BY Jennifer Kabat in Interviews | 03 MAY 16
Featured in
Issue 179

Sand Begets Glass

Ahead of her upcoming solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York, Sophia Al-Maria talks shopping malls, war, climate change and Gulf futurism

BY Jennifer Kabat in Interviews | 03 MAY 16

In the 1990s, Sophia Al-Maria exiled herself from American teenhood by choosing to live in her grandmother’s home in the Qatari capital, Doha. There, she had a front-row seat for the cataclysmic cultural and environmental changes unleashed on the Gulf by extraction industries, climate change and mobile technologies – the subjects that have become the focus of her work. The dark sides of technology and late capitalism are the thematic hallmarks of her films, installations and writings. She first discussed these issues in her essays on ‘Gulf futurism’ – a concept she initially articulated in 2007 – and in her memoir-as-novel The Girl Who Fell to Earth (2012). The fragmenting identities explored in her writing continue to inform her installations and film projects, while her unfinished feature film, the rape-revenge fantasy Beretta, looks at sexual violence in Egypt. Characterized by a pessimism she calls ‘doomy’, her work certainly has a dark seam running through it but, in conversation, Al-Maria reveals a lively sense of history and family, as well as a profound curiosity about the world. She talks, too, about her first US solo show, which opens in July at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. 

Sophia Al-Maria, The Gazed of Sci Fi Wahabi #5, 2008, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Third Line, Dubai

Jennifer Kabat  When you first started talking about ‘Gulf futurism’, it began with mobile phones and shopping malls, while your 2014 show, ‘Virgin with a Memory’ at Cornerhouse in Manchester, explored sexual violence. What are your plans for the Whitney? 

Sophia Al-Maria  I want to do something relevant to the Gulf but not Gulf-specific, to avoid alienating an American audience. So: the shopping mall. I’ve been stewing on it as a global interzone that transports everyone to the same-yet-other place. But I don’t want to give you any spoilers. Just know it will be scary.

JK  Fear is a big element in your work. How does it manifest in shopping malls? 

SA  When you go to one, you experience a series of subtle cold shudders. It’s part of the scripted environment the architect Victor Gruen created in his original plans for malls in the US from the 1950s onwards. The ‘Gruen transfer’ – the moment in which the mall’s intentionally confusing architecture disorients people – is one part of the horror. Your jaw goes slack, your walking pace slows, you’re more sensitive to suggestion. Then there’s the confession booth of the fitting room: there’s grey light; nothing fits right; you’re sweating. You’re confronted by the ‘real’ you. It’s this temperature-controlled hell-scape and you have to buy your way out. I’ve seen it in Hong Kong, the Middle East and London. The malls have all the same stores: you get this repetition and it hurts. I don’t know how to articulate it yet but, visually, I’m hoping to get there.

JK  I know: I can go from barely noticing something in a store to thinking it will transform my life. In your work, you recognize your own experiences and use them as a larger way of thinking about the world. With the Whitney show, though, you said you were worried about alienating audiences and being too Gulf-specific? 

SA  I’ve been having these conversations since I was at university in Cairo. My friends were suspicious of anyone who played the native-informant card. Since then, I’ve written a memoir and I’ve used home videos in my work but I can have conflicted feelings about them – like with my installation Sisters (2015).

JK  Sisters uses found YouTube footage of girls dancing in their bedrooms. The video can be read in multiple ways. I showed it when I was teaching in Qatar and New York; in Doha, it sparked a shouting match between students about the representation of Qatari women. 

You can't talk about the future without considering the past, and the present in less than dust. Sophia Al-Maria

SA  Even though the women in the video aren’t Qatari?

JK  Some of the Qatari students defended it, saying they do film themselves like that and post it online. In New York, it looked like an exploration of something all girls do and the fantasies they try on. There, Sisters seemed like it was going beyond the ways the West sees the Gulf and all our assumptions about the meaning of dress and identity. 

SA  In Doha, there’s always a disconnect when I meet Westerners – almost a double-take in the middle of our conversation. They don’t expect you to know X writer or to have seen Y movie and wear an abaya.

