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 the first GCC-national to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art in 2016. She has also coined the term ‘Gulf Futurism’, which has come to characterize a state of 'permanently looking ahead' applicable to branding strategies and state-sponsored urban planning. To its core, Gulf Futurism refers to the longing for the future that all the GCC leaders share. It has to noted, for readers who would not be aware, that Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates were founded less 60 years ago. Except for a few settlements on coasts and oases and the religious hubs of Medina and Mecca, 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. Only today's young generations grew up amongst these new urban spaces. 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 think of cities 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 constructions represent a fabulous upgrade from harsh and simple Bedouin life, they also require a lifestyle made of a brand 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 vocabulary of 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. 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, a crisp, straight arrangement of images made on Photoshop renders what the future of Gulf consumption looks 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 saturating on Adobe Suite. As postcards from future consumer, these images each 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 are familiar marketing buzzwords, such as ‘retreat or ‘mist’. Some stand as make-up advertisements, like ‘age defiant’, while others suggests adjectives of our future human conditions: ‘tactical’.
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? Do the body gels we use daily contain methane gel? What is exactly methane gel made of? 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 the numbness that is to come at this rate of consumption.