By Erika Balsom
Displayed around the apartment that Sophia Al-Maria sublets in East London are tchotchkes related to the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin. Bookshelves containing works of critical theory and many volumes of Arabic poetry line the walls. The figurines are Al-Maria’s, small enough to pack up easily when it’s time to move again, while the library belongs to the translator whose flat she’s renting, though the books have become of great interest to the artist during her time there.
The mixture of pop culture and serious literature made a fitting backdrop for our discussion of the thirty-six-year-old Qatari-American’s multidisciplinary practice, which often depends on a similar combination of seemingly disparate influences.
Al-Maria grew up between the United States and Qatar before moving to Egypt to attend the American University in Cairo. She then went to London to complete a graduate degree in aural and visual cultures at Goldsmiths. This cross-cultural formation informs the thinking behind “Gulf Futurism,” a concept she coined with her friend and collaborator, Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri. The term suggests that certain aspects of how the West imagines the future are already manifest in the Gulf states of the Middle East. In a text on the subject included in Sad Sack, a collection of her writings published last year, Al-Maria says that the Gulf is a microcosm of global transformations and their attendant social issues. “Perhaps this moment in the Gulf is really just the eye of a great and spreading storm,” she proposes. The region’s accelerated development, petro-capitalist economy, and air-conditioned environments offer a contemporary equivalent to the neon dreams of Japan that populated 1980s cyberpunk novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. As Gibson famously said: the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.
The fractured, nonlinear temporality embedded in the notion of Gulf Futurism, which encompasses both gleaming skyscrapers and the harsh conditions faced by the migrant laborers who build them, recurs in many of the video and installation works Al-Maria has produced since her first solo exhibition, “Virgin with a Memory” at Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2014. In recent work, she has paired science fiction with existing phenomena to tackle the thorny problem of imagining the future at a time that feels like the end. Al-Maria looks ahead, but not in search of a utopia. She describes herself as a techno-pessimist, fascinated by the beauty of ruins.
Al-Maria’s mistrust of narratives of progress comes through distinctly in her video Beast Type Song (2019), which was recently on view at Tate Britain. The thirty-eight-minute single-channel science-fiction story work alludes to a distant “solar war” in order to evoke earthly questions of apocalypse, historiography, Palestinian liberation, and intergenerational relationships. Although much of the artist’s practice is inspired by personal experience—be it her work in film and television or her bicultural upbringing between the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf—Beast Type Song insistently welcomes the voices of others, employing multiple narrators and weaving citations (texts, found footage) from figures such as Etel Adnan, Derek Jarman, and Gillo Pontecorvo throughout. Ahead of her retrospective “Bitch Omega” at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf, I sat down with Al-Maria to discuss various fantasies—and realities—of the apocalypse.
ERIKA BALSOM You have a clear passion for writing: your undergraduate degree was in comparative literature and you began your career not as a visual artist but as a memoirist and screenwriter. You were poised to make your directorial debut with Beretta, a rape-revenge thriller, but then the production ran into difficulties. How was it that you entered the art context?
SOPHIA AL-MARIA I wrote my memoir, The Girl Who Fell to Earth , because my agent told me that young adult science fiction and fantasy was not something I could break into easily. He suggested submitting a bunch of articles I had written for Bidoun with a little blurb. This was in 2008, and the financial crash gave publishing a big scare. It was also at the tail end of a literary trend that really annoyed me: there were all these “native informant” memoirs and coming-of-age stories. I wrote The Girl Who Fell to Earthwith a bit of an eye roll, but it also felt important to write it for the younger version of myself. I’ve never read it again since, but I hear that it mattered to some folks at least, so that seems worthwhile.
