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Sophia Al-Maria Wins MCA Chicago’s New $100,000 Prize for Middle Eastern Art

Sophia Al-Maria.

LAURA CUGUSI

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago has revealed that Sophia Al-Maria, the young Qatari-American artist known for her videos and installations about consumerism, the digital sphere, and the Gulf region, is the 2018 winner of its Dunya Contemporary Art Prize. As the prize’s first recipient, Al-Maria, whose work is set to appear in the MCA’s forthcoming show “I Was Raised on the Internet,” will receive $100,000 and a commission to create an exhibition for the MCA.

The Dunya Contemporary Art Prize, which is supported by the Shulamit Nazarian Foundation, will be given biennially to an artist from the Middle East or its diaspora. The award is intended to recognize a mid-career artist, and to promote the exhibition of work by contemporary artists from the Middle East abroad.

“Art offers a powerful and universal cultural 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,” Shulamit Nazarian, who has founded a gallery in Los Angeles and whose foundation helps fund the prize, said in a statement. “Our intention through the Dunya Contemporary Art Prize, and in everything we do through the foundation, is to build bridges and support an understanding of the diverse cultures of the Middle East.”

Though well-known abroad, Al-Maria’s work only recently made a splash in the United States. In 2016, she had her first U.S. solo exhibition, at the Whitney Museum in New York, where she debuted a video and installation that focused loosely on the Gulf’s fascination with shopping malls, as well as the mass proliferation of images via screens in the region. It dealt with a concept that Al-Maria has termed “Gulf Futurism,” or the rapid urban development that has affected countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, making them seem like places from a distant era in the process.

“Al-Maria’s practice illustrates the diversity of ways that artists are working in the twenty-first century,” the jury wrote in a statement. “Her critical insights into contemporary culture, examining histories of science fiction, feminism, and the global socio-political condition, feel more urgent now than ever.”

The prize’s jury was headed up by Omar Kholeif, the MCA’s senior curator and director of global initiatives. It also included Antonia Carver, the director of Art Jameel in Dubai; Clare Davies, the assistant curator of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Michael Darling, the chief curator of the MCA; and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.

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