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Ibraaz Talks: Global Art Forum 8

Farah Al-Nakib: in conversation with Stephanie Bailey

006 / 30 April 2014

In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum. In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Managing Editor Stephanie Bailey speaks with Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Kuwait, Farah Al-Nakib, about Kuwaiti modernization, architecture, the built environment and the city as symbol.






Stephanie Bailey: We are here with Farah Al-Nakib, Assistant Professor of History at the American University of Kuwait, who just took part in a panel discussion at the Global Art Forum titled 'Kuwait's Experiments and Confidence Interval'. Farah, thank you for agreeing to talk to us. One thing I wanted to pick up on: in your talk you mentioned Kuwait's first architectural boom and you said that it was really an act of replacing an old mud-brick town with a new city, and you introduced this idea of the city as symbol. I wondered if you could expand on this, because you also mentioned this idea of the city being worthy of admiration, and you said this was a key idea but you did not really expand on it.


Farah Al-Nakib: Absolutely. So in the development of the city after the launch of the oil industry in Kuwait, which really began in earnest in 1950-1, the idea was that Kuwait's modernization, all the changes it was going through very rapidly, would become symbolized in this face of the city. The city was meant to be the visual representation of all of these overnight changes that Kuwait was going through so a lot of emphasis was placed on urban development, and part of that process was demolishing the old city. The way I interpret it, it wasn't just a matter of clearing space to build something new, the building of modernity entailed the erasing of the past, and this is common to universal experiences of modernity.


There was a very clear goal of trying to erase Kuwait's recent past; Kuwait had been coming off the heels of an economic recession in the 1930s when oil was discovered, so there was this sense of wanting to put that history behind us once and for all and move forward, and the built environment became the embodiment of that. The past was literally razed to the ground; the entire old city was demolished and a new city was at least planned – and to some extent built – in its place, to be this reflection and symbol of Kuwait's newfound modernity and progress, and really as a way of trying to prove to the world that Kuwait was worthy of its new wealth.


SB: Yes, and I found it very interesting when you talked about the amalgamation of architectural styles that were introduced into this reforming of the city, and how you said you rejected the criticism of this being a kind of imported modernity. I was really interested in that in relation to the context that we're in now, which is Dubai; I wondered if you could shed some light on how these two situations might compare and contrast.


FA-N: Absolutely. I think in many ways what Kuwait went through in the 1960s and particularly the 70s – the oil boom era – architecturally and urbanistically is like what Dubai started to go through I'd say in the late 90s into the 2000s, in terms of that building a spectacle. That's very much what it was about in Kuwait in the 70s as well, building an image. It was more about building an image in Kuwait's case in the 70s, and arguably in Dubai's case as well, really focusing on how the city looks and appears not only locally but also to the outside world looking in. So it's the idea of building an image to satisfy the global gaze.


The processes are very comparable. Kuwait went through it in the 70s, Dubai went through it and is sort of coming out of that arguably, and other places in the Gulf are picking up on it now like Doha. There is a tendency to look at the Gulf cities, especially in terms of their architecture and urbanism, as being in competition with each other. There was that phrase that was bandied about for a while: 'Kuwait was the past, Dubai is the present, and Doha is the future'. To me I see it less as a competition of one stamping out the other but more as an evolutionary process; Kuwait started their modernization first because its oil industry boomed first, it went through a phase that it's starting to come out of, Dubai went through that and is coming out of it, Qatar is going through it now and will eventually come out of it. I see it more as an evolution of this Gulf urbanism.


SB: This relates to the idea of modernity, and you did say that this was a cycle. I liked what you said about how in the Gulf you have this building through demolition but this is also a cycle that is common to all universal experiences of modernity. What you're essentially saying is that, rather than seeing this as a kind of relay race, it's just a production of multiple modernities taking place in parallel. I wanted to go into this idea of the conscious erasure, because it's almost like an ideological demolition.


