The MCA Chicago is starting a new art prize, the Dunya Contemporary Art Prize, and its first winner is Sophia Al-Maria, a Qatari-American artist residing in London.
The biennial honor, which brings the artist $100,000, an exhibition at the MCA and a catalog, is earmarked for an emerging artist from the Middle East or its diaspora and is intended to broaden the MCA’s global reach, part of a push outward at the Chicago museum in the last half decade. The museum made the formal announcement of the prize and its winner Monday.
“We wanted to do something that really made a statement, that said we really have a commitment to the Middle East,” said Omar Kholeif, Manilow Senior Curator and Director of Global Initiatives at the MCA. Kholeif led the jury that selected the prize, which he described as the first of its kind in the U.S. or the United Kingdom.
“Sophia Al-Maria has over the last decade pioneered a new visual language in contemporary art,” says the statement by the jury, comprised of Kholeif, MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling, and three outside experts in the field. “An artist, writer, and filmmaker… her critical insights into contemporary culture, examining histories of science fiction, feminism, and the global socio-political condition, feel more urgent now than ever.”
Reached on Friday in Scotland, where she was attending the Glasgow International art fair , Al-Maria pronounced herself “gobsmacked. Omar called, and I was just shocked, actually. It felt almost like a secret that I wanted to keep because it was so unbelievable.”
The 34 year old was born in Washington state and raised there and in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, she said. Her postsecondary education was in Cairo and in London and she now lives in the British capital.
“I’ve never been near that amount of money to do work. It’s kind of surreal,” she said. “I have to really consider carefully how best to employ it because most of the projects, the unmade projects, that I want to do are unmade because of budgets. So this opportunity is quite special.”
Despite it being a specifically Middle Eastern art prize, however, Al-Maria said she feels that she is at a turning point in her work and is feeling less rooted, more global.
“All of those things I was concerned with for the past ten years, I feel as though I am finished with that chapter, and this is the start of a new one,” she said. “I think that this might be the time to get into some of the questions about America that I’ve been thinking about.”
In her first solo exhibition in the U.S., in 2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Al-Maria debuted a new video, “Black Friday,” which the museum called “a rumination on shopping malls everywhere as secular temples of capitalism.”
Al-Maria, who coined the term “Gulf Futurism” as a means of grappling with the rapid development and its attendant woes in the Persian Gulf, has described the mall as “a weirdly neutral shared zone between cultures that are otherwise engaged in a sort of war of information and image.”
“All of those concerns I feel I’m no longer concerned with,” she said Friday, “like the term ‘Gulf Futurism,’ for example…
“My whole life in a way is a project of, I guess, moving away from designated cultural identities and moving it onto some other plane where one can attempt to not be, perhaps, a Middle Eastern artist or an American artist or a Qatari artist and just be someone who is working.”
The prize is supported by Los Angeles gallerist and philanthropist Shulamit Nazarian, who is committed to funding it through her new, eponymous foundation, for three, two-year cycles.
“Creating a prize will give an ascending artist a chance to be better known and have more attention in our wide spanning, very busy world of contemporary art,” said Nazarian, who grew up in Iran and emigrated here with her family after the Islamic revolution.
As for the prize’s title, she said, “‘Dunya’ means ‘global, universal.’ It’s a word used in many different backgrounds, cultures in the Middle East… It’s a binding, a connecting word.”
She emphasized that the MCA is devoting considerable resources as well, including not just the exhibition — Al-Maria’s will be in Sept. 2019 — but commissions to create new work for it. “It’s definitely a collaboration,” she said.
Kholeif said the prize arose out of conversations with Nazarian, and within the museum, about how best to support an emerging Middle Eastern artist.
“The cash prize enables the artist to live and to be able to produce new work,” he said. “The second thing really important about the prize is the independent jury process… That brings a different process from outside the museum which is very refreshing. And it creates a different kind of spotlight on the artists: ‘This artist has been voted on by these exceptional people.’”
The other jurors for the inaugural Dunya Prize were Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, which supports artists in the Gulf region; Clare Davies, Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London.