Military complex: Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria – in conversation

Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria mixes dread and desire to alert and alarm. 

Sophia Al Maria’s solo show at the Third Line Gallery in Dubai takes a dystopian look at the American military machine.

Sophia Al Maria, 'Dirty Balm' (EVERYTHING MUST GO series), 2017, digital print, 24 x 42 cm. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Sophia Al Maria, ‘Dirty Balm’ (“Everything Must Go” series), 2017, digital print, 24 x 42 cm. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

London-based artist Sophia Al Maria‘s work deftly examines the export of American capitalism and military might to the Gulf States, which led the artist to coin the term “Gulf futurism”.

Al Maria’s father hailed from a Bedouin tribe and had family in Doha, Qatar. The artist, filmmaker and writer, born in 1983 in the United States, studied Comparative Literature at the American University of Cairo and successfully completed her MFA in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College London in 2009. In 2016, her work was shown at international organisations worldwide, including Biennial of Moving Images (Zurich, Switzerland), the Whitney Museum (New York, United States), Sursock Museum (Beirut, Lebanon), Villa Empain-Boghossian Foundation (Brussels, Belgium) and Brunei Gallery (London, United Kingdom).

Sophia Al-Maria, 'The Litany' (detail), 2016, sand, glass, smartphones, computer screens, tablet computers and USB cables, with multichannel looped digital video, colour and black-and-white, sound; durations variable. Collection of the artist; courtesy The Third Line, Dubai. Image courtesy the artist.

Sophia Al-Maria, ‘The Litany’ (detail), 2016, sand, glass, smartphones, computer screens, tablet computers and USB cables, with multichannel looped digital video, colour and black-and-white, sound; durations variable. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy The Third Line, Dubai and the artist.

The multidisciplinary artist’s work is currently being exhibited in “Everything Must Go” at The Third Line in Dubai until 1 April 2017. According to the press release, the solo show is an “immersive” look into modern day society:

The exhibition creates an immersive experience, capturing the chaotic, almost apocalyptic act of consuming. The viewer is invited to experience illusions of order in underlying confusion and pandemonium.

Art Radar caught up with the artist to learn more about her newest series, her recent project in Colombia and the thread that ties her work together.

Your father came from a Bedouin tribe and your mother hailed from the United States, where they met and fell in love. Did this melding of two very different cultures have an impact on you and your artwork? How?

In the same way that a landscape might affect a certain artist or growing up in rural Ohio would of course have an effect on anybody’s work. I think that having such different cultural upbringings between growing up in a farm in America’s Pacific Northwest versus being on our own only with women like my aunt, my grandmother and my mother and sister versus being in a huge puppy pile of kids with an endless number of cousins and going out and camping in the desert had an effect on the way that I thought about the world. About differences and really the similarities that America and Arab culture share. Especially Gulf Arab – because the American influence there has been so strong. It is difficult not to draw conclusions about American imperialism in the Gulf and oil activities beginning in the twentieth century really, having a huge impact on the way that people think.

In terms on how it has an effect on my art, these days I am doing things that do not have anything to do with the Gulf at all. I just finished shooting a film in Colombia with a tribe that is matrilineal and although it has something to do with fossil fuel and it is somewhat a fundamentalist horror film, it has nothing to do with either of my backgrounds.

Sophia Al-Maria, 'Black Friday' (still), 2016, digital video projected vertically, colour, sound, 16:36 min. Collection of the artist; courtesy Anna Lena Films, Paris, and The Third Line, Dubai. Image courtesy the artist.

Sophia Al-Maria, ‘Black Friday’ (still), 2016, digital video projected vertically, colour, sound, 16:36 min. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Anna Lena Films, Paris, The Third Line, Dubai and the artist.

While you were growing up, you spent time between the bucolic Pacific Northwest and the “science-fiction landscape” of the Gulf states. Please tell us more about how the collision between the traditions and modernity of the Gulf states led to you coining the term “Gulf futurism”.

