An overwhelming perfume of honey and spice, a cacophony of soothing high notes weaving together with an unexpected pop under beat, and a lot of fur. White walls and cement floors warmed by bright track lighting and people. Sleek black and silver stilettos were the feminine shoe of choice while nicely cleaned maroon suede loafers were the masculine. This was the opening of Out of Kuwait, an exhibition hosted by the gallery Edge of Arabia and the British Council.
Walking into this exhibition I was struck by the meticulous beauty of both the audience and the art. The works displayed a sense of craftsmanship, leaving no detail unattended. There was film, etchings, photographs, sculptures and interactive art. The artists were there, and there were many cameramen walking around capturing all of the conversations and exchanges buzzing about. The entire event felt social. The art spoke about the social issues of Kuwait, and the way these issues absorbed also the political, the economical, the everyday. Everything had an underlying desire to say something about the people. I felt like I was looking at the portrait of country not just by the art, but by the entire event itself.
As an outside who knows very little about Kuwait, I felt welcomed by the whole scene, but also overwhelmed. The visual sensation was incredible. Nothing was understated, simple, or one-dimensional. Every work glittered with multiple meanings and interpretations.
When I turned the back corner of the gallery space I came across an opening in the wall, a dark entrance into a black box space. I walked in to a rhythmic pushing and pulling of what looked like hemp on a loom. I slowly began to pick out of the darkness all the people in the room, hooked on moving images in front of us. There were at least forty people in this intimate space. Some were on the floor, others in proper chairs, others standing along the walls. I was just able to wedge myself in the back standing crowd to get a view of the film. From visions of the ground, and feet we were brought to see camels, backlit by the sun. We were then introduced to workman. These workmen were constructing a boat; we saw the tools they used, the way the tool worked, the holes they created, and the hands that used them. We were forced to appreciate not the thing that they were creating, but how they were creating it. We saw how the pressure from the palm of the workman propelled the string to pull tight this accelerating the metal pole that it was wrapped around. On the end of this pole was a sharp edge which drove through the wood to create holes. The camera zoomed in, giving us angles of the process of boat construction we could never see unless we were one of those workmen ourselves. I couldn’t help but think about how this handy work, literally work from hands, was creating a massive ship that I always thought of as created from machines.
I then started to think about the difference between two seemingly synonymous terms: international and global. Why? Well, how is it that I can look at this process of building a ship that represents contemporary construction methods in Kuwait while standing in a gallery in London thinking about how it compares to the method of construction of a similar ship in America? The other thirty nine people in that room, what were they comparing it too? Everyone in that room was international, and the fact that we each had our own comparison points to this film made the films interpretation become global. It is as if international refers to a descriptor of a situation, while global refers to a consequence, or byproduct of gathering international things. When something is global, it takes on a new identity where it kind of looses itself in order to become a point of duality, a comparative way of thinking. We are in a global world maybe because each of us has the ability to see things in dualities, not just singular or linear ways. We can now see things foreign to us and immediately call up images or things from our own culture as comparison points.
What does this mean? When I watched the men use their hands to build a ship I thought that if a mechanized way exists to create these ships, then these men are not using the most up to date technology, they are behind, they are underdeveloped. But is that really the case? Are their methods contemporary in the timeline of development for their culture and place? Or is it by choice they do not use machines? Is it a political issue? Economic? As I pondered this I also wondered: in a global world how does one really set a “standard” for adequate development? It is a beautiful thing to be able to learn about other ways of doing things that are totally foreign to oneself yet that means these things get compared to things that may not be on the same playing field. Does thinking globally mean we are comparing apples to oranges and potentially criticizing the orange for not being crunchy like the apple, when really we shouldn’t because the orange is a totally different fruit? Before globalization and fast information exchange, someone in America could never know really how Kuwait built ships. So, they could not pass judgment on it. Today, one can do both: know and judge. The question now becomes: how can international people learn and develop a truly universal set of development standards so that the global experience they have is not prejudiced or bias, and stripping of original cultures merit? But, by not representing our own viewpoints out of fear of bias how do we share new ways of thinking with people? Should all we ever do is look and appreciate others and not attempt to engage? That sounds quite odd to me. How then can one actually communicate in a global world?