Gulf and Gucci: Sophia Al-Maria Goes Deep Into the Malls of Doha


Sophia Al-Maria is a polymath: memoirist (author of The Girl Who Fell to Earth), theorist (she coined the concept of “Gulf Futurism”), and visual artist. Her interests converge in “Black Friday,” a small but engrossing exhibition at the Whitney that examines Doha malls as battlegrounds between the sacred and profane, Westernization and Islamic visual culture, the past and how we memorialize it. With its bright, opulent imagery and blaring sound, the installation dominates its dimly lit gallery. It’s also unsettling — some visitors covered their ears, and others walked away after a few seconds. Al-Maria has created something sublime, in the classical sense: terrible, overpowering, and driven by grand questions about desire and worship. She’s matched the sensory assaults of shopping but delivers an entirely different set of messages.

The titular video piece, Black Friday, is projected vertically onto the far wall, its shape and size recalling a Renaissance altar. In front of it is The Litany, a sculpture of damaged smartphones and monitors lying on a bed of glass and sand. Still plugged in, they loop commercials or footage of malls; collectively, they sound like dying mice, all skitters and screeches. One screen flashes brand names; another runs an ad for skin-lightening cream.

But for most of its duration (about sixteen minutes), the soundtrack for Black Friday drowns out those devices. The video opens with a shot of two escalators against a blank background (one moving up and the other down, a visual metaphor for purgatory), followed by a series of still and tracking shots through malls in Doha — a pastiche of European Baroque architecture and Islamic motifs and marbles. Brands like Burberry and Gucci are housed in faux-palazzos facing Venetian canals; puffy clouds are painted onto vaulted blue ceilings to create the illusion of the outdoors. Sudden cuts and disorienting effects disrupt the surface of the image: Some shots are tinted red and orange, others swirl and shatter. The viewer is never allowed to feel comfortable in the video’s spaces.

A booming voiceover track expounds on the mall, delivering apocalyptic neo-Marxist quips. Malls, the narrator intones, aren’t places to “ingest, but to be ingested by”; he reminds us that whatever “treasures” we buy immediately turn to “crap” once we leave through the revolving doors. This also refers to the installation of phones, in which once-glamorous goods have turned to detritus — screens left to decompose back into sand.

The video’s climactic passage brings the undertones of calamity to the fore: We see a woman circling a marbled octagonal hall in a shopping center that hasn’t yet opened, as the score becomes a series of rumbling, room-shaking horn blasts, something you might hear on a freight ship or in a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s harsh — the guard on duty uses earplugs — and commanding, suggesting doom, the end-times. The woman is clad head to toe in black, her robes billowing around her in slow motion; a closer look reveals that she’s also wearing heels, blue nail polish, and jewelry. She is in command of the space.

But then the video cuts to still shots of other women, also in black, lying on the floor in palatial halls and stairwells, at such a distance that they’re barely
visible. As with romantic landscape paintings, the setting dominates and people supply scale. It’s unclear if the women have collapsed from ecstasy or exhaustion, if they will get up or remain entombed in these great monuments to consumerism. In Al-Maria’s mall, there is nothing to buy, but something must
be paid.

‘Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday’
Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
Through October 31