nor have I ever claimed to. I am speaking as a third party who is being fed information about China from another source, a western source.”
Growing up in Kuwait, a place that Al Qadiri has previously described as “the most American country in the Arab world”, may have something to do with this fascination. Born to a diplomat father and a mother who painted and screen-printed and encouraged her two daughters to express themselves creatively, Al Qadiri lived in Kuwait City from the age of 2 until 17, spending summers in London.
She was 9 when Iraqi forces invaded and for a year her school was turned into a barracks, while she and her family were shuttled around relatives’ houses for their safety. An EP she released in 2012 called Desert Strike is inspired by the strange childhood experience of playing at war via video games, while tanks rumbled by outside.
At 17, Al Qadiri won a scholarship from Kuwait’s ministry of education to go to college in the United States and bounced around several schools until she became eligible for a course in New York – linguistics at NYU – and jumped at the chance. She was inducted into the overlapping worlds of art, music, fashion and publishing after being asked to soundtrack a runway show by the fashion designer Telfar Clemens. “I was lucky,” she says. “He has an amazing circle of friends and supporters. I was introduced to the right people and they became fans.”
Since then, collaboration and creative networks have always been a big part of her work, which has encompassed journalism, installation art, video, soundtracks, dance music and digital photography. Attracting attention as both an artist and as a musician allowed her to create projects that strayed over the traditional boundaries of each medium. For Genre-Specific Xperience, an EP she released in 2011 on the electronic dance-music label UNO, Al Qadiri asked artists including Ryan Trecartin and Sophia Al Maria to make music videos and premiered them at the New Museum, New York’s institution for experimental art.
A similar crossover happened in November. In the past year, Al Qadiri has been making hip-hop-influenced tracks with three other producers under the name Future Brown. When they played a DJ set at PS1, basketball players were employed to rhythmically dribble balls in choreographed movements along with the music, in a dance that combined elements of performance art and live percussion.
While Future Brown’s music is sexy, bold and designed for dancing, Al Qadiri’s solo work has tended to be more cerebral and minimal. Asiatisch has been analysed at length and praised in publications including The New Yorker, Pitchfork and The National, but it’s also been called pretentious and boring by a reviewer at the NME. It’s best considered not in the tradition of pop music but in the tradition of art: created primarily for reflection, rather than entertainment.
The record came out of a commission by the duo behind Shanzai Biennial, an art project that involves selling faux-designer clothes. (“Shanzai” refers in Chinese to bootlegged products.) They sent Al Qadiri vocals for a track that needed backing music: a version of the Sinéad O’Connor ballad Nothing Compares 2 U by the Beijing electro singer Helen Feng. The lyrics, translated into a garbled version of Chinese, had been found on a Facebook fan page, according to Feng.
The brief was to make a cheap-sounding backing track, but Al Qadiri got so absorbed in the project that it turned into something much more complex, with reverberating vocals over ghostly, synthesised choral effects. It became the first song on an album dedicated to the idea of an “imagined China” dreamt up in the West. “I had been attracted to music with Asian motifs for a long time,” she says, “and then it clicked. I was like, I want to make a record specifically about the presence of Asian motifs in non-Asian music and I had a well of inspiration from memory, from years of watching cartoons and films and reading comic books and video games.”
The effects of those memories can be heard in Dragon Tattoo, which riffs on the song We Are Siamese from the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp. A synthesised flute plays a repetitive motif, electronic beats skip in and out of the mix, shifting into new patterns every couple of seconds and a digitised voice intones such phrases as “Speak Chinese if you please baby” at a constant pitch.
Other sources of inspiration are the Ancient Chinese poetry that Al Qadiri studied at college, and rap, which has a history of looking to the Orient in a more playful way than Disney movies. “I used pre-existing ‘Sino-instruments’ inside the music software in order to prove a point,” Al Qadiri says. “They are present as presets because they are so popular.” Every year, she says, new rap tracks come out that have Asian influences. “It’s a long-term fascination.”
If Al Qadiri’s background in art helps explain the album’s complexity, her love for a British rap genre called grime helps explain some of its texture. Formed on east London council estates, grime is a clattering, off-kilter descendant of UK garage, exported overseas by artists such as Dizzee Rascal. A strain of grime that combines the genre’s typical beats and basslines with synthesised, Oriental-sounding snatches of melody was isolated by the producer Kode9 in a 2005 mix and dubbed “sinogrime”. Asiatisch uses the same musical effects but strips away the propulsive rhythms, the hooks and the rap: it’s sinogrime without the grime.
“I think it’s too simplistic to call it appropriation,” Al Qadiri says of the way that these “Chinese” sounds have made their way into music made in London and New York. “I think it’s something that’s been dislocating over time and has mutated into another reality.”
Gaining recognition in the fields of both music production and fine art, especially as a Kuwaiti expat and a woman, by the age of 33, is no small achievement. At this point, Al Qadiri’s work has been shown in institutions on four continents and she exhibits work in Kuwait every couple of years. She’s been represented at shows and fairs in Sharjah, Dubai and Doha and in 2013 she wrote the “official soundtrack” for Art Dubai, an event that she describes as a “weird family reunion” between artists from all over the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia and “the best connector for that world”.
Things aren’t slowing down now that the album’s out. This summer, she’s touring Europe as a DJ and putting the finishing touches to Future Brown’s first album, which should be out in the autumn. And there are still plenty of ambitions left to fulfil. She wants one day to compose the music for a sci-fi movie, which makes a lot of sense: Asiatisch often sounds like an eerie cinematic score. A track called Shanghai Freeway could be the soundtrack to a night-time car ride in an Asian metropolis, with lights strobing across the dashboard and a mounting feeling of dread in the air. Someone just needs to write the film.