Black Friday doesn't mean post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzies to Sophia Al-Maria.
In the Qatari-American artist's new exhibit at the Whitney, Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday, individuals with blurred faces wander around shopping malls and collapse on the floor. It's a rumination on the effect of the new oil wealth that led to an influx of shopping malls and consumerism in Gulf Arab nations.
Filmed mostly in empty shopping malls in Doha, Qatar, the video installation combines religious imagery with consumerism as it engages with the concept of shopping malls as temples of capitalism and shopping as a form of religion in the modern age. The title, “Black Friday,” references both the largest shopping day in the American year as well as the holy symbolism of Fridays in Islam.
The exhibition is composed of two works: “Black Friday,” the 16-minute long video, and “The Litany,” an installation of glitchy, flickering screens and old electronic devices mixed with sand and pieces of glass. Both works are installed in a gallery space on the first floor of the Whitney, available to the public free of charge.
Growing up in between two different cultures and countries — the U.S. and Qatar — Al-Maria watched consumerism take hold as Gulf Arab nations prospered, especially the glorification of the American-style shopping malls. They rest in “a weirdly neutral shared zone between cultures that are otherwise engaged in a sort of war of information and image,” said Al-Maria.
Though the Whitney exhibition is her first solo show in the United States, Al-Maria is no stranger to depicting her international perspective. She has spent the past 10 years attempting to creatively unpack modern life in the Gulf Arab nations through her talents as an artist, writer and filmmaker. All of her work focuses on Gulf Futurism, a term she coined, that refers negatively to this recent rapid spread of consumerism and technology in the Gulf Arab nations found in “Black Friday.”
“I can’t tell if I’m in Hong Kong or L.A. or Dubai half the time I walk into a mall,” Al-Maria said. “And that happens more and more these days because the mall is the dominant structure of a certain class group of which I am part. I literally find myself in malls whether on holiday or on my way home from work or on a weekend even, and I am frequently confused as to how I even got there. It’s a place of weird pilgrimage in an era where to consume is to absolve yourself.”