Artist Sophia Al-Maria Wins the US’s First Major Award for Contemporary Middle Eastern Art

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Los Angeles gallerist Shulamit Nazarian have announced the first major American award for contemporary Middle Eastern art. The Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria has won the inaugural Dunya Contemporary Art Prize, which comes with $100,000 and a commission and exhibition at the museum.

“Art offers a powerful and universal language that connects us with what we have in common, educates us about what is different, and builds our curiosity about what we do not understand,” said Nazarian, an Iranian-born art dealer whose foundation supported the prize, in a statement. “Our intention through the Dunya Contemporary Art Prize, and in everything we do thought the foundation, is to build bridges and support an understanding of the diverse cultures of the Middle East.”

Sophia Al-Maria, Major Motions, 2018. Photo: courtesy of the artist, Anna Lena Films and Project Native Informant, London.

Al-Maria’s work explores 21st-century life in the Arabian Gulf nations as the region grapples with rapid economic and urban development, religious conservatism, and inequality. Al-Maria’s installations and videos specifically capture a new spirit of female empowerment in the region and she has been credited with coining the term “Gulf Futurism” to describe the large-scale changes taking places in cities such as Dubai and Doha. In 2016 her work was the subject of a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum.

The artist was chosen by an international jury chaired by MCA senior curator Omar Kholeif, and that included Art Jameel director Antonia Carver; assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Clare Davies; MCA chief curator Michael Darling; and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Sophia Al-Maria, Black Friday, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2016. Photo: Ronald Amstutz.

“Sophia Al-Maria has over the last decade pioneered a new visual language in contemporary art,” the jury said in a statement. “A polymath in the truest sense—an artist, writer, and filmmaker—Al-Maria’s practice illustrates the diversity of ways that artists are working in the twenty-first century. Her critical insights into contemporary culture, examining histories of science fiction, feminism, and the global socio-political condition, feel more urgent now than ever.”

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