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Sophia Al-Maria: The Girl Who Fell To Earth

We take a deeper look in the life and work of Qatari-American writer and artist Sophia Al-Maria.


Taking inspiration from her multicultural background, Sophia Al-Maria has helped shape the art scene in the Middle East. Born to an American mother and Qatari father, Al-Maria spent her younger years in the rainy state of Seattle, USA before being uprooted to the Bedouin desert of Qatar.

From there she went on to study Comparative Literature in Cairo and aural and visual arts in Goldsmith University in London. After spending several more years in Qatar, shaking up the art scene she settled back in London, which she describes as a ‘second home’.

↑ Installation view of the video The Magical State, 2018, Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival

Born: in Qatar in 1983

Education: The American University in Cairo, Goldsmiths, University of London


1.

Growing up

Al-Maria documents her unconventional upbringing in her memoir The Girl Who Fell To Earth. In it she describes how, coming from the USA, she struggled to adapt to a nomadic lifestyle, living in a perpetual exile and torn between two families, two cultures and two worlds.

Her Qatari father was born and spent most of his youth in the desert with his Bedouin family, travelling across the Gulf, living in tents and sleeping under the stars. His journey brought him to America, Seattle where he met and married an American woman, Al-Maria’s mother. After her birth, Al-Maria spent most of her childhood sheltered away in her grandmother’s house in rural Washington state.

↑ Sophia Al-Maria speaks onstage at the DTFF Closing Night Ceremony at the Museum of Islamic Art during the 2009 Doha Tribeca Film Festival on November 1, 2009 in Doha, Qatar

2. Still from video work Beast Type Song, 2019
3. Still from video work Beast Type Song, 2019

Al-Maria then moved to Qatar to live with her father and his large, extended family. While residing in the Middle East, Al-Maria got to know her Bedouin roots by taking regular camping trips with her family.

She also became accustomed to the traditions and cultural norms of living in a more conservative country. And it was this shift between cultures and worlds that helped shape some of Al-Maria’s best work.

After her studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, Al-Maria relocated to the Gulf, where she worked towards opening the contemporary and modern art museum, Mathaf, alongside the curators Wassan Al-Khudhairi and Deena Chalabi.

Al-Maria cites the experience as being a formative one, where she was: “tasked with meeting and interviewing artists like Hassan Sharif or Zineb Sedira — that was my real art education. Having that proximity was, in a weird way, how I got into art-making.”

4. Still from video work Beast Type Song, 2019

One of the most ancient ways of living came head on against extreme wealth and capitalism — glass and steel against wool and camels

5. A still from the video FUTURE WAS DESERT (2015)
6. A still from the video FUTURE WAS DESERT (2015)
7. A still from the video FUTURE WAS DESERT (2015)

8. A still from the video FUTURE WAS DESERT (2015)

9. A still from the video FUTURE WAS DESERT (2015)

Gulf Futurism

Al-Maria coined the term Gulf Futurism to explain an existing phenomenon she has observed in architecture, urban planning, art, aesthetics and popular culture in the post-oil Persian Gulf, while growing up during the 1980s and 1990s.

She describes Gulf Futurism as a subversive new aesthetic, which draws on the region’s hyper modern infrastructure, globalised cultural kitsch and repressive societal norms to form a critique of a dystopian future-turned-reality.

In a recent interview she reflects: “One of the most ancient ways of living came head on against extreme wealth and capitalism — glass and steel against wool and camels.

“There’s been a quantum leap and there’s a temporal gap. The two things have been stitched together and there’s a missing piece of history. (Our idea of) Gulf Futurism began to coagulate with that idea.”

10. Installation view: Sophia Al-Maria and Victoria Sin, Astral Bodies Electric, Make Up!, 2019 at TRANSFORMER: a Rebirth of Wonder

An expanding repertoire

As well as making moves in the Qatari art scene, Al-Maria has dabbled in writing, film-making and most recently television.

Her films have sparked controversy for their subversive look at Qatari culture. One such video, How Can I Resist U, is described as a love letter to London, a forbidden mecca of alcohol, drugs and sex for wealthy Arabs.

In the video, Al-Maria cuts up YouTube footage of taboo Gulf Ma’alaya dancers at men’s only parties with wavering, glitched-out images of Arab “supercars” and monolithic buildings. Tapping into the repressed sexuality and luxury lifestyle that defines the Gulf’s youth, it also explores a contemporary digital-art aesthetic that re-contextualises early web and found imagery.

Movies:

The Magical State, Mirror Cookie

How Can I Resist U

The Watcher #1

Books: 

The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir

Sad Sack: Collected Writing Sophia Al Maria

Sophia Al-Maria – Virgin with a Memory


11. Still from video, How Can I Resist U?/Sophia Al-Maria, 2012/vimeo.com/user4911056

For her most recent and high profile project Al-Maria was involved in writing a television series called Little Birds, a six-episode series that aired on Sky Atlantic last summer. Described as “a kaleidoscopic melodrama set inside the decadent international zone of Tangier”, Little Birds presents a multi-perspective look at the lives of a troubled American heiress Lucy Savage (Juno Temple), a local dominatrix Cherifa Lamour (Yumna Marwan), an impoverished English aristocrat Hugo Cavendish Smythe (Hugh Skinner), and an Egyptian prince Adham Abaza (Raphael Acloque) in 1955, the year prior to Moroccan independence from France.

With her first foray into mainstream media a success it seems that Al-Maria is set for bigger and better things in 2021 — and with a background steeped in Qatari Bedouin culture it will be interesting to see how she intertwines it into her upcoming work.

↑ Still from video, How Can I Resist U? 2012


Photos: Cover – Sophia Al-Maria, The Magical State, 2018, Single-channel HD video/Courtesy Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival/Janina Sabaliauskaite

1 – Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Doha Tribeca Film Festival,

2,3,4 – Sophia Al-Maria, Beast Type Song, 2019, Single-channel HD video, 38 mins, 03 secs/Courtesy of the artist, Anna Lena Films, Paris and Project Native Informant, London

5,6,7,8,9 – Sophia Al-Maria, The Future was Desert Part 1, 2016, Single-channel HD video, 4 mins, 35 secs/Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant, London

10 – Sophia Al-Maria and Victoria Sin, Astral Bodies Electric, Make Up!, 2019 at TRANSFORMER: a Rebirth of Wonder, 180 The Strand/Courtesy of the artists and Project Native Informant, London

11 – Still from video, How Can I Resist U?/Sophia Al-Maria, 2012/vimeo.com/user4911056

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