Zahra Al-Mahdi
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[SHAPE YOUR FUTURE]

I grew up in Kuwait in the early ’90s, where I was raised by screens. The main windows to reality for me were television and the internet. Not because of their accuracy, but because there were storytelling machines. These machines told stories that contradict one another, but all somehow seem true. The Arab region knew Kuwait to be one of the leading voices in media, specifically for comedy shows and theater. The rest of the world knew Kuwait to be a small country that was located between Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran during the Gulf War. Both stories are true. These screens that I drive my sense of reality from told me different and sometimes contradicting stories about who I am and where I come from. And that was the only way I understood anything around me: By placing it into different sets of stories.

When social media came around, it changed the way screens worked for me. It wasn't only a window for observations anymore, but an interactive one, one I could use to identify everything around me in even more varied in multiple ways, and to know myself better and actually participate in the storytelling process. It started with these drawings, mostly crosshatched on photographs that I took with my iPhone.

With time, I started to animate them onto videos that told stories from different perspectives in a mocumentary series titled "Bird Watch." It consists of scripted interviews by imagined minority voices discussing a general issue or one of common interests. The title of the series is meant to ponder the idea, What if birds were watching back? What would they think of our obsession with speed and oil? Would they think we were dumb for standing under the rain? The second episode, for example, is an interview with a little girl that tries to explain her definition of health, where she says she wants to be like her father, be strong, smoke and tell children not to. And also like her grandmother, cook good food, be loved by everyone and have diabetes. She also introduces us to the stomach animal. It's the head of an animal that's connected to our stomachs and its objective is to continue eating even after we're full. You see, Kuwait has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity. Presenting it in an amusing story while pointing out that children are themselves a minor voice is a great way to really put the statistic into perspective.

Another episode is an interview with a horse breeder who talks about the rules of making sure your well-bred horse is taken care of. She, the horse, must not be seen by others, must only mate with the same breed, must not be ridden by other men and must be veiled. Making a story about a parameter of repression towards women funny, especially when it has animation or live action, is a great way to walk clear through walls of censorship, intolerance and political correctness.

I tried to implement the ideas behind these two episodes before or during my first art solo in 2014, but I still had to put it into a story to both be understood and accepted. By speaking in someone else's voice, I was experimenting with detachment from ideas I grew up thinking where axioms. We're in a strange place where our problem is the abundance of information, where the majority of people have a platform to be heard, but representation is still an issue. Representing a certain group, giving them justice.

All of these stories can naturally contradict, even if they differ slightly. We as humans are not merely the shape of body that we occupy or the specific description of behavior. We're a multiplicity of stories, stories that often come in repetitive patterns that can be rewritten and reread. Having been raised by screens that told me different stories about who I am and where I come from confused me in the best way possible. I saw that history is not as static as we thought, that stories can be told, retold, read and reread. A change of context, change of perspective in hindsight can assign different values to everything and everyone around us.

The way I see it, that's where artists are most important. To present metadocumentations of our history, to give villains their origin story. Nothing and no one can be said to be good or bad in isolation of the story around it. It's much like learning a new word. You have to use it in a sentence for it to make sense. And then to challenge its meaning, you begin to use it in an infinite amount of stories.

Thank you.