There’s no way to survive as a writer unless you have infinite resources, as well as the time, energy, and mental health to spend a lot of time alone. I’m still working as a TV screenwriter, and I still hope to make a feature film, like a lot of artists. The lack of restrictions imposed on artist films can actually start to feel boring, so the artist-to-filmmaker trajectory makes sense, but I did things in reverse: I came from film and fell backward into art. My first show was at the invitation of curator Omar Kholeif, who saw me as an artist before I saw myself as one. He knew about Beretta, the feature film set in Cairo that I had been working on, but the project fell apart over the course of several years. He gave me the gentle encouragement I needed to recover from the difficult and frustrating process of losing creative control over something that I had half-birthed.
BALSOM What did you feel the art context could offer you at that moment?
AL-MARIA The exhibition space allowed me the freedom to present different aspects of a thing without ever having to have an explicit objective, like a finished film. It was a kind of alchemical healing. I love that in the art context there seems to be a tacit understanding of the importance of having complete control. If I were left to my own devices, I would probably still end up making art. It’s hard for me to justify doing books or feature-length film projects, unless there’s some kind of financial incentive. Art really does feel like it comes from that childhood place of just trying to process things.
BALSOM I was struck when I learned in The Girl Who Fell to Earth that your interest in dystopia, which runs through so much of your work, actually goes back to adolescence.
AL-MARIA There’s a reason that dystopian fiction is such a popular young adult genre. Teenagers are hypercritical. I think that the older we get, the less wise we are. I was very nerdy, and I was mostly into old dystopias—but also some contemporary ones. I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi. I love anime. Film was a natural place to lean, especially when I was shuttling back and forth between the two extremes of living in the United States and Qatar. Film allowed me to be critical of both places, and to be outside of both places—which is probably one of the reasons that I live in neither and can’t really foresee living in either again permanently.
BALSOM Beast Type Song ties together your work in the film industry and your interest in science fiction. On the one hand, you craft a fiction about veterans coming back from a distant solar war; on the other hand, the video takes some of its structure from the process of script editing. We are presented with a series of revisions or rewritings, as if getting a behind-the-scenes perspective on film production.
AL-MARIA Years ago, the artist Jesse Darling sent me Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” The CliffsNotes version of the essay’s thesis is that a weapon was not humanity’s first tool; it was a carrier bag. Likewise, storytelling has not always been about a hunt with a beginning, middle, and end, but can be a meandering sweep—a gathering. This has feminist implications for the way we tell stories and also for understanding history and imagining the future.
When I began doing a series of performances and texts for Whitechapel Gallery [in London in 2018] as part of a residency there, that text came in handy. It offered space to move away from the models of working I knew from literature and film, which, by their very nature, need to follow a route. At Whitechapel, I could work on texts that were like tiny little pieces of information that might add up to an attempt at grasping some larger truth. It’s the carrier bag instead of the spear as narrative model.
Beast Type Song also uses the bag format. I think of the work as a constellation thrown out at random. You can watch the sections in any order, but the different pieces are in different times and formats. Some are just drawings with voiceover, some are little scenes that I wrote, some are improvisations. And some are things that other people brought to the project—like performance artist Tosh Basco’s [f.k.a. boychild] segment or my editor Léo Parmentier’s brilliant idea of putting a solarized filter over a scene. In the opening Steadicam shot, you can see everybody who worked on the film, even the animal handlers and the producers. The camera crew and the sound people are reflected in the mirrors that formed part of the set. I think it’s important to make their invisible labor visible, especially in art. Artists usually don’t put credits on the end of a film, and often we end up having arguments with institutions when we want to include them in a wall text instead.
Beast Type Song came about in a way that’s similar to my show at Cornerhouse. Until February or March of last year, I had a totally different project in mind to do with Tate; I’d been in conversation with the organizers for a while. At the time, as I note in the film, I was working as a screenwriter on a television show that began to display symptoms of something going very wrong.
BALSOM We hear in the video that a black character you wrote ended up being cast as white.
