Towards the end of Black Friday, the film that forms the centrepiece of her show at the Whitney in New York, Sophia Al-Maria tells the story of the time she and her sister were riding the escalators in a mall in Doha. She notices a guy she took algebra with in high school a few steps ahead of her, hanging out with a group of his own friends. She doesn’t call out, because she knows he won’t recognise her. She is wearing her abaya, her hair covered, and the guy from algebra is a US serviceman on his day off. The classroom they sat in together is more than 7,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest. Rather than shatter the glass wall that keeps her two lives separate, she simply carries on shopping.
I meet the 32-year-old Qatari-American artist in a windowless room a few floors up from the exhibition space. This is her first solo show in the US, the high point so far of an artistic career that has encompassed science fiction, sculpture and film-making. (She has a day job as a screenwriter for TV, “because video art does not pay”.) Today Al-Maria is just off the plane from London, and speaks with the slightly stoned drawl of the jetlagged. “This may be the worst interview ever,” she warns me. But she is nothing if not used to air travel. Her upbringing involved “ping-ponging” between her mother’s home town in Washington state and her Bedouin father’s native Qatar. Unsurprisingly, she never quite felt she belonged in either place, an experience that forms the basis of her 2012 memoir .
You might assume that it would involve tales of being catapulted from the liberal west into a land of traditional values and narrow horizons. Far from it. “I would go to the Gulf and feel that I was part of the world,” she tells me. “I would listen to pop music on the radio that I didn’t hear in the States, I would have access to technology, to video games, to pirated films, to Indian and Chinese and European stuff. I felt very much that that was where I wanted to be, and when I came back to the States, it was like the same TLC song being played on repeat.”
It is that turbocharged, frenetic Middle East, where everyone is glued to their jawwal, or mobile phone, with which Al-Maria has become identified. If you read about her, you’ll find out that she coined the phrase “Gulf futurism” a tag that invokes the space-age towers of entrepôts like Dubai and their hyper-connected thobe-wearing inhabitants. But when she brings it up, it’s with an eye-roll. “I reserve the right to disavow every work and everything that I’ve ever said because oftentimes, even six months later, I’m like: that was stupid. That’s a little bit how I feel about that term, because it has been taken to mean some kind of aesthetic, when, in fact, what I was talking about was a sort of time travel.” In other words, the vertigo-inducing changes that have transformed the lives of family members who otherwise “still keep goats and still make cheese in an inside-out sack”. She talks of “people that I love being sucked into their devices”.
Indeed, despite her obvious affection for the Gulf, she’s well alive to its dystopian potential. For the rest of the summer, visitors to the Whitney will be greeted by a juddering, malevolent din emanating from a room just off the main lobby. These are the sounds of and its companion piece, Litany, 113 separate videos displayed on mobile devices strewn across a bed of sand at the foot of the main screen. Every so often the noise is interrupted by the voice of Sam Neill, who declares, among other things: “This is where the glamorous heart of evil is born. And reborn. Not in the dark satanic mills of the 19th century but the bright fluorescent malls of the 21st.” We see extraordinary distorted images of marble halls, mannequins lit with psychedelic colours, empty escalators running ad infinitum. It’s at once sumptuous and extremely disturbing.
“It’s a nightmare sermon,” Al-Maria explains. “Like a bad trip, basically.” Much of it was filmed using a drone, at a yet-to-open mall in Doha. A veiled woman wanders this vacant paradise, presumably after everyone else has been spirited away by the apocalypse. At the end, she lies prone on the beautiful polished floor, dead from luxury.
Insofar as religion and hijab crop up in Al-Maria’s work they’re relatively unobtrusive. The abaya is simply what women wear in , and when she’s there, Al-Maria does too. There’s no polemic about the clash of civilisations – which isn’t to say that people’s ideas about how Islam relates to the west don’t get foisted on her work. For instance, she found herself at the centre of a media storm in New Zealand after her film For Your Eyes Only, which depicts a group of Qatari women getting ready for a wedding, was shown at a gallery near Wellington. “It was in a side-room where only women and young children were allowed to go, the same way that there would be that sort of safe space at a wedding in the Gulf,” she says.
But the exclusion of men from a taxpayer-funded gallery sparked a heated debate. The piece was labelled “inflammatory and provocative”. Al-Maria points out that there was no outcry when at London’s Meltdown festival in 2012. The difference, I point out, is Islam. Lots of people hate Islam. “They’re titillated, let’s face it,” she responds. “They hate it and they’re titillated. That’s the gross thing, the thing that must be defused.”
I ask her to elaborate, though she’s reluctant. “That’s a really big conversation to go into. How long have you got? I’m not sure that I want to step into that minefield right now. But I have lot to say about it. I’m sorry.”
Still, she furnishes me with an example. When The Girl Who Fell to Earth was being prepared for publication, she went to the designers with a kind of presentation to help show them what to avoid. “It was basically every ridiculous cover of a woman in a veil, Hijabs and Thongs, Hijabs and Snogging or whatever … it was giving them a sort of context in which to understand: don’t do this to me. Because this is not what this book is. It’s going to be on an airport shelf, great, but I don’t want someone to be attracted to it because they want to see what’s ‘behind the veil’.” Job done, she thought. Or not. “They took no heed, and the first cover I got back was a woman in an Afghani burqa, with a go-go boot sticking out.” She raises her hands in disbelief.
The cover ended up being designed by an artist friend, Chris Kyung: a map of the earth complete with Seattle’s and the Sheraton Doha. It is eccentric, science-fictiony, much closer to her idiosyncratic sensibility. She tells me she “can’t be a spokesperson” or a “native informant”. “I don’t feel like I’m a native of anywhere, so, it just feels…” she shrugs. Al-Maria’s voice is undeniably all her own. What’s clear is that more and more people are now going to hear it.