Self-described as a “collaboration hound,” composer Fatima Al Qadiri is associated with Gulf Futurism, art collective DIS, fashion brand Telfar, and filmmaker Mati Diop. Having just released a new solo album which stems from an adolescent medieval fantasy, she talks about meshing ancient and modern sounds, melancholy as a space for spiritual growth, and unattainable romance.
interview by courtney malick
COURTNEY MALICKFatima, I’m so excited to find out how this album came together. The title and reference to medieval times evoke something dark and brooding. I loved the phrase in the press release, “dissolution of the present.” Can you tell me more about how that idea unfolded?
FATIMA AL QADIRIThe point of inspiration for this work came from my own adolescence. I had a very traumatic incident when I was 11. It was the start of the school year and I couldn’t get out of bed for months. My parents were distressed, and I didn’t understand what was happening to me. One source of comfort was a book that my mom had, Antonio’s Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, illustrated by the legendary Antonio Lopez. I stole it from her bookcase and hid it in my room. It was the seed of my adolescent medieval fantasy. Years later, in 2016, the name “Medieval Femme” came to me out of the blue, and I thought, “What a fab name for a record.” I didn’t give it too much thought. Two years later I bought a book, Classical Poems By Arab Women, edited by Abdullah al-Udhari. As I was reading it, I remembered that the way poetry is recited in Arabic is very sensual, regardless of the subject matter. I was inspired by the words of Al-Khansa, the most famous Arab female poet, who wrote about her grief and the death of her brothers. A couplet of hers really struck me, as the words in it were so surreal. She addresses her eyeball, “Oh my eye, Why do you not weep like a water- fall?” She’s freaked out by her lack of outward grief.
CMSo how did those kinds of stories work their way into Medieval Femme?
FAQI told myself, “Okay, I’m going to make a record using classical poetry by Arab women.” I started to find poetry samples online and attempted to write instrumentals to them. But it just wasn’t working. There was something about it that wasn’t exciting enough. But one poem remained, the one by Al-Khansa. It’s the track right before the end, “Tasakuba,” and the vocal is a sample from Youtube. But that was the only one that stayed in the record.
“Romance is a sense of melancholic longing to me. The majority of Arabic music exists in two genres: nationalist music, and love songs. Mainly unrequited love.”
CMAnd the rest is you singing. Right?
FAQThe rest is me.
CMWhen I was thinking about the tone of Medieval Femme, I recognized that it’s a major contrast to your 2017 album, Shaneera, which is all about fun, partying, being with your friends and dressing up—all things that have been taken away from us in this 2020–21 hell that we’re living in. But despite that, it’s not the first time that you’ve meshed ancient and modern sounds and references in your music. I know that your soundtrack for Mati Diop’s film Atlantics has been described that way.
FAQI think the similarity between that score and this album is the emotional state. There’s a vulnerability and fragility that is present in both. I wanted this record to sound like a distant fantasy.
CMYou mentioned the cover image of Medieval Femme is an old artwork of your mother’s.
FAQThe album cover image is from a work my mom, Thuraya Al-Baqsami, made in 1990. It’s called Message I. It shows a woman with an enigmatic look on her face receiving ominous news. There’s a bird on a her shoulder and a black cloud overhead. I wanted something that expressed darkness and desire at the same time. My mom’s image somehow communicated the transformative state of depression. You can transform during that process and find a kind of secret, celestial joy in it. Because if you think, in a lot of West Asian cultures, melancholy is the highest form of art. Depression is like a space for spiritual growth.
CMI’ve only listened to the album a few times, but if I didn’t know any of that, I would never think of it as depressing. To me, it’s really romantic.
FAQIt is very romantic. Romance is a sense of melancholic longing to me. For instance, the majority of Arabic music exists in two genres: nationalist music, and love songs. Mainly unrequited love.
CMI guess I could sense that in some of the songs, but I also just felt that they evoked this sense of paradise.
FAQBut that’s what I’m saying. I wanted it to sound like this fantastical dream that you can’t quite reach. It’s definitely the most romantic thing I’ve ever written.
CMI wanted to ask you about the singing.
