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Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art

In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), a character posits that the zombies are flocking to the mall because of “[s]ome kind of instinct. Memory. It’s what they used to do. This is an important place in their lives.” As Romero’s zombies siege the mall, the filmmaker critiques consumerism and how it has penetrated the human condition. The mall acts as a refuge, housing a bounty of merchandise that could sustain the protagonists into the apocalypse, but also becomes a site of horror. Without the gore of flesh-eating zombies, Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday at the Whitney Museum of America Art presents an equally ominous vision of malls in the Gulf region. Qatar, where the artist was partially raised, has been negotiating its nomadic and Bedouin heritage, being a former British colony, and becoming an oil-rich independent country engaged with Western brands and consumer culture. Al-Maria provocatively probes the simulation and disorientation involved in place—electronic or physical—as it relates to conspicuous consumption and her investigation of “Gulf Futurism.”

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

Sophia Al-Maria. Black Friday, 2016, and The Litany, 2016; installation view, Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday (July 26-October 31, 2016), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the Artist. Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Paris and the Third Line, Dubai. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

Al-Maria exhibits two works, Black Friday (2016) and The Litany (2016), that hold together as a single piece through their proximity and related content. The artist presents Black Friday as a narrow but epically tall floor-to-ceiling video projection. In contrast, The Litany occupies the adjacent ground with a jumble of flashing smartphones and flatscreen monitors strewn about a low pile of sand—a reference to the Gulf desert and landscape in general. While the physicality of the work plays with verticality and horizontality—thus portrait and landscape—Al-Maria’s video Black Friday interrupts this clarity with whirling and askew camera angles. Despite occupying only a narrow portion of the gallery’s walls and floor, the thundering soundtrack of horns, synthetic sounds, and bits of voiced narrative reverberates and activates the entire gallery, even extending into the lobby. As Al-Maria plays with spatial relationships, viewers navigate their orientation to image, object, and sound, both establishing and confusing landscape and place.

Sophia Al-Maria. Black Friday (still), 2016; digital video projected vertically, color, sound; 16:36. Collection of the Artist. Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Paris, and The Third Line, Dubai.

Sophia Al-Maria. Black Friday (video still), 2016; digital video projected vertically, color, sound; 16:36. Collection of the Artist. Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Paris, and The Third Line, Dubai.

With her title Black Friday, Al-Maria invokes the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of American shoppers, sometimes zombie-like, flock to malls to commence Christmas shopping. While Black Friday indicates when retailers first begin to show a profit for the year, the term also suggests the darkness of black magic or the gothic. In contrast to the frenzied holiday shopping season of the West, the video presents a rather unoccupied Doha mall where its quiet and stillness is unsettling. Additionally, Al-Maria’s jumble of smartphones in The Litany alludes to online consumption with heavily pixelated and processed imagery of pornography, Western brands like Chanel, Nike, Nestlé, and Adidas, and American currency alongside imagery of isolated figures. As Black Friday is being superseded by Cyber Monday, the artist presents two forms of commerce—physical and virtual—where disruptions allude to the uncanny or a sense of perilousness.

In contrast to the architecture of Romero’s modernist and more middle-class 1970s mall, some newer American malls like Westfield San Francisco Centre and Los Angeles’ The Grove have been attempting to challenge online sales by enhancing the shopping experience through the class and heritage associated with traditional architectural elements like Beaux-Arts flourishes and outdoor Main Street models. Black Friday’s Doha mall also turns to traditional architecture, with inlaid marble Islamic patterns, arches, vaulted ceilings, and spiral staircases; except for few glimpses of storefront signs, one might never even recognize this as a mall. Gulf malls cater to the oil-rich strata of society; Al-Maria’s video shows a trompe loeil painted ceiling and Venetian canals that simulate the world. In the booming soundtrack, an authoritative voice comments on how the mall’s air conditioning, order, and isolation preserve or entomb consumer and cultural activity. The Gulf mall simulates the world and commercial interconnectedness, just as high-end malls and Las Vegas’ miniature monuments replicate the world for Americans. As architecture constructs cultural and economic identities, it also presents simulated space as convenient, safe, and a place of suspended animation.

Sophia Al-Maria. Black Friday, 2016 (still); digital video projected vertically, color, sound; 16:36. Collection of the Artist. Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Paris, and The Third Line, Dubai.

Sophia Al-Maria. Black Friday, 2016 (still); digital video projected vertically, color, sound; 16:36. Collection of the Artist. Courtesy of Anna Lena Films, Paris, and the Third Line, Dubai.

While the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra or Parliament mixed ancient Egyptian and traditional African motifs with futuristic extravagances to speculate on an era of liberation, Al-Maria’s “Gulf Futurism” critiques the region, though through a more dystopic and banal language. While Afrofuturism imaginatively addressed cultural, economic, and political inequality in the U.S., Gulf Futurism posits that the making and remaking of cultural and architectural identity through colonization, civil wars, nation-building, and rapid economic development has resulted in sociohistoric displacement and terror. For example, Al-Maria observes how new, futuristic, highly designed glass-and-steel buildings are transforming the once modest desert landscape that used to be peppered with nomadic Bedouin tents. In a scene featuring a woman dressed in an abaya with what appear to be expensive open-toe high heels, Al-Maria questions how Qatar negotiates Islamic strictures regarding modesty with conspicuous consumption. While the imagery in Black Friday’s video feels of the present, the heavily synthesized soundtrack and authoritative narrator take on an omniscient and futuristic voice. Additionally, the glitchy mobile screens suggest breakdown and error, and their placement on the ground positions them as detritus from the dystopian future and foresees the technology’s inevitable obsolescence.

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

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

Al-Maria presents the mall as a liminal space of verticality, askew angles, and artifice. She questions if purchasing Western commodities equates to, or is a desirable as a form of, participating in culture, as well as the relevance of having an architectural place dedicated to commodity culture, and the physical presence of mobile screens where consumption and social exchange are virtual.

Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 31, 2016.

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