False memories: How this female Kuwaiti artist explores national myths through rediscovered treasures

The dangers of nostalgia are a recurring theme in the work of Aseel AlYaqoub, who will open her first major Gulf installation this year, writes Matt Smith.     

Aseel AlYaqoub is a young Kuwaiti artist who uses found artifacts, from stamps to long-forgotten documents, to examine how national identities and collective memories are forged in the Middle East and beyond.

Her work has been exhibited in three continents, and for her latest project she will partner with fellow Kuwait-based artist Alia Farid to create an installation at the hotly-anticipated Jameel Arts Centre Dubai, which will open on 11 November 2018.

An independent jury commissioned the Kuwaiti duo to create an immersive installation entitled “Contrary Life: A Botanical Light Garden Devoted to Trees”, which will consist of artificial trees.

“It’s a game changer for both of us because we're finally doing a large project in our home region. We’re very excited because the topic that we want to address is very specific to the GCC,” says AlYaqoub, 32, who recounts seeing artificial cherry blossoms and willows in the gated gardens of Kuwait’s luxurious neighbourhoods.

“We’re not able to maintain the natural landscape because of climate change and rapid urban development, be it in Kuwait or Dubai. In many houses’ gardens, artificial trees have replaced real trees.”

Around 50 fake trees will be imported from China, with the artists having spent a week at the manufacturer’s factory to customise them.

“We decided to create an arboretum of these trees and treat them like they're our new natural environment,” says AlYaqoub.

ARTISTIC CALLING

A professional architect, AlYaqoub quit her conventional career to study fine art at New York’s Pratt Institute and it was there she discovered the themes that dominate her work.

“I was fascinated by the impact of economic and linguistic globalisation around the world. I came to the realization that Kuwait was a unique case study that could represent different facets of the world in terms of its politics, economic structure,” she explains. “My understanding of Kuwait’s history began with the names on my passport – those of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

“I had no idea who my great-great-grandfather was and what was happening in the region before the Kuwait nation was even formed. I go between the present and the past to try to understand what our national identity really is.”

For her 2018 solo exhibition “Culture Fair / Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow”, she collected Kuwaiti postage stamps from the country’s so-called Golden Era of 1940-80, cutting out particular aspects to create new, seemingly authentic stamps.

“When I find these old artefacts, I romanticise a time when I didn’t exist. I look at these images and wish I could go back to that time. This weird inconsolable longing is a feeling I don’t enjoy. I want to look at the present, so I can move forward rather than reminisce about the past because then I'll be stuck there, forever criticising the present.”

In one collage, AlYaqoub takes parts of a 1968 stamp “Traffic Day”, which shows a family using a pedestrian crossing to mark the building of Kuwait’s urban infrastructure.

“Instead of celebrating these images, I felt the need to destroy them by dissecting layers and reassembling the original narratives into my own,” she continues. “I wanted people to lean over and try to understand whether these stamps are real or not, because they all have the same visual aesthetic, making it harder to differentiate the different layers.”

AlYaqoub’s questioning of why certain events are remembered and others forgotten is also evident in her 2017 exhibition “Frenemies”, which explores the 1919-20 Kuwait-Najd war that ultimately led to Britain ceding around two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory to Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Discovering in London’s British Library various correspondence between British political agents and Ibn Saud and Kuwait’s emir, AlYaqoub recreated this dialogue in the form of a WhatsApp group.

“This was a pivotal moment that defined Kuwait as a nation state, so I took these correspondences and made them into a form that’s easier to read,” adds AlYaqoub, who will take up a residency at Paris’s Cité Internationale des Arts soon. “Most of the conversation is word-for-word such as the statement Ibn Saud made about Sheikh Salem spreading rumours about him in a café.

“It felt so juvenile to see how the discourse developed into a war.”