In her memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth (2012), Sophia Al-Maria, who was raised as a bicultural Muslim, says she feels like a “deep-sea diver, adjusting constantly to the pressures of […] two very different environments.” The reason she feels in permanent exile is because, as a child, she was shuttled back and forth between the port cities of Tacoma, Washington, and Doha, Qatar. While Tacoma stayed pretty much the same, she saw Doha transformed into a megalopolis with large planned communities and The Pearl, an artificial island with an extensive canal system and numerous residential towers. Qatar, which gained its independence from England in 1971, has a population of around 3 million, about half of which are expatriates. Half of Qatar’s population lives in Doha and its suburbs.
We learn from Al-Maria’s memoir that her mother, Gale, is a farm girl from Puyallup, Washington, and that her father, Matar, is a Bedouin from Qatar. At one point in her adolescence, while “ping-ponging” between Tacoma and Doha, she realizes that she doesn’t belong to either culture. This feeling of distance and estrangement is palpable in her first solo exhibition in the United States, the video and installation, Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday, at the Whitney Museum of American Art (July 26–October 31, 2016), organized by Christopher Y. Lew, associate curator.
The exhibition brings together two works, the digital video, “Black Friday” (2016) and the installation, “Litany” (2016), to create a loud, jarring, immersive environment. “Black Friday,” a term marking the first day after Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, is here used to invoke Friday as a blessed day for prayer in Islam. The digital video is on a loop that lasts a little less than 17 minutes. It is projected vertically on the gallery’s far wall, becoming a massive portal spanning from floor to ceiling. The vertical projection squeezes the images, stretching them out to a disorienting degree, an effect Al-Maria compounds with a jarring soundtrack punctuated by assaultive noises and the voices of three narrators, each of whom speaks briefly and pointedly.
“Litany,” which is at the foot of the video projection, consists of a low mound of sand, glass and glitter extending into the gallery space. It is littered with flickering smart phones, tablets and computer screens, complete with black USB cables snaking back to a power source. All of the screens are bristling with images and soundtracks from 100 video loops. Together, “Black Friday” and “Litany” make for an aggressive, loud, and immersive experience that might put off the faint-of-heart, who might be more used to easy viewing and listening, but that seems a weak excuse not to see and hear this forceful combination.
Picking up on the term Afrofuturism, which combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and African cosmologies, Al-Maria coined the term “Gulf Futurism” to describe a view of the future shaped by video games and Hollywood films. Her hypnotically discordant installation belongs to this genre. The minute I opened the glass doors to the darkened, black-walled gallery, I was greeted by a loud groaning sound that made me think of a malfunctioning foghorn. The first thing I saw was a tall woman in a black abaya and black platform heels striding slowly across a huge rotunda. She is seen only in profile. The vertical projection stretches her out, making her incredibly tall and even more elegant. We seem to be looking up at her, as if we are children. Interestingly enough, Al-Maria used a drone to film ”Black Friday,” which takes place in malls that seems both temple and labyrinths. At one point, the birds-eye view takes us above a canal running between two floors of unoccupied stores, all lit in a weird Singapore Sling glow. This part was likely filmed in an unfinished mall on The Pearl.
The harsh, grating soundtrack made me feel – and I am sure this was deliberate – as if I were watching a sci-fi film, even as Al-Maria roots the imagery in the current world. At one point, David Lynch’s Dune (1984) came briefly to mind. An unseen male narrator announces that the mall is “where the glamorous heart of evil is born.” Echoing William Blake, he goes onto say that this evil did not bloom in the “dark satanic mills of the 19th century but the bright fluorescent malls of the 21st.” The message is clear: production isn’t going to destroy us, but consumption will. The opposite of a factory, the mall’s sole purpose is to temporarily satisfy our desire to consume, as the narrator says, “precious merchandise [that] transforms into worthless junk.” We are creating waste faster than we can dispose of it.
The voiceover wasn’t always clear amid the din, and I had to strain to hear what was being said, which I found interfered with my reception of the work. This can be remedied. In another part of the video we are given an aerial view of what could be escalators. We hear a young woman recount seeing an American soldier in civilian clothes when she and her sister were in a mall, someone she recognizes as a classmate back in Tacoma, but she doesn’t try to break the wall between them. Again, I had to listen to this section several times but I still didn’t get it all.
I found the best way to experience Al-Maria’s installation is to sit on the bench against the back wall and watch “Black Friday” more than once. I think you need to see it at least twice before you really begin to absorb it. To say that the mall’s architectural detailing is weird is an understatement. Is the angle of the escalator too sharp or is that a distortion caused by the vertical projection? Why do you need a canal? Is it because you want shoppers to think they are in Venice, Italy? Are the electric lamps by the doorways to the stores supposed to remind you of 19th century gas lighting? What about the painting of the cloud-filled sky on the ceiling and walls? Is this because of the prohibition against idolatrous images or a way to make the oversized space feel even larger than it actually is? The whole film seems to be staged on a succession of extravagant Hollywood sets – overdone, incongruous, outlandish, excessive, pretentious, and creepy.
If “Black Friday” is the mall, “Litany” is the shimmering graveyard of electronic devices connecting us to each other and to the internet. Flashing across the screens lying in the sand are demolished buildings; logos and brand names; phrases like “Authority Appraised and Approved,” “Stick Together” and “Skin Elimination Materials”; an upside-down view of clothing and handbags on a sales rack; a herd of goats; and a Bedouin man, overlaid with media images, facing away from the camera. Al-Maria matches the architectural excess with the repetitive excess of production and obsolescence. What kind of purgatory is this, where you need to know about “skin elimination materials?” What does it mean to recognize someone you met at school and realize he would not know you in your abaya, but might instead see you as something good for “target practice?” What about the disconnection you feel looking at the electronic devices broadcasting messages that seem either meaningless or empty? The loud, insistent soundtrack and visual disjunctions are not aesthetic but actual. This isn’t science fiction but, for some, everyday life. In the midst of all this disturbing excess, Al-Maria remains fascinated, which is why her work doesn’t devolve into didacticism.
In a program note to one of his concerts, Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “art is the cry of distress uttered by those who experience at first hand, the fate of mankind.” I don’t think that “Black Friday” is a cry of distress. It is the cold flame of anger and disgust transformed into art that is bedazzling and clanging.
Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through October 31.