FA-N: I definitely think you can see that, specifically in Kuwait, you saw it in the 50s in that early oil era, it's that conscious erasure of the past. There were different reasons as to why one was shedding that poverty of the past, but there were also political reasons as well: there was the newfound role of the state in all aspects of life, and the new power dynamics required a new landscape in which they could work. In a way, the city became a landscape of state power after oil, it was very depoliticized. Changing economic structures, changing political structures, usually result in changing spatial structures as well.


But now we see it happening again. You talked about these cycles, I mentioned it in my talk and I refer to this in my work, it's this etch-a-sketch approach to demolition: we build, we erase, we start over. Now there is a conscious, marked erasure of Kuwait's modern era, and we see it in architecture and in the built environment but we see it in other areas as well, like we did with the pre-oil past. And here I think it's less of an obvious case of trying to shed the past to work towards a better future, here it seems a bit more complicated. That came up in the discussion as to why might that erase of the modern era be taking place; why is it occurring today?


SB: This erasure of the modern era is coming with a kind of reification of the pre-oil era, it's almost like trying to capture a lost past.

FA-N: Yes, and it's a very stripped-down lost past, it's what we'd call a 'usable past'. History is not clean, history is messy, but this reification of the pre-oil past happened through these very sterilised sites of national heritage. It's a very mono-vocal type of heritage or identity that it represents; it's a singular, state narrative of history (with a capital 'h', as we discussed yesterday in the forum). Demolition and heritage to me do similar things because they both remove history from the spaces of the city, one by freezing it in time, the other by destroying it.


SB: Yes, this isn't just specific to Kuwait –


FA-N: Or even the Gulf…

SB: Yes, and this brings in this kind of claim of authenticity or this attempt at rediscovering it, and you did say that you don't really believe in this claim at all.


FA-N: No.

SB: I'm curious as to how you see the future unfolding through architecture, because I have to say, in Dubai it almost feels like you are in a future city, but this is also a global experience of urban environments.

FA-N: I've been back in Kuwait for the past three or four years and I've been observing changes that are happening now. I see that Kuwait is very subtly entering a new stage of urban development and I don't think it's one that is explicitly noticeable. What we're starting to see for the first time in Kuwait's history is what we might call some 'bottom-up' urbanism. We see this in different areas, we're starting to see civil society groups forming. I mentioned in my talk that urban development after all was very top-down, very state-led, you had very little civil engagement in this. And now we're seeing civil society groups, for instance there's a group of young architects, designers and intellectuals called the Arabana Project, and they really push for the idea of public participation in urban planning and development. They have workshops and discussions that talk about things like housing and urbanism, things that have never been part of discourse at the level of civil society. That's really significant, I think that can be an agent for change.


But we also see other initiatives by small business owners; we're moving out of the franchise culture in Kuwait, so we have a lot of young entrepreneurs opening restaurants, cafés, shops, galleries, but that are going into these early oil buildings, these kind of run-down buildings – mainly because they're cheaper than malls, but what they're inadvertently doing is saving these buildings, regenerating them. This is the first case we've had of a bottom-up urban revitalization in Kuwait in parts of the city. So there are signs of change and perhaps we're embarking on a new way forward, but I think it needs to be recognized on all levels.


SB: Right, and that relates to what you were talking about in the discussion about going beyond nostalgia, and connecting to Sulayman Al-Bassam's answer to that which was 'beyond nostalgia to the political will'.

FA-N: Yes, and I think in a place that always goes through these cycles of demolition there's a major risk of looking back to the past purely through the lens of nostalgia; we over-idealize that past like we are now with heritage. So my call for needing to remember that modern era is not just about nostalgia for that very cool, artistic, experimental period – while that's important – it's more about what that period tells us about where we were then and where we are now.


Having a more critical understanding of our present by seeing where did we fail, for instance, in some of our aspirations for that period, why are the things that we considered worthy of admiration – I used that quote in the talk – then, why do we no longer see those things as worthy of admiration? (Like music, art, culture, as was mentioned in the discussion.) I think that's why we need to remember the past and history and these different eras rather than wiping them out, because then we no longer have the critical tools to understand where we are today.


SB: I think that's a great point to finish on, thank you so much.

Chapters in this series