In ART

Through hand-coloured gelatin prints Mohammed Alkouh presents the early modern architecture of Kuwait City as future monuments for a distant past

 

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The modern history of the Arabian Gulf is said to have begun with the independence of the small tribal confederations at the end of the colonial period in the 1970s, followed by rapid modernisation propelled by the oil economy. However, this region — consisting largely of port cities — played an important role as a crossroad for trade between East and West since antiquity, and began articulating its modern project coeval with the height of the industrial era; the age of concrete and steel and grand scale utopian architecture.

The work of Mohammed Alkouh, a self-taught Kuwaiti artist, aims to present the early modern architecture of Kuwait City as future monuments for a distant past. The ‘modern’ is viewed here not as a starting point, but as a relic or a ruin.

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The hand-colour gelatin prints appear spurious and nostalgic, almost apocryphal, reconstructing untold stories that remain suspended through derelict and abandoned structures from Kuwait’s Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s, when several architectural landmarks were erected, not as monuments but as functional structures that played a key role in the country’s social history. Theatres, cinemas, stadiums, commercial alleys in the style of Levantine architecture and blocks of apartments shaped after the ideas of architects such as Le Corbusier and Niemeyer. For Alkouh, the neglect of these now monumental buildings demolished an important part of the country’s heritage and left a vacuum of identity in which young generations find themselves stranded between an ancient past and an uncertain future.

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Mohammed Alkouh, Cinema Qarnata

Mohammed Alkouh, Cinema Qarnata

“The shocking contrast between Alkouh’s coloured prints and the state of the buildings today – some of them already demolished – is a visual document that links different eras in a continuous flow.”
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Driving around Kuwait with his camera, Alkouh’s project ‘Tomorrow’s Past’ places the experience of the present not in a grand past or in a remote myth of foundations. This subtle archaeology digs out the past as something familiar, tangible, fresh and warm. The cinematic treatment of colour allows for the imagination to evoke the spectacular, hidden behind layers of dust, fragmentation and ultimately oblivion. The focus here is not in physical structures but in personal and national experiences of particular sites and how this experience transformed the local consciousness. The shocking contrast between Alkouh’s coloured prints and the state of the buildings today — some of them already demolished — is a visual document that links different eras in a continuous flow.

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While the technique is not new, and it has been at the centre of artistic interventions looking into the recent past of the Arab region — reconstructing forgotten images from Egypt and the Levant in order to present alternative versions of the 20th century in a region beset by internal turmoil and disappointment with the modern era — Alkouh’s interest lies in an specific subject matter: the untold urban history of the Gulf, showcasing the transition into the modern state not as a single interruption in a world pre-modern and obsolete, but as an organic development. The curiosity of the artist turns our gaze towards this transition, neither backwards nor forwards, but moving simultaneously in different directions. These monuments of the present constitute an archaeology of the future-now.

 

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A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Art Issue #29, on page 68.

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