I was working in the Gulf in a museum and I had been writing these essays, which became the Gaze of the Sci-Fi Wahabi. I was thinking about the effect that very rapid development was having not just only on the landscape and the cityscape in places in the Gulf but also on people, our way of interacting and on our bodies. It was very much like a body horror exploration of technology.

The essential premise was that if a place could time travel and there was this sort of worm hole that opened up in the Gulf, say in the 1950s and sort of plopped this out in the 21st century, without some of the more organic, natural pacing of industrialisation, etc. What happens? Well, you get this sort of place that is almost a caricature of itself, with people that feel like they have lost their grip on reality. You get essentially this dream state and that dream state is visible and things like the way that government like in the UAE and Qatar have chosen masterplans for the year 2050 complete with hovercraft. That’s what the phrase was attempting to describe.

Sophia Al Maria, 'Attack' ("EVERYTHING MUST GO series", 2017, digital print, 24 x 42cm. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Sophia Al Maria, ‘Attack’ (“Everything Must Go” series), 2017, digital print, 24 x 42 cm. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

What does that term mean exactly? Do you see a kind of futurism more evident in the Gulf states than in the West? Did this atmosphere lead you to use a particular creative medium or pursue a specific creative field?

No. I still do not pursue a specific creative field. I am a screenwriter now by trade. I have been for about five years. I still make videos and edit myself. I am a working artist. My focus has shifted because my geographic location has shifted. At the moment, I am writing a lot of historical drama for British television, which is what I’ve been doing for a living. It’s a completely different mode of creative expression but from the same research-based perspective of wanting to understand the world and why it is like it is.

Tell us about your “vernacular project”, the Gulf Colloquy Compendium that was commissioned by Global Art Forum 6. What did learn about the lexicon of the past and the future from this project?

It was more of something that was a joke to gather up words that one hears in the Gulf or make phrases up. It was inspired by Douglas Coupland – he was coming up with new words for the dictionary for The New York Times. So, I was coming up with phrases that would describe the Gulf to someone who had never been there.

Sophia Al-Maria, 'Black Friday' (still), 2016, digital video projected vertically, colour, sound, 16:36 min. Collection of the artist; courtesy Anna Lena Films, Paris, and The Third Line, Dubai. Image courtesy the artist.

Sophia Al-Maria, ‘Black Friday’ (still), 2016, digital video projected vertically, colour, sound, 16:36 min. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy Anna Lena Films, Paris, The Third Line, Dubai and the artist.

Please talk about your interests in the “isolation of individuals via technology and reactionary Islam, the corrosive elements of consumerism and industry and the erasure of history and the blinding approach of a future that no one is ready for” and how your artwork examines them.

The main thing that links all of my work together is this sort of feeling of dread or a desire to both inform and frighten the audience – or at least to make people feel slightly unsettled with either their perceptions, for example, of the Gulf or perceptions of the future. Increasingly, my work has been focused [on this] – although it has always had a kind of apocalyptic feel or a feeling of something which is to come.

One recent project was a dance piece. A call and response between a person who was imagined to be the last living human and the earliest ancestor who painted this image on a wall in a cave and imagining what that call and response might be across deepest time. These are all things that I think people instinctually feel and living in the 21st century, there’s this inability to see beyond a certain point. Because for example, fiction and science fiction have imagined the future for so long that it feels quite flat.

I feel that it’s very difficult to be optimistic these days and books aren’t very uplifting. Great minds of future casting if they are not thinking of technology in a sort of utopian Silicon Valley circle jerk… When you look outside of that in the reality of the world and the fact that we’re an unsustainable species, existential questions come up that are really important in my work. Whether it’s an audio piece about the question of procreating to work that is specifically about the eventual extinction of humpback whales, it’s sort of like a broad feeling, which is related to the corroded developments of modern or contemporary life.

Click here to watch ‘The Racer’ by Sophia Al Maria on YouTube

As a filmmaker, you received an award for a short film called The Racer. Please tell us about this film and how the subject of drag racing and street driving came to be of interest to you.

