For rising stars Sophia Al-Maria and Sara Naim, London has become home, muse, master and patron
t’s been nearly two decades since the heyday of Damien Hirst and his fellow crew of rabble-rousing Young British Artists, but the London art scene is as vibrant as ever. Case in point: the work of Sophia Al-Maria and Sara Naim. Artist Al-Maria, who has shown everywhere from the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea to the New Museum in New York, and photographer Naim are navigating the rapid growth of the Persian Gulf region, each with progressive, provocative narratives but from divergent perspectives. Al-Maria observes the urban environment and is credited with coining the term Gulf futurism, which refers to the region’s pop-up metropolises, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Naim, meanwhile, explores remnants of the past, for instance, documenting ancient trees in Dubai for her series Portraits of Natives. For both artists, London has allowed extension and refinement of their individual work and outlook on the towering cities of the desert.
A self-portrait by Naim
“London allows you to be whoever you want to be, in the cheesiest sense,” says Naim, who is of Syrian origin and grew up between London and Dubai. “It has options to cater to any taste.”
Naim believes Middle Eastern contemporary art hinges on questions of identity, and her work, which she describes as “thoughtful and nonsensical,” explores those questions through investigations of the region’s history. “Where are we without the past?” she asks. “Dubai is assumed to have such little amounts of it, but the land has always been there. What about the Bedouins that occupied those lands for centuries? They built our foundations of history alongside the trees that surrounded them. With fewer Bedouins and more skyscrapers, the trees look like odd skeletons that have been left behind.”
(Left) Naim relaxes in her studio in front of one of her works; (right) Naim’s photographs of Dubai, such as this one of a dead palm tree in the desert, are provocative portraits of a region famous for its booms and busts
The wizened trees in Naim’s photos reveal the challenge of survival in natural desert environs. The notion that these places are just a stone’s throw away from whizzing cities is described by Al-Maria in her memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth. While Naim’s focus is the historical, Al-Maria succeeds because she so clearly articulates the tension between modernity and tradition.
“The Gulf is a linchpin, a sort of preview of the future, all pumped by fossil fuels,” Al-Maria says. “The way I began thinking about it was seeing the way my family was struggling to adapt to change. It was as if a wormhole opened up and caused them to skip a hundred years or more forward in time.”
Artist Sophia Al-Maria speaks at a commencement ceremony at Northwestern University in Qatar
l-Maria was born near Seattle to an American mother and a Qatari father. She studied comparative literature in Cairo before focusing on visual arts in London and eventually settling there. “I have a clearer vision of Qatar having lived in London,” she says. “The two are very intermingled. I see people here I would never see in Doha. Class is laid bare.”
For her, regarding Middle Eastern art and thinking, “London is key.” Goldsmiths, part of the University of London system and home to one of the world’s most influential art departments, allowed Al-Maria the freedom to make art—films, photos, sculptures and soundscapes—and select her own course readings. In short, Al-Maria was able to come to grips with her artistic character.
Her experience was not wholly unique. For many, London serves as a crucial muse in Middle Eastern contemporary art.
“There was a project called Edgeware Road Project generated by the Serpentine [Gallery],” says Al-Maria. “The entire project was predicated on the importance of London as an Arab center.”
Crystalized by an exhibition in 2012, the Edgeware Road Project encouraged encounters between artists and residents of a bustling neighborhood heavily influenced by Arabic immigrants and Arabic culture north of the Serpentine Gallery’s Hyde Park home. The intent was to spark open dialogue about politics and mores. First explored locally, the findings were expanded through collaborations with two partner institutions: the Townhouse Gallery, in Cairo, and Ashkal Alwan: The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, in Beirut.
Within London, institutions like Goldsmiths and the Serpentine continue to serve as links in the creative chain between England and the post-oil Gulf. Through them, and through people like Al-Maria and Naim, the city yet again is helping to define a generation of distinctive contemporary artists. Only this time, the shock and awe of the YBAs has been replaced with questions that are inescapably human: Where are we going? And what will become of the past?
FRIEZE ART FAIR, LONDONOCTOBER 15–18, 2014
Since 2003, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover have staged the Frieze Art Fair in London’s Regent Park. Their aim to create an event of equal cultural and commercial value has helped change the tone of art fairs globally.
This fall, participating artist Sophia Al-Maria will mount an installation questioning the nature of how art is displayed for everyday people. Inspired by John Carpenter’s film They Live, Al-Maria’s work will employ icons from cave paintings and petroglyphs to expose an art world conspiracy. But it won’t be for sale. “I don’t view my work on a commercial level,” she says, adding that the power of art lies in the potential to provoke critical conversation.
For more information on the Frieze Art Fair, visit friezelondon.com.
Nick Schonberger is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and coauthor of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.
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