Sophia Al-Maria reimagines colonial conflict as deep space sci-fi battles
Breaking down new works Beast Type Song and Bitch Omega with the Qatari-American artist.
All images from Beast Type Song courtesy of Project Native Informant.
Sophia Al-Maria has lived at the edge of astronomical environmental changes, and between polarising cultural landscapes. She grew up between the deserts of Qatar and a farm in Washington State. Her artworks and writing -- the latter collected in her latest book Sad Sack -- have explored everything from queer cross-cultural identity and fossil fuel extraction to consumerist culture and the Arabian humpback whale’s near-extinction.
Sophia collects fragments of time, both personal and historical -- memories, pop culture references, landscapes, sci-fi theories, Middle Eastern poetry -- and pieces them together in films and texts to reveal a new layer of consciousness. She detunes the mammoth sound systems of earthbound forces propagating oppressive ideas. In Sophia’s realm, truth is served with an unapologetic bite. Since graduating from London's Goldsmiths with an MA in Visual Cultures, her works have graced major art institutions around the world: the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she had her first US solo show in 2016, The Third Line in Dubai, and Whitechapel Gallery -- where she explored Medieval gynaecology, the Trump regime and DMT as Writer in Residence in 2018.
In her video installation Beast Type Song, currently on show at Tate Britain, narratives of fact and fiction collide in purposeful disharmony to prompt a new understanding of postcolonial identities. In the film Sophia, performance artist boychild, and actresses Yumna Marwan and Elizabeth Peace enact the conflict of colonial histories within the setting of a solar war battle. It's all inspired by Lebanese artist Etel Adnan’s book-length war poem The Arab Apocalypse. Her forthcoming solo exhibition Bitch Omega features a series of films from the point of view of an omega wolf as an observer of historic moments at the end of time.
When did you first bridge the gap between writing and filmmaking?
I’ve been doing both ever since I first had access to a camera. From a really young age I’d shoot these elaborate and dramatic scenes at my grandmother’s house in Doha with my little cousins because it was like having a cast of thousands. I’d dress them up as angels and we’d have squirt guns. But I don’t think it was very conscious until fairly recently. Ideas sort of come out in the way they’re meant to -- some things are poems, some things are videos, some things are whole movies.
Why did you choose to base Beast Type Song in a celestial solar war battle?
I guess it’s the post-apocalypse of a failed personal project, the failure of which felt quite apocalyptic for my sense of confidence as a screenwriter and writer. Then there’s the actual setting it’s in, the old Central Saint Martins campus in Holborn, which felt quite potent because it’s an old art school that is a sort of ruin, full of pigeons and rats and vermin, occupied by these characters who are ghosts from the past and future. I was so excited to have costumes designed by Cottweiler and combined with old Shakespearean Othello costumes from the Royal Theatre. Matthew Dainty’s works really captures the feel of Beast Type Song -- a war that hasn’t happened but terrifyingly could.
It explores the embedded stain of colonisation on our existence. Where did you draw the seed for this film from?
There were many seeds that got gathered in one basket. Meeting actress Yumna Marwan was a big seed and a big inspiration because the first night we met, she read to me from a Mohamed Choukri book she reads from in the film. Working with boychild and having a back and forth about Lebanese artist and poet Etel Adnan over the spring and summer became a prominent feature in the making of it. All of these different seeds started to feel like they were sprouting in the same garden. There’s not a monolithic plant -- I don’t really consider Beast Type Song a fully finished piece.
Which stories do you feel most compelled to tell?
Before I begin a project, my question has always been, why this and why now? Is there an interesting twist or revision or change that can be made to this story that makes it somehow urgent or vital to tell right now? I think that digging into history is really important in unpicking a very linear, European empirical way of looking at the past and this is the most urgent thing if we’re ever going to be able to imagine a future which currently feels so bleak. I think it’s more important than ever to try to understand how we even got to this place, to this really bad juncture.
You’ve witnessed climate issues at an extreme level, growing up in the Gulf where monetisation of natural resources has been happening forever.
I grew up in a family who are Bidoun from the exact areas where Saudi discovered oil. The effects of that in the Gulf on people, not just the environment or global politics, but on a very human level have always interested me. I grew up in a relatively impoverished family who were on government rations or widow’s pensions, and saw the way that the extreme wealth around affected everyone. It’s a through line I see globally.
Is the Gulf experiencing an increasing level of activism around climate change?
I think given the fact that the Gulf is going to be affected far more intensely and quickly than a lot of other places, I’m shocked that there’s a vested interest in not speaking about it. But there are a lot of people who are very engaged in the subject from the Gulf -- scientists, academics and people who are doing various environmental projects. Unless the larger investments in fossil fuel capitalism anywhere in the world is fully dismantled I’m not really sure what activism means in that context or what can be done.
What do you think it would take to be dismantled?
A revolution? Our old friend. I wrote a pilot for a TV show a few years ago that was set during the French Revolution. It was around 2011 when things were rumbling in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria and it was interesting to be simultaneously reading the echoes of the ways in which these kinds of mass human ideological shifts and movements expand and contract. I think it’s about learning from attempts at revolutions -- these massive collective experiments in social and structural change.
Tell us about your forthcoming solo exhibition Bitch Omega...
Bitch Omega will include films I’ve made and edited myself. It’s very much about history and a worms-eye view attempting to take the downcast gaze of an omega wolf as a way of observing certain historic moments. Some of them are very personal, some of them move between macro and microcosmic subjects that I think a lot of my work is trying to touch on. She’s very much this Bitch Omega who I imagine as a viewer at the end of history. It’s also related to physics and a lot of the things I’ve been reading about lately like Laplace’s Demon and this idea that there is an omnipotent observer at the beginning or end of time, and the possibility of many dimensions.
In many of your works, performance plays a key role in addressing power structures. What can movement without words say that spoken language can’t?
I’m very new to performance. I’ve usually always worked with actors so many pieces have been language-based. Whenever I encounter people who work with their bodies -- whether they’re dancers or nurses or people who do any kinds of physical labour -- I feel a tremendous amount of respect. There’s a presence that comes with that that I think is really important in terms of this particular realm of trying to move towards change: which, as Octavia Butler says, is God. It’s kind of like the difference between a hashtag and turning up to something.
Beast Type Song is currently on show at Tate Britain until 23 February. Sophia’s debut solo show in Germany will be at Julia Stoschek Collection from 8 March - 12 July 2020.