Sophia Al-Maria, Everything Must Go, 2017. All images courtesy The Third Line Gallery, Dubai.
Sophia Al Maria (b. 1983, Qatari-American) has left a definitive mark in Gulf Art History. She was one of, if not the first GCC-national to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2016 and has coined the term ‘Gulf Futurism’, a term that characterizes everything from branding strategies to state-sponsored urban planning of the regions’ markets and institution. To the most basic sense, Gulf Futurism refers to the longing for the future that Gulf leaders share. It has to noted, for readers who would not be aware, that Qatar or the United Arab Emirates were founded less 60 years ago. Except for a few settlements on coasts and oases, most of these countries’ territories were vast deserts that Bedouins would courageously inhabit. The mega-museums, mega-malls and mega-skyscrapers, which have come today to symbolize the region as a whole, are relatively new inventions, that only young generations grew up with. Perhaps like the youth, the Gulf shows a kind of impatience to a better future. Gulf countries are in transit, and they cannot wait to get to their destination.
But what exactly is this ‘future’ destination made of? What characterizes the vision for year, say, 2030? 2050? 2100? At this rate, one would perhaps think of a world made of glass, aluminum, concrete, plastic and electronic chips. Ultra-modern medical facilities. A/C controlled air environments. Beverly Hills-types neighborhoods. Malls that become so huge they turn into cities. While all these things and buildings represent a fabulous upgrade from harsh and simple Bedouin life, they develop a lifestyle requiring a radically new set of moral codes and vocabulary. This is exactly the issue Sophia Al Maria tackles in this exhibition: a series of 39 new words referring directly to 21st century inventions which well describes our near future postmodern condition.
Entering the Third Line Gallery felt like entering the left-overs of Dubai’s matrix. The unwanted items of the bright and luxurious stalls of shopping malls were piled up in the middle of the room. Bags of chips, reading ‘Emirati Pofaki’ gave color and nostalgia to sculptural shopping carts superposed unto one another. Anyone who has been in the UAE long enough knows about the iconic Emirati Pofaki, a local version of Cheetos, which is now only sold at gas stations. Attached to these carts are the beloved Nokia mobile phones from the 2000s, giving the viewer an air of nostalgia for earlier days of a more contained form of consumption. On the walls however, a mathematical arrangement of images made on Photoshop renders what the future of Gulf consumption could look like. Over-saturated, over-pixelated, over-layered: these prints are too yellow, too green, too red. They are uncomfortable yet familiar to the eyes of any graphic design aficionado, representing what happens when one spends too much time on the Adobe Suite. Postcards from future consumer, these images each have stand for a word, spelled in yellow capitalized sans-serif: ‘ballistic’, ‘tear gas toner’, ‘tactical’, ‘age defiant’, ‘mist’, ‘mattifying’, ‘methane gel’, ‘retreat’ or my favorite, ‘silky smooth’. Some words present the simulacrum’s marketing buzzwords, such as ‘retreat or ‘mist’. Some stand for social factors like ‘age defiant’, while others present the future human as ‘tactical’ or ‘ballistic’. Most of Al Maria’s vocabulary provokes an uncomfortable feeling with the viewer, who suddenly becomes aware of his or her body. What does a mattifying powder really do for an oily face? Does the body gel from the supermarket actually incorporate methane gel? Wait.. what is methane gel? Confused, viewers continue to the next image at the same speed they would scroll down their Instagram feed.
The malls of Doha and Dubai have created a culture that extends way beyond the confines of their parking lots. Everything Must Go is a subtle, implicit, multi-layered critique this unique Gulf mall culture, and Al Maria warns us of what is to come at this rate of consumption.