Of Kings and Ants
Tensions within Kuwait’s power relations are reflected in its current affairs. In the opening of his now world-famous speech, member of parliament and protest leader Mussallem Al-Barrak alludes to King Solomon’s miraculous ability to speak to ants. Al-Barrak concludes this analogy by claiming that the Emir of Kuwait has not lived up to his overblown status as royalty – for he has wrongly belittled his subjects, or his “ants,” by not being transparent about the management of Kuwait’s wealth. Al-Barrak’s indication that the Emir’s wealth is unnaturally huge, and thus built on corruption, got him sentenced to five years in jail – a verdict which was later annulled in the face of nationwide protests.
The politics of scale are aptly identified in the Kuwait’s pioneering art pavilion at the Venice Biennale, entitled “National Works,” and forms a useful framework for tracing Kuwait’s cultural development. Featuring artists Sami Mohammad and Tarek Al-Ghoussein, curator Ala Younis aims to “re-interpret Kuwait’s modernization project.” The exhibition contrasts the art production of Kuwait’s modern era with its contemporary one, highlighting changes in the increasingly privatized funding for Kuwaiti artists.
Kuwait, upon the discovery of its oil in the late 40s, positioned itself as a global giant of generosity. This kind of well-intentioned self-regard is illustrated in the works by artist Sami Mohammad, which mirror the birth of Kuwait as a nation. Younis contextualizes the naiveté of Kuwait’s nation-building project by placing Mohammad’s works alongside those of Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist Tarek Al-Ghoussein, whose “K-Files” photographs shed light on Kuwait’s grand national ambitions and the slow decay of its modern infrastructure. Furthermore, the pavilion highlights how Kuwait’s inception has been problematized by neoliberalism and post-Gulf War individualism, also the turning point at which 600,000 Palestinians were exiled from the country.
The artworks that “National Works” puts forward are fitting case studies that exemplify growing racial discrimination in Kuwait’s legislation, whereby the relation between different tribal factions is increasingly polarized (i.e. Mohammad’s duty to make artwork for royalty; Al-Barrak’s arrest when speaking out against royalty), and laws against immigrants are taking hold (i.e. the precarious position of Al-Ghoussein as a Palestinian-Kuwaiti; new laws that make it possible to deport immigrants for minor traffic violations).
The tension between King Solomon and the ants, Kuwaiti royalty and Kuwaiti tribes, Kuwait’s nationals and Kuwait’s immigrants, the official history of Kuwait and the stories of its artists, is the axis upon which the conceptual framework of “National Works” is built. We as viewers are put in a buffer zone, acting as a magnifying glass between the King and his ants, wondering which way to look – does supporting the glorious narrative of Kuwait’s modern nation-building project mean that we too are burning the ants?Liane Al-Ghusain