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Toronto
Letticia Cosbert
Sophia Al Maria at Mercer Union
May 03, 2018

Anyone who has ever set foot in the Dufferin Mall would balk at the notion that this west end edifice could also double as a temple, yet this is precisely the portrayal of Gulf shopping malls Qatari-American polymath Sophia Al Maria presents in Black Friday, her solo exhibition currently on view at Mercer Union. For the past decade, Al Maria has explored various facets of Gulf culture, specifically its rapid transformation from a region rooted in ancient tradition to one of extreme wealth and capitalism. In Black Friday, she locates the Gulf’s mistrust of western values and its seemingly contradictory adoption of American-style consumerism in a shopping mall – undoubtedly one of Dante’s lost circles of hell.

I entered the gallery, seeing it as I never have: shrouded in darkness and walls painted black. Unidentifiable sounds, loud and reverberant, lead me to a room where the titular single-channel video installation plays. Black Friday begins with its title transliterated into Greek (ΒΛΑΧΚ ΦΡΙΔΑΨ) as two moving walkways traveling in opposite directions appear. A man stands beside a cart filled with plastic bags. A woman (his wife?) is nearby. They both stare off into the distance, equally depressed. We are then transported to another wing of the mall. A woman wearing a niqab glides across the marble floor. I can only make out her gel manicured nails (OPI?) and her glinting silver rings. Later, when she reappears unveiled (though, her face is blurred), her lips are painted a glossy hot pink (was it MAC Cosmetics?) as she applies something to her cheeks (Glossier?) – no doubt spoils from her recent plunder. Though contextualized as a double consciousness, Al Maria leaves no opportunity to misinterpret this critique of capitalism, consumption, and industry.



Sophia Al Maria, Black Friday, 2016, digital video

It is difficult to discern the video’s narrative: various people appear and reappear, mannequins and massage chairs materialize then vanish, the images dissolve, the audio reverberates louder, the images put themselves back together. A voice (Sam Neill) recites what sounds like a poem, but is in fact a text penned by the artist herself. I can only make out one line – “this is where evil is born” – as the video glows with oranges and pinks, as the sky breaks through marble spiral staircases, as black robed bodies lay splattered on the ground. Black Friday has no difficulty reproducing the “dazzling and disorienting effects of labyrinthine shopping malls,” as described by the father of the modern shopping mall Victor Gruen, whose theory inspired Al Maria’s work. Oh, and the title? Nabila Abdel Nabi’s accompanying exhibition essay (which is excellent) notes that it is both a nod to the post-Thanksgiving shopping holiday and to Fridays in general, which are typically reserved for prayer and rest, interspersed with visits to the mall, in the Muslim world. I assure you, Black Friday will make you a repentant capitalist, if only for the sixteen minutes it takes you to view the work.



Sophia Al Maria, Black Friday, 2016, digital video

Reluctantly, I peeled myself away to view the accompanying two channel video work The Future was Desert, Parts 1 & 2, which purports to explore the desert as a harsh fictional landscape and an impending site for human civilization after, perhaps, Ibn Khaldun. Though I must admit I could not bring myself to focus on this particular work while Black Friday’s audio trickled (purposefully) into this space, reminding me that I don’t actually hate Mondays; I hate capitalism.


Sophia Al Maria: Black Friday continues until June 2.
Mercer Union: http://www.mercerunion.org/
The gallery is accessible.


Letticia Cosbert is a Toronto-based writer and editor, and is currently the Digital Content Coordinator at the Koffler Centre of the Arts. She studied Classics, earning a B.A. from the University of Toronto, and an M.A. from Western University, where she specialized in erotic Latin poetry. Her writing and editorial work has been featured in Ephemera Magazine, Sophomore Magazine, The Ethnic Aisle, and publications by Katzman Contemporary, Younger Than Beyonce Gallery, Xpace, and Trinity Square Video. She can be followed on Instagram @prettiletti.

 

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