That was specifically growing up in Doha. My family all lived in an area where there were a lot of long, unlit roads where people would come out at night and practice and race and sometimes end up in hideous car accidents. That was where my mind was at. It was almost like a eulogy for the boys who die that way. I had a cousin who died. He wasn’t racing but on a road to Saudi. It happened the year before. When you’re in Doha, you see the carcasses of the vehicles all along the road. So, it’s quite dark. That’s where the interest came from.

Your video entitled Black Friday is an ode to consumerism through an American export: the shopping mall. What surprising discoveries did you uncover through this work? 

It was a labour of love on the part of the Whitney staff and also the mastermind of the actual technical element, who was a guy named Pierre DePaz who actually works at NYU Abu Dhabi now. We were working on that monstrosity at the Whitney with one hundred videos on the floor, with sand and broken glass. So, that was quite an effort!

In terms of the Black Friday piece, it was quite funny because it’s so loud that the security guards had to wear earplugs. For three months, they had to bring earplugs to work – otherwise, it would damage their hearing. I did have a good session with a group of teens through a class that they do there and it was fun talking with them about advertising language and taking it apart and reusing it to sell the truth.

"Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday", 26 July - 31 October 2016, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Installation view of 'Black Friday', 2016, and 'The Litany', 2016 by Sophia Al-Maria. Collection of the artist; courtesy Anna Lena Films, Paris and The Third Line, Dubai. Whitney Museum of American Art; New York. Photo: Ron Amstutz. Image courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art.

Sophia Al-Maria, “Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday”, 26 July – 31 October 2016, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Installation view of ‘Black Friday’, 2016, and ‘The Litany’, 2016. Collection of the artist. Photo: Ron Amstulz. Image courtesy Anna Lena Films, Paris, The Third Line, Dubai, and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Please tell us about your video series “The Future was Desert” and the future of mankind as you see it.

That piece was commissioned by the Global Art Forum in Dubai as well. It was a response to a prompt provided to everyone who was invited and had the same concept regarding the future of different things. I had been in South Africa and I had seen my first rock art. That had a huge effect on me because it made me feel like I was experiencing vertigo in time. When you think forty thousand years ago someone was standing here painting this or twenty thousand years ago someone walked up to this hill. Out in the Cederberg Mountains in random places you are out there on your own, just wandering around and you find these images of weddings and the hunt. There’s no guide. It’s like you’re discovering it on your own, which is very special. It was inspired by that.

Both the Future was Desert 1 and 2 are essentially like mini-essays or sermons about the way in which the desert has formed us and brought us to where we are and ultimately, is what will come again. The only certain thing about the future is the planet was not always green and someday the planet will not be green again.

Sophia Al Maria, "The Future Was Desert, Part II", 2016, HD video still. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Sophia Al Maria, “The Future Was Desert, Part II”, 2016, HD video still. Image courtesy the artist and The Third Line, Dubai.

Tell us about your new series of work “Everything Must Go” and how it incorporates consumerism with military jargon. I find this particularly relevant in 2017, as businessman Donald Trump has just become the 45th President of the United States.

There are some things in “Everything Must Go” that are directly referencing the new Trump order. It’s like using the cut-up technique, with ingredients of a cosmetic advertisement and a sort of weapons of mass destruction that are used, especially in American military terminology. When you mix those two together, you get these really surreal combinations, which sound almost like they could actually be products and are also just dystopian. Almost like a joke. It’s an almost playful series. There’s one called “Post-Truth Clumper” and there’s phrases like “Nerve Concealer” or “Dirty Bomb” but spelled like lip balm. It’s a way of defusing some of those words that we’ve almost stopped hearing.

Amusingly, Trump’s sons are going to be in Dubai during the opening [of the show]. It’s grotesque what’s happening. I have written a lot of letters to my various Congress people over the last few months and have been waging war with my Trump-voting family, which is really good because those conversations through extreme amounts of patience and by genuinely trying to engage, seem to be yielding some positive results. But it’s definitely not super easy.

Lisa Pollman

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Related Topics: environment, film, technology, globalisation, multimedia, historical art

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