JK  I noticed my Western biases there, too. At first, you expect the fact that women are covered to mean something but, since everyone wears an abaya, it isn’t a clue to anyone’s values. 

SA  It’s the national dress. 

JK  But the West treats women being covered as a sign of patriarchy, which isn’t to say that patriarchy isn’t an issue, but it’s not in the clothing. 

SA  No: it only means something when I leave Doha. If I’m still wearing an abaya on the plane on my way to Europe, then it becomes a ‘hijab’. I was recently asked to do a performance in London as ‘Sci-Fi Wahabi’ – my persona in my writing on ‘Gulf futurism’ – but I couldn’t. I don’t wear my shayla anywhere but the Gulf, because it becomes problematic only when you’re away, and only through the eyes of the West where its meaning has become completely twisted. The obsession with the hijab in all its forms is really kinky: sometimes it seems like the entire world has a perverse obsession with the bodies of Muslim women. It’s fucked up. 

JK  Discomfort and voyeurism also seem instrinsic to Sisters

SA  Sisters grew from research I’d done for Beretta, my unfinished film that deals with the subjects of sexual presentation as well as sexual violence. In New York, as we’ve been discussing, perceptions of Arab women are very particular, but I’m uncomfortable playing to that. I also have mixed feelings about found footage. On the one hand, the frugal side of me thinks: ‘So much footage exists unused!’ And I love the process of editing with found footage: it’s almost meditative. Yet, there’s this moral discomfort with it, too. Some of these videos are from the 1990s. They look like they’ve been uploaded by someone who found a camcorder tape of a woman dancing for her husband, maybe, or someone spycamming – it’s hard to know who has uploaded what. In a way, I felt like I was reclaiming these videos and giving them this more joyous backdrop because, in trawling for them, you see stuff you never want to see. Regarding yourself in the camera’s eye or the mirror is part of being a young person – maybe more so now than ever: coming into yourself and wondering what looks good. It’s a fantasy. 

Sophia Al-Maria, The Watchers No. 1–5, 2014, video still. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Line, Dubai

JK  How do you see ‘Gulf futurism’ now, nearly a decade later? 

SA  It’s easy to take it as an aesthetic, as many futurisms are. People turned it into just the look of the Gulf as a simulacrum, a videogame, an architecturally rendered world. My own outlook on the future has become more doomy. In fact, it was doomy in the beginning – it was all about this rapture, this digital disappearance that we’re all experiencing as we melt away into the light of our devices. ‘The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi’, an essay I wrote in 2007–08, was inspired by mobile phones and Bluetooth networks, which, when I was at high school in the Gulf, were how people flirted and exchanged clandestine videos. It was a really inefficient proto-Tinder, I guess. It wasn’t just about the Gulf but it was there that I noticed this widening gap between ourselves and others.

JK  Kieran Long, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, told me that the mobile-phone network Orange dropped their slogan, ‘The Future Is Bright, the Future Is Orange’, because nobody believes in the future any more. But, in Qatar, it seemed like the future was being conjured from sand. 

SA  Sand begets glass, so if it gets hot enough these amazing glass buildings will just grow…

JK  And with climate change it could get hot enough. 

SA  My deep, screaming fear for the last few years has been environmental collapse. I see the increasing lack of biodiversity and fossil fuels as a kind of haunting; we plundered them from the Earth, and the Gulf is the lynchpin for this. After World War I, the Saudi pumps started and the disaster of late capitalism began. It was slow-motion at first but now it’s really accelerating and, according to a recent MIT study, the Gulf is not going to be inhabitable by 2100.

JK  How do you feel about the region in the post-Arab Spring world, with the ongoing refugee crisis and recent revelations about US interference in places like Libya?

SA  US interference isn’t exactly a revelation, is it? I’m reasonably certain that the entire planet is so disillusioned by the US that no one would be surprised if every crazy conspiracy theory turned out to be true. The people I know who have personally experienced intimidation, incarceration or myriad other forms of violence from the various villains in this story are also the strongest, most buoyant and best people I know, which I find incredibly inspiring. I have a reputation for being a Debbie Downer, but I’m going to try to be militantly optimistic this year. Resistance against the darkness, I guess. I’ll let you know how it goes... To appropriate a US military term, things do feel pretty FUBAR right now, but that is the case everywhere, not just in the Gulf.

