This first major solo show by Qatari-American artist and writer Sophia Al-Maria, curated by Omar Kholeif, sees her working outside the ‘Gulf Futurism’ context with which she is most commonly identified. This label, coined by Al-Maria and fellow GCC collective member Fatima Al-Qadiri, has lately been adopted to describe work emerging from, and reflecting on, the unique conditions of the Persian Gulf, defined by Al-Maria in her project Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi (2007–08) as a ‘flat desert plateau at the edge of a vast simulacra-sea’ which will soon be ‘completely immersed’. This year has already seen Al-Qadiri, also a musician and DJ, take a sideways step into Chinese futurist signifiers with her album Asiatisch; in this exhibition, Al-Maria in turn moved away from the skyscrapers and supercars of the Gulf and towards the distinctly old-world location of Cairo.
The exhibition centred upon Al-Maria’s rape revenge thriller Beretta, still unrealized after over three years in the making; the film’s arrested development, it seems, is down to artistic differences between Al-Maria and her producers. All the works arranged throughout the gallery space related in some more-or-less clearly defined way to Beretta. The most tenuous connection was to the video Your Sister (2014), which, with its montage of found online footage of M’alayah dancers, calls to mind Al-Maria’s music video for Al-Qadiri’s track How Can I Resist U (2012).
Taking loose cues from the artist’s experiences in Cairo as a student in the early 2000s, the script of Beretta pays homage to Abel Ferrera’s 1981 exploitation film Ms. 45: at the climax, Al Maria’s heroine, Suad, embarks on a spree of killings in response to the pervasive sexual harassment she experiences on Cairo’s streets. The show included a vitrine of documents related to the film’s production, a brace of pre-production trailers (the artist’s cut and the producer’s cut, both 2014, viewed on separate small monitors with headphones), and the only rushes that were ever shot for the unrealized film compiled into the video work Slaughter (2013). A more compelling picture of the details of both Beretta’s content and the reasons behind the project’s failure, however, can be gleaned from the book Virgin With A Memory: The Exhibition Tie-in, also edited by Kholeif. This brings together script extracts, email exchanges and entries from Al-Maria’s diary throughout the relevant period, along with passages from her ‘novelization’ of the film.
Within these pages we glimpse Al-Maria’s frustration at the limitations of the female vigilante genre: ‘Aside from Kill Bill,’ she asks, ‘has this been done in a non-exploitative, phallic-replacement, wet-dream way?’ Beretta, the book makes clear, is intended as an intervention concerning the ‘vanishingly rare’ presence of women’s anger and entitlement to justice in mainstream media culture. It is also envisaged as an activist work, with one of the emails reproduced in Virgin with a Memory testifying to Al-Maria’s attempts to channel quantities of pre-production funding into the Egyptian anti-harassment intiative HarassMap. The book speaks more of the conflicts between Al-Maria and the antagonist referred to as ‘Producer One’ than do the various discrepancies between the artist’s and producer’s trailer cuts, the latter featuring the cringeworthy strapline: ‘Meet the baddest ass Egyptian since Cleopatra.’ It also offers a generous glimpse at a more ambiguous critical context for Beretta, as the ‘Gulfie’ Al-Maria is occasionally accused of misunderstanding and orientalizing the Egyptian social context. Slaughter’s brutal documentary depiction of open-air halal sacrifices could, one senses, be examined in light of this charge.
The Cornerhouse exhibition hinged on the monumental five-channel video installation The Watchers No. 1–5 (2014), shown on larger-than-lifesize floating screens, each of which frames a predatory, staring male figure (a sixth Watcher appears on an LCD screen hung outside the exhibition’s entrance). Virtuosically lit, employing strobes and offset colour channels to weird effect, the work fixes you at the centre of its collective gaze, crowding out the other, smaller videos installed in the space. Seemingly based on a proposed nightmare scene from Beretta, The Watchers renders palpable the threatening atmosphere of highly-charged male attention that is the film’s animus. While this exhibition perhaps offered scant consolation for the opportunity to assess Beretta as a completed feature-film, it at least stands as an accomplished addition to Al-Maria’s body of work.