FAQI don’t consider it to be singing, I don’t consider myself a singer. I regard these vocals to be mantras. The song “Golden,” is like someone repeating words and hoping suddenly a path will appear. It’s a visualization.
CMAnd since part of what we were going to talk about is all of your collaborations over the years, the last one having been the score for Atlantics, there’s something really funny that I read in an interview with you where you said,“[before the Atlantics soundtrack], I’d never had anybody give me feedback before,” which I kind of couldn’t believe!
FAQIt’s true! The director of Atlantics, Mati Diop, definitely pushed me in a very good and strong way. She definitely had a vision for her film and for her characters and she wanted the score to be right. My favorite scores are the ones that stick out, the ones you remember and want to listen to long after seeing the film. I really want the music to have as much personality as the characters on screen.
CMThe music in that movie definitely lends a lot to the story overall. With that in mind, pivoting back to Medieval Femme,I’m curious to hear more about the process. After having had Mati as a sort of sounding board, did you work with anybody in a similar way for this album?
FAQI just did it by myself.
CMDid you collaborate with someone on Shaneera?
FAQShaneera was really fun because it was made with and for my friends in Kuwait. It was very lucky that we were able to go into a safe space to record it because the lyrics are so gay! Imagine very straight sound engineers gagging. I was really worried that no one would agree to do this—even anonymously, even with a pseudonym—because it’s hardcore.
CMWow! You worked a lot with DIS. I’m not sure how you would characterize your collaborations with them. It seemed like you contributed a lot to the online magazine, rather than work on content with them directly
FAQBack in 2011 Lauren Boyle, a member of DIS, and I made a publication called Pâté together, which was a one-off.
CMIt’s funny because Pâté existed before Solomon Chase (another member of DIS) and Lauren started talking about doing a magazine. DIS was supposed to be a print magazine like Pâté was.
FAQSure. I think the first time Solomon and David Toro collaborated with me was for the cover art of WARN-U for my Ashay project in 2010. With DIS, I contributed here and there but my main thing was a column called “Global.Wav.” Working with them was so easy, we all lived on the same block.
“I started composing when I was nine years old, so it’s largely been a solitary activity for me. Ultimately, I make records for myself. Every record is loosely narrative and autobiographical.”
CMShout out to Hooper Place! Ok, we should also talk about Telfar. Did you ever do music for any of his runway shows?
FAQGirl, I did 11 seasons. A lot of his early runway shows.
CMDid he give you a lot of direction? Were you able to see a lot of the clothes beforehand?
FAQEver since I met Telfar in 2006, we just wanted to work with each other. He would give me an idea of what the collection was about, but he really trusted me with the music. Of course, I would share the music with him as it developed. It was very organic.
CMI don’t remember him ever projecting a specific overarching theme for most of them. Did you talk about those kinds of things while developing the music?
FAQThere’s the SS 2009 runway show, for example. It was in what looked like a high school gym. I wrote this piece for it called “Symphonic Diet Rave.” It was very up-tempo. And then the following collection FW 2009 was at a church, and he told me that he was making a really goth collection. So the themes definitely influenced the music. The themes, the locations, his ideas.
CMI remember that show vividly—it’s definitely going in my book about the good old NYC days. You’ve done so many projects with other people, yet your own sound has always been distinct. Would you say that?
FAQThe majority of my music career has been solo. Because I started composing when I was nine years old, it’s largely been a solitary activity for me. Ultimately, I make records for myself. Every record of mine is loosely narrative and autobiographical.
CMThat’s funny that you say narrative, because from the first to last song of Medieval Femme, there’s clearly some sort of story. Has narrative become more important in your work since doing the soundtrack for Atlantics?
FAQThere’s always been a sense of narrative, even before Atlantics. But I never initially write anything in order. The order comes after. There’s always some vague idea uniting the whole. Let’s call it a demo writing process.
CMDo you think that it was to your benefit to have already been working in that way, when then you were tasked with having to follow a script?
FAQSince I saw Akira when I was 10 years old, I wanted to make music for films. The funny thing is that when Mati met me for the first time she said, “I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t called you up and asked you to score Batman.”
CMThat’s funny. And you are a total cinephile, right?