The less real communication you have with people and the more alienated you are, the more paranoid you get and the more unreal everything becomes. Sophia Al-Maria

JK  In The Girl Who Fell to Earth, you describe how, before oil drilling began, Bedouin women were powerful and weren’t segregated.

SA  When my great aunt was 14, she didn’t want to get married. So, she took some goats, ran away and stayed with another family for a year. Just wandering off like that is not possible now. Granted, no girl in our family would get married at 14 today, but at least my great aunt had the opportunity to stretch her legs. Those old Bedouin ladies are the truest examples of our culture, but there is a fundamental difference now. People like my family were coaxed, coerced and sometimes forced from their land. That’s a trauma and brings social problems. There are remote villages in Saudi Arabia where, in the 1970s, everyone just disappeared overnight. Truthfully, life was hard – there was no electricity, plumbing or education – and it would probably have happened anyway. Of course, there are some diehards who still live that way. 

I was invited to the wedding of some relatives a couple of years ago where I met twin sisters who’d never been to the city: they’d been living in the Empty Quarter their whole lives. That unbroken line dating back millennia is only maintained by a couple of families who are still out there living like that. It’s precious, but inevitably it will be lost: everyone wants comfort. Meanwhile, all over the Gulf, governments romanticize Bedouin life. It’s all slow-motion falcons and Saluki dogs.

JK  How do you relate that romanticized version of the past to your notion of ‘Gulf futurism’? The original ideas about late capitalism, wealth, extraction industries and the mobile age are still relevant.

SA  The Gulf is this projection of how the whole world could go. The less real communication you have with people and the more alienated you are, the more paranoid you get and the more unreal everything becomes. That’s a dangerous state to be in.

Sophia Al-Maria, The Watchers No. 1–5, 2014, video installation as part of 'Surround Audience', New Museum, New York. Courtesy: the artist, The Third Line, Dubai, and the New Museum, New York; photograph: Benoit Pailley

JK  In October last year, you were filming in Africa.

SA  I was in Namibia at the Fish River Canyon, which is the second-largest canyon in the world. It’s like going to the Grand Canyon but you’re the only person there. Just imagine that. The canyon dates back to when the supercontinent Pangea broke up: your experience of time there is simultaneously scary and comforting. That trip put the things I am doing for my new work for the Whitney into a deep historical perspective: shopping for the right shade of foundation for your skin tone while learning about the break-up of Pangea would give anyone existential vertigo.

JK  Because you’re thinking about looming environmental disaster? 

SA  That’s part of it. We know our consumer society is quite literally killing us. The extinction we are currently experiencing (or, indeed, ignoring) is fuelled by our desire for fossil fuel. Fossil fuel permeates absolutely everything we do: even this conversation is powered by it. Visiting the Fish River Canyon and the Khoisan and San rock art in southern Africa was a mission for me. I’ve seen petroglyphs in the Gulf and in Washington State but I’ve never seen anything 20,000 years old. Being able to hike to something like that and be alone with it, it’s like being with the ultimate time traveller. These basic technologies – animal fat, urine, blood and rocks – can last for 20,000 years, but Kevlar probably won’t.

JK  It sounds as though, at Fish River Canyon, you were both in the deep geological past and in the future, thinking about what will last and how history haunts us.

SA  Well, you can’t talk about the future without considering the past, and the present is less than dust.

JK  It’s just this moment of hubris.

SA  I’ve got this T-shirt I found in Japan. On the back it says, ‘Fuck the past’ and on the front it says, ‘Fuck the future’. I’m wearing it right now.

Sophia Al-Maria is a Qatari-American artist and writer based in London, UK. Her memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth (Harper Collins), was published in 2012. In 2014, she had her first solo show, ‘Virgin with a Memory’, at Cornerhouse, Manchester, UK. She is the recipient of a 2015 Sundance Institute Fellowship and her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, will open in June.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.