GulfGraphixx, b. 1997, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
GulfGraphixx is the admin of the eponymous and infamous Instagram account. She is a keen observer of khaleeji pop culture both past and present. GulfGraphixx started out as a project to archive images relevant to underground subcultures of the khaleej, which quickly encompassed much of khaleeji post-internet existence. GulfGraphixx is both the project and the artist behind the project.
Countercurrents of the Gulf Superhighway
The following conversation appears in ‘Artifacts of Education – Essays on Contemporary Visual Culture’, a publication that accompanied an exhibition of the same title, staged at Sultan Gallery in Kuwait and curated by Alia Farid and Abdullah Al-Mutairi. The creator GulfGraphixx, Jujuke, discusses the origin of the Instagram account as well as the thought process behind its content with writer and friend Ruba Al-Sweel
Ruba Al-Sweel: When I think of GulfGraphixx, I think of the ultimate finsta and exclusively online phenomena like irony-poisoning, sh*t-posting, and the ability to be both the purest form of yourself and the least attached. I’m reminded of the unsettling algorithmic serendipity of the explorer page and the data deluge. GulfGraphixx might just be the prototype of Khaleeji internet spheres populated by disgruntled outliers in an attempt to create their own perfect little cyber hell. Let’s go back to early 2020 and walk me through your stream of consciousness when you created this account.
Jujuke: I wanted to create a sort of visual archive of Saudi subcultures – things you don’t find on the silver screen of Khaleeji shows or the existence of which is denied like goths, gays, kinks, and fetishes..etc. It quickly encompassed the whole of the Gulf as I started collecting and occasionally creating images and videos as well as accepting submissions. I was as bored and disheartened as the next fresh art school graduate. So in the name of armchair productivity, I felt compelled to create something for those interested in social theory to muse on and to gauge trends of bygone eras.
RS: It’s an ethnographic research, really. What makes the cut on GG?
Jujuke: It’s a mixed bag of visuals. Some from contemporary meme culture, while others from the BlackBerry and Bluetooth era and a lot of images from shunned subcultures. Mostly, visuals resonant with Gulfie internet dwellers. GG platforms the familiar meme formats, e-cards circulating your aunt’s WhatsApp groups, and the taboos that exist on defunct online forums and current social media platforms like the culture wars or feminist discourse – now all in one place!
RS: There’s a clear ‘EAT THE RICH’ left-leaning disposition permeating through the GG grid. Tell me more about your disdain for self-proclaimed ‘coffeeholics’ congregating at London’s Harrods?
Jujuke: I came across one of those starter kit meme pages and the references were embarrassingly bourgeoisie. There’s a video of a white lady yapping, captioned “when your family decides to buy an apartment in London so your jealous cousin harasses her parents to buy one too.” My immediate thoughts were: who in the f*ck is this meme page for? I don’t know anyone who can relate. The fact that these make the rounds in our societies makes me cringe at the thought of rich brats flaunting wealth via memes.
RS: It’s a gentrification of meme culture!
Jujuke: EXACTLY. I’ve seen more meme pages styled in this way, so I decided to use the starter pack format and make my own. Kind of like using the tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house. When I posted it, much to my chagrin, some followers tagged the original account. Looking back, my response comes across as elitist because it excludes many of my followers who don’t necessarily speak English, so I didn’t make more of those again.
RS: The comment section is a dumpster fire of opposing ideology and people who just can’t get along, but it’s also revealed class disparity in Gulf societies. A distinction between those who jetset every summer and those who don’t, if you will. It unearths a miscommunication that is twofold: 1) not understanding the language due to lack of opportunity and exposure and 2) not picking up on the irony. You might have been shielded by the language barrier, but the latter often lands you in hot water. What’s your experience?
Jujuke: As much as I’d like to think of GG as the unifier of all peoples, it causes flame wars in the comment section. Some feel like GG presents them with visuals that are exotic because of their ‘Chicken Nugget’ upbringing which placed them in a higher social stratum that removed them from the ‘locals’ who originally created and circulated them. It’s interesting to see their take, as they build on these archival images, creating works that incorporate more current trends and lingo that don’t necessarily fly in mainstream Khaleeji culture. The trouble occurs when the ‘locals’ don’t pick up on the “gentrified” ironic content because they aren’t familiar with the visual vocabulary and trends beyond their internet parameters. They stay for the nostalgia though. A fascinating pattern is that they’ve been blasé lately. Could it be that GG is starting a cultural reset with the usually reactionary crowd? It’s actually the they/thems that have the most debates. Not even a deleted comment can stop them. They are on a crusade!
