A Pixelating Voice: Reading Sophia Al-Maria’s “Sisters” at the New Museum Triennial

Sophia Al-Maria, "Sisters" (still), 2015.

Any visitor to the New Museum Triennial is subject to the burden of information. There’s no ignoring the walls when the walls sprout obstacles and speak. Finding something restful becomes a challenge.

On the second floor by the door to the stairs a voice drifts out of a screen propped on a tiny shelf in a corner. It’s a woman’s voice, and she’s there on screen. She’s young, with dark hair, leaning on a white pillow against a white wall, singing in Arabic. The song echoes in her room and seems to be beginning. Her face is hidden in pixels, a digital veil. She’s wearing a tank top, or maybe a dress, and the only light appears to fall through a window into a bright spot over her chest. The song never starts, returned to its beginning, again and again.

This is Sophia Al-Maria’s Sisters, a four-channel video largely composed of found footage from WhatsApp and Youtube. It has three more screens hanging lengthwise from the ceiling like raised rugs, away from the walls and low enough to make you walk around or in-between. They face the voice in descending angles, offering restless shapes of dancing women fed through distortion: alone in a room by a mirror; with a friend in the curtained halls of a family home; outside in a line in the desert; hair long and loose or hidden; full robes, or bare; shuffled and leaning and out of focus; strung with patterns; rejecting clarity. Men appear only twice, both times from behind, one facing a shaking, beaded performer, one held tight to his bride. Sometimes the patterns are upside-down hearts; sometimes the women are flipped. Sometimes painted eyes open in close-up only to recede and pixelate. The voice keeps singing.

On the other side of the screen you feel like you’ve left something behind. Finding a guard in another room whistling the same melody only increases that feeling, and it pulls at the show’s seams, revealing the unintended. The confrontation with decay begins to look like obsession, like a flight toward humanless history. The juxtaposition of machine and flesh tends to place the former in the center. Images of utopia take on the shimmer of an impossible dream. These contradictions accumulate like wasted time, a return to boredom. So much so that the balcony on the museum roof offers more vertigo, as the city breaks into pieces.

The violence sends me back to the voice. It’s a little thin, caught in a recording that’s a little rough, depending on one’s sense of fidelity. Its words are unintelligible, at least to me, and yet I’m certain any translation would reveal something both familiar and unknown. There are hints in Al-Maria’s writings. Her memoir of growing up between Qatar and Washington state, The Girl Who Fell to Earth, begins with “Lebanese songbird” Samira Tawfiq singing a wordless prelude on a TV screen in the desert, surrounded by children. In the exhibition catalogue for Virgin With a Memory she recounts struggling to make a revenge fantasy-film set in Cairo, asking Quentin Tarantino for wisdom at a screening and getting, “Let your hero get revenge” – but the film remains unmade. And among the great writing she’s done for Bidoun is a piece on her cousin’s god-sent ear, which keeps receding, fleeing, until the meaning you thought was there is lost, or simply moved while you were wondering.

And still it doesn’t quite add up. It’s not the distance of the women or of some exotic culture, or the way those cartoon hearts for a moment stand up straight, or the giggling that occasionally bursts through from these random clips, poached from the web. Wanting the song to go on is like wanting the girl in my arms, but the impulse doesn’t last. Something in it, inside the melody, longing that’s almost complacent, sadness that never plunges, joy that doesn’t soar. All without a sense of restraint; instead, an uncommon patience dividing what’s possible from what’s promised. The broken image of women, the unsung song, maybe there’s nothing more. The veil keeps flickering but refuses to seduce, so when for barely a breath it lifts, the glimpse isn’t a revelation of beauty – or not only – but an unexpected recognition.


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