FAQYeah, ever since I was a kid. And it helped that I lived in a country that didn’t have any copyright laws and you could bootleg everything. My taste in film actually improved when I went to NYU because I lived around the corner from Kim’s Video on Bleecker.
CMSadly we didn’t know each other then. But when you moved back to NY after college, we met through Khalid al Gharaballi. Tell me about your collaborations with him.
FAQMeeting him in 2006 altered my destiny. If I had to name someone as the most important person I met in my life, it’s him. He was my first serious collaborator, and this was years before GCC existed (originally a collective of 8 artists from the Gulf that we were both a part of). When Khalid and I finally made MendeelUm A7mad(N x I x S x M) in 2012, that’s when it became a proto-GCC work. Almost everyone in GCC worked on that project before GCC was formalized as a collective in 2013. The work posited the tissue box as a national symbol of Kuwait, like the camel or the oil well. The tissue box is ubiquitous in every Kuwaiti person’s house, car, etc. There are packs and boxes of tissues literally everywhere. But there was also a film component about gender performance inside the installation and later on Youtube, which is what most people saw … GCC was really fun and really hard to navigate, because we were all over the place and communicated via WhatsApp. There were two WhatsApp groups, GCC and GCC Casual.
CMWow. I never heard about that.
FAQGCC Casual was fab, it’s where we shared non-work stuff. It was like having a WhatsApp practice, a WhatsApp studio. It was challenging. We would have regular Skype sessions, and you can imagine eight people having a Skype session with all their crappy wifi connections dropping out constantly.
CMI can see how that would be a challenge, but I loved your summits. Isn’t that what you called them?
FAQYeah. We had to have “summits.” It was an annual meet up, being in the same place and working on a project in person. I’m a collaboration hound. I obviously love working with people. But like I said, because I’m entering this film world, it’s a completely different beast. Obviously there’s downtime between projects and this is how I was able to do Medieval Femme, as there was a big gap between Atlantics and this new film, La Abuela (The Grandmother).
CMWere you planning to do another score so soon after Atlantics?
FAQNo, but I knew that I was gonna get another film, because the response to Atlantics was incredible, so the soundtrack got a lot of attention. I just finished writing the score for La Abuela. It’s a Spanish horror film by Paco Plaza. That was intense. The hardest thing about horror is that it’s so tropey-sounding. I really wanted to get away from that, and it was very tricky. I think this is the most challenging kind of music to write.
CMWere you able to find scores from other horror films that were able to achieve something similar?
FAQI’m not a huge fan of listening and watching the genre I’m working on, because I don’t want to be influenced. When you work with a director, it’s their vision versus your vision, and how much they line up. That’s the other thing that you’re not taking into consideration as an audience member when you’re watching a film: the circumstances of a film made the soundtrack sound this way. There are so many things that affect a score that aren’t apparent.
CMOut of all of the genres, horror probably relies the most on sound to indicate to the audience that something scary is happening, or is about to happen.
FAQYeah, the music was doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s a horror film about the horror of aging.
CMAnd specifically about women aging …
FAQYes. The film starts during Paris Fashion Week. A twentyfive- year-old model has to pause her glam life to take care of her grandmother, who becomes an invalid. But she’s also getting too old to be a model, and losing gigs to younger women. The subject is very dear to me. I’m turning 40 this year, and my skin is changing, my body is changing—I can confirm it’s a horror movie! It doesn’t get any scarier than that! [both laugh].
Fatima Al Qadiri (Senegalese-born, Kuwaiti, b. 1981) is a New York-based artist, musician, and composer. Her album Medieval Femme has been released by Hyperdub in May 2021.
Courtney Malick is an art writer and curator. Her upcoming memoir, slated for publication in 2022, chronicles, line by line, the antics of downtown Manhattan in the mid-aughts, the ensuing cultural wasteland of postinternet art, and the petri dish of artists, designers, DJs, models and actors that dominated the city’s sordid and glittering nightlife.
ALL CLOTHING: TELFAR PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHARLIE ENGMAN STYLING BY PERI ROSENZWEIG
LOCATION: WESTIN BONAVENTURE, LOS ANGELES ART DIRECTION: JORDAN RICHMAN PRODUCTION: ROSE MARIE JOHANSEN HAIR & MAKEUP: SARA TAGALOA