RS: A cultural reset, indeed. It throws into sharp relief what is otherwise bubbling in the gut brain of the Khaleeji subconscious. Nuances in the GGC feminist movement are contested, whisper networks of LGBTQ communities take refuge and the repressed psychosexual dynamics of BDSM are discussed in broad daylight. Why do you think people flock to GG for this?
Jujuke: GG is an open forum that amongst a lot of things, is brutally honest about what happens behind closed doors. Our conservative societies sweep under the rug some unbecoming aspects of existing in the Gulf – the salaciousness, the obscenity, the shock. GG brings this to the surface not to be confrontational or contrarian, but to hold a mirror up to society. Eventually, this evidence is going to overflow, and denial won’t take us anywhere. I also look into the conservative backlash which comes in the form of hyper-religious, illiberal reactionary little propaganda posters, cartoons, forum posts, and the comment section of GG, too. My first foray into irony-posting was by experimenting on my personal account where I shared proselytizing images made for God-fearing Muslim women. Acquaintances, family, and friends didn’t get it, nor did they see the beauty in these fundamentalist graphics. To me, these whimsical, utopic visuals juxtaposed against a Grim Reaper-like figure are akin to some fever dreams I had as a child, where I’d lose my niqabi mother in a sea of blackness. These visuals were so pervasive, you’d find them in mall prayer rooms as stickers. Sadly I can no longer find them as the grip of religious authority is not as firm anymore. They’ve been replaced with a boom in anti-feminist cartoons as the movement becomes more present in the Khaleeji discourse, which are honestly very weird and just come across as a joke and non-threatening.
RS: What compels you to keep pushing buttons in this way?
Jujuke: People could use a jolt to snap out of complacency and recognize the “other” part of society. I think a lot of my followers try and satiate a curiosity for seeing something they aren’t supposed to see. As the saying goes “كل ممنوع مرغوب” i.e. the forbidden fruit is the sweetest. This, of course, comes with the high price of being shadow-banned. I thought I could get away with some more explicit content, but some of the reactions I receive are a yardstick for where we are as a society. I do recognize when it’s time to take a break though. When I’ve caused enough mayhem, I step back. Especially when it concerns religion or religious figures – little demure Instagram-dwellers do not like that one bit. This one time, I took my aggravated responses too far, fighting with everyone in the comment section who thought my post was too offensive. My logic was that they signed up for this. I mean, do they expect religious sermons on this account? did they not scroll down? I eventually temporarily deactivated my account to recalibrate and came back stronger.
RS: GG is an active troll farm, manufacturing and distributing memes and watching them mutate throughout the discourse. We’ve also seen GG float in the center of an ironic post-internet metanarrative of the region with similar accounts mushrooming like Green Scare, f***Saudi men..etc. It’s fair to say that it’s part of a larger movement. What are your thoughts on the future of GG?
Jujuke: For now, it’s an archive and experiment that I don’t see expanding beyond Instagram. However, I’m thinking of involving my followers in contributing with short essays relating to the region in the future, anonymous or not, as long as the topics remain relevant.
RS: Where does GG see itself in the attention economy. Will it ever compete with the Jollychic-peddling influencers of the boujie corners of Khaleeji Instagram?
Jujuke: I think of GG as the antithesis of the influencer industrial complex sweeping the Gulf. No promoted or automated posts, just a grassroots effort at creation and preservation. I’m not sure if it’s possible to sustain a commercial model since the account is controversial and we won’t be seeing any influencer ad revenue type of support. However, maybe there will be a future in which I try other outlets like a podcast to both entertain and inform. But most importantly, to create a stronger Gulf on Gulf pov that isn’t muddied by any outsider gaze.
Started early 2020, and now we’re here. GulfGraphixx as GulfGraphixx is.