Speaking into Existence: Sophia Al-Maria’s BCE at Whitechapel Gallery

By Kit Edwards

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Sophia Al-Maria, Portrait. Whitechapel Gallery 2019.

January 15– April 28, 2019

 Galleries 5&6, Free Entry

 “For me, this text is a bag.

It will be a weeping receptacle, a sort of spittoon for projectile tears, a sling for carrying bad blood.

When it is full up I will study this swill of sadness and the history of heartbreak it tells.”

Sophia Al-Maria, We Share the Same Tears (2018)

“Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars”

Ursula K Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, 1986

Seeing Sophia Al-Maria and Sin Wai Kin’s (formerly Victoria Sin) BCE was one of those rare, soul-feeding encounters with art where your reaction is so visceral and complete, that it’s almost frustrating — what is there to critique? How can I share my thoughts on this work which does so much for itself and gives so generously to the audience? Visually, aurally and textually, Al-Maria’s two short films are so vivid and stimulating despite their stillness; their sounds and images caress you into an understanding of inherited narratives and queer futures.

Al-Maria is an internationally exhibited Qatari-American artist, writer and filmmaker whose work explores feminism, gender, race, nationality and capitalism. Curated by Jane Scarth, BCE is the final piece of work in Al-Maria’s yearlong collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery as Writer in Residence and consists of two short films which tell two divergent creation myths; one ancient and one new. Projected in adjacent rooms, the films loop in a constant dialogue that mimics the oral traditions of religion, storytelling and shared histories.

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Sophia Al-Maria, The Magical State. Film still 2017.

‘Wayuu Creation Myth’ (2018) is told by Ziruma Jayut, a member of the native Colombian Wayuu tribe. She stands on a hill of salt, wind whipping her hair and tells the story of Wolunca, the first Wayuu woman, who has vagina dentata. Against an epic backdrop of fluorescent, pastel mountains, Ziruma appears as a kind of prophet, but there’s a tender normality to her performance— she stands before us in modern clothes, and glances away from the lens for reassurance. In the story, Wolunca, conceived of earth (Má) and rain (Huyá, feminine), is attacked by Huyá’s sons who try to remove her vagina dentata by shooting her with an arrow. Huyá, furious at their attempts to ‘interfere’ with her first and only daughter, pursues them ferociously and arrives at their hiding place ‘like a maraca, with rains, with winds’ before turning them both to stone. The tale communicates the indomitable power of feminine rage as well as critiquing colonialism via the son’s attempts at disarming the female body, a dual symbol of woman and land. In its re-telling, we are confronted by the modern descendent of this abused ‘first woman’ who excavates the site of trauma and performs the process of inherited narratives, here though, stood on the land of her ancestors, she is in control of the story.

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Sin Wai Kin and Sophia Al-Maria, BCE 2019, Photograph by Bernice Mulenga.

As the Wayuu Creation Myth ends, the ‘new’ myth groans to life in the next room. This specially commissioned work is a collaboration between Al-Maria and London-based artist, writer and drag performer Sin Wai Kin. In this magnetizing film, Sin is centered in space, radiating with gender-defying omniscience; prosthetic breasts, crystals and the silhouette of thick false lashes blinking in the glow. Sin looks out upon us mere mortals and softly, commandingly, interrogates the arbitrary and oppressive inception of the patriarchy; a world where ‘All we could do was […] pick our bodies apart and pick our beliefs apart and create a hierarchy of both and insist there was not one at all.’ In a moment of intense lucidity, Sin suggests an alternative reality:

‘And gxd is infinite

And so how could gxd’s creation be any less than


As if I am not within me infinite versions of myself

As if one person could only be one thing

For the rest of their many lives.

As if gxd themself had not given us the ability to stand

On two legs and look up

As if gxd themself had not given us the ability to look

Away from the ground and up at the infinite sky and


How many stars

How many worlds

How many ways of being alive?’

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Sin Wai Kin and Sophia Al-Maria, BCE 2019 Behind the scenes, Photograph by Bernice Mulenga.

Kin speaks of a generous ‘gxd’ (a word that glitches as they speak) who deals in more than binaries and asks us to look beyond the small patch of earth we stand on, beyond the narratives and structures we’ve inherited (or are exposed to) speaking into existence an infinite way of being. This is incredibly relevant and important in a world where identities that divert from heteronormative, cis-gender ideals are denied and oppressed constantly. Here lies the simple belief in both self-identification and the freedom to change, grow and exist as more than one thing. Moments later the black star painted on Sin’s face flashes and their mouth becomes a gaping black hole ready to consume the universe; oblivion meets birth as Sin bares their teeth in an image that recalls Wolunca’s vagina dentata.

‘Oh. I want to look at you

So I can pick your body apart and pick your beliefs apart

open you up and open myself up push our wounds together and create ourselves […]

like that feeling when you’re fucking me real slow when I’m about to come

Like that.

but there’s no climax, we just keep rising’

The language is violent and sensual, exquisitely delivered by Sin who steadily tears apart the false dichotomies of pleasure, morality, sexuality, and gender that define our collective history. The film ends with Sin stood above us obscured by the throbbing glow of infinity —terrifying and glorious.

BCE is the kind of exhibition that leaves you feeling fed — not deprived, not at a loss of understanding or excluded or disappointed but fully satiated. During her residency, Al-Maria has taken inspiration from the late speculative fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin and her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” which “re-imagines narrative as a feminist project” where “storytelling becomes a means to imagine different, more hopeful futures.” The two films function in this way, working in tandem as an exercise in the exorcism of oppressive narratives. One is the “sling for carrying bad blood,” the other, affirms the possibility of the infinite, that “Still there are seeds to be gathered and room in the bag of stars.”

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