AL-MARIA The casting director was very embarrassed. Apparently, the producers and director were not comfortable with casting a black man for that role because there were several sex scenes between him and the show’s lead, a white woman. There was also a great deal of “not every character can be gay,” which was an incredibly frustrating and narrow way of reading the script I’d written. In the end, it became an ideological fight over all these really intense and urgent subjects. There was a fear of “losing the audience,” which is an imaginary and amorphous entity—it’s just all about money. That process was really demoralizing. Beast Type Song was a way of healing from that experience with the support of a lot of really incredible people.
BALSOM There’s a distinct concern with maternity in the work: you invited the performers’ mothers to narrate stories about their children. Your mother talks about a poster of a Palestinian woman that was on the wall in your apartment while you were growing up. What is your relationship to feminism?
AL-MARIA My mom is a white American woman who has, over the course of my life, gone back and forth between sneering at feminism and identifying as a feminist. Growing up partially in the US in the 1990s, I ingested a lot of “girl power” language, which now just feels like feminist lip service. I do not regard the feminist project in the US as a success. Any encounter with the gynecological industry in the West is enough to diminish any belief I had in the outcomes of Western feminism as being somehow superior to any other forms of feminism.
On the flip side, nothing has ever infuriated me or traumatized me as much as being attacked by a mob of soccer hooligans in Cairo, which, one can hope, is maybe not related to my gender, but probably is. This sort of thing would happen even if I was wearing a huge hoodie and no makeup. Still, I have never felt so respected in a professional setting as I do in the Gulf. I relate to [writer and sociologist] Fatmah Mernissi’s ideas around Islam and feminism: she argues against the knee-jerk assumption that Islam is regressive and somehow anti-feminist. I’ve received more support and more understanding in the Gulf than I ever have in the US. I’ve felt freer. It might not be because of Islam. In my father’s family, which is Bedouin, if you are who you are, if you’re not playing a role or being fake, people will respect you. They value honesty. Marriage, for instance, is thought of as a contract and not some sort of romantic ideal. Maybe that doesn’t sit easily with a lot of my other views, but that’s how I feel about the word feminism. And I would, of course, always consider myself a feminist.
BALSOM Can you tell me about Bitch Omega, the new video commissioned for your retrospective at the Julia Stoschek Collection?
AL-MARIA It deals with television, writing, and the idea of interior space; with learning to write and draw in childhood; with learning to read media and history, and then to write about those things. Since I was very young I always drew the same face when I’d doodle in class or on the floor in front of the TV. I called her Bitch Omega. She’ll be in the film.
BALSOM What’s behind your interest in the omega wolf, the wolf that occupies the lowest position in a pack’s hierarchy? I can’t help but think that you are turning away from the idea of the alpha as an emblem of neoliberal self-optimization.
AL-MARIA I think the omega is really important, aside from being a wolf pack thing. I’m dealing with the omega wolf for various reasons that will be explained in the film. Watching documentaries about wolf packs, I was drawn to something about the omega wolf’s downcast gaze. The omega wolf is almost like a jester, or sometimes, a scapegoat; it can also leave the pack. Especially during periods of historical collapse or extinction, there is this idea that the meek will inherit the earth, or that the omega will carry the knowledge. I think of Bitch Omega as taking up a similar idea. It’s a worm’s–eye view on history. It’s like the last angel of history, the Angelus Novus, which I just read about in Etel Adnan’s Master of the Eclipse, where she references Walter Benjamin.
BALSOM Describing the Angelus Novus, Benjamin writes:
“Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them.”
This passage reminds me that you include a lot of trash in your work.
AL-MARIA Bitch Omega is going to be trashy, for sure.
BALSOM Your work can be visually seductive, full of highly ornamental surfaces and shiny technologies, but then there’s often a lot of literal garbage in there too. I’m thinking in particular of your installation at the Whitney Museum in New York, Black Friday , which included a big pile of mobile phones and tablets on the floor beneath a large, vertical projection showing seductive shots of ornate shopping malls. Or there’s all the shopping carts jammed together in Everything Must Go . There’s something very powerful in this juxtaposition of gloss and garbage that gets at a lot of the issues running through your practice: femininity, extinction, apocalypse.
AL-MARIA I’m interested in ruins. Beast Type Song, the “Virgin with a Memory” show, and Bitch Omega are all ruins. They’re the leftovers of a whole other world. Even my books Sad Sack and The Girl Who Fell to Earth are like jettisoned information. Sad Sack was literally garbage related. But the idea of ruins—whether the ruins of a world, of a relationship, or of a body—is really poetic and beautiful for me.
Ruins are referenced a lot in Arabic poetry. There’s this format common in pre-Islamic poetry: it always begins with al-atlal, which means literally “the ruins.” The poet would open with a description of what they found on the ground when they went to find their love, who had already left the campsite. So it would say: here are the lines of the tent, here are the ashes of the fire which are still warm, here is the shit of the goats, or whatever. It’s kind of like the poet is picking through the trash. When I learned about this practice in college in Cairo, it had a very profound impact on me. It launched whole projects that I wanted to do, which were actually sci-fi or fantasy. It’s stayed with me.
BALSOM The idea of ruination or of a world coming to an end is obviously a big preoccupation now. There’s so much anxiety around it. In your work, I get the sense that the apocalypse is not always a bad thing. Maybe there are some worlds that are meant to end, or that should come to an end.
BALSOM There’s an acceptance of a certain kind of transience and a hope that something new, better, or even just different could come out of whatever it is that’s disintegrating. I don’t see your work as especially hopeful either, but I don’t think it’s bound up in fear.
AL-MARIA While working on Bitch Omega, I keep on repeating in my head that even if there are things to lose, you can’t really have anything or anyone. About eight years ago, when I moved to the UK, I found real stability in a way that I hadn’t before. I had a home and a reasonable income. I was becoming a resident of this country and in a stable relationship. It was also a period of the most extreme panic and anxiety that I’ve ever gone through. I grew up between two places—the Pacific Northwest and the Gulf—where you can really see the effects of pollution and climate change. So it wasn’t as though I just suddenly started paying attention to these things, but suddenly it started to scare the shit out of me. I was hoarding canned goods, for example. I eventually realized that it was because I felt like I had something to lose.
My friend Babak Radboy, the creative director of Bidoun, was over one day and he was like, “What are you so afraid of? Just join the horde. You’re part of it.” That actually changed everything. It took me a while to process it, but letting go of the idea of having something to lose—even your life, because you don’t even really have that at the end—was incredibly fear-lifting. I think maybe that’s what a lot of my work is struggling toward. It’s trying to understand things outside of a human time scale: whether it’s huge, generational projects of change or knowing that the planet is going to be fine . . . even if we’re not.
BALSOM The apocalypse may have already happened. And for some it has.
AL-MARIA Yeah. And it is happening now, in big ways and little ways. Baby Armageddons.
BALSOM Is that what you mean when you say in the first part of Sad Sack that you’re an “extinction emo”?
AL-MARIA Yeah, probably.
BALSOM I thought it was such a great formulation.
AL-MARIA That phrase is about sitting with the sadness. I’ve been in this flat for a year. During the first few months I was here, there were huge spiders everywhere. This year, they haven’t come. I saw blossoms coming out in December and January on the trees. They started to bloom because they thought it was spring. Now, they’re just rotting in the bud. It’s really sad to see all these flowers confused. When plants are confused about the time of year, you know something is really wrong. There’s so much beauty in rotten things. I want to say to the buds, “I see you! I see that you tried.” To me, cherry blossom season is pretty only when the flowers are brown and rotten—the day after, when all the parks in Japan are full of beer bottles and tin foil wrappers.
BALSOM See, that’s your interest in garbage again.
AL-MARIA I do love trash.
This article appears under the title “In the Studio: Sophia Al-Maria” in the April 2020 issue, pp. 66–73