Work of the Week: Sophia Al-Maria, ‘Little Birds’

Juno Temple in ‘Little Birds’. Courtesy Sky

The new Sky Atlantic TV series, for which the artist was screenwriter, is loosely based on Anaïs Nin’s posthumously published 1979 collection of erotic vignettes

In 2018 Sophia Al-Maria was a writer in residence at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. While there she sought inspiration in an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which the science fiction writer proposes the bag as the most influential object in human development – and not, as might be commonly supposed, weaponry. Al-Maria, whose videoworks have long demonstrated an interest in alternative cosmologies as well as temporal collapse between the extreme past and a techno-pessimist future, took Le Guin’s idea as a model for writing, experimenting with non-linear storytelling ‘based on the process of collecting and gathering (as opposed to hunting)’. The result was a pair of videos imagining new creation myths, one produced in collaboration with Ziruma Jayut, a member of the Wayuu people indigenous to northern Colombia, the other with Canadian drag artist Victoria Sin, both touching on issues of colonialism, feminism and queer politics.

These themes are present also in Little Birds, a new Sky Atlantic TV series directed by Stacie Passon, for which Al-Maria was screenwriter (she also has an additional ‘created for television’ credit). Yet lest you think this a return to the heady formative years of Channel 4, where visual artists were often let loose on the box, filling TV schedules with avant-garde fare, then be assured the series is resolutely mainstream in temperament, carrying the kind of linear narrative structure familiar to any prime-time audience. The show takes its title and is loosely based on Anaïs Nin’s posthumously published 1979 collection of erotic vignettes, a bag of material from which Al-Maria has (to judge from the first four episodes), in effect, sharpened a traditional story arc. It’s an odd turnaround for the artist.

Yumna Marwan in Little Birds. Courtesy Sky

Set in Tangier in 1955, when the city was classed as an ‘international zone’ under the protectorate of the French and Spanish, Little Birds tallies the developing social and sexual freedom of a newly arrived American debutante named Lucy Savage (played by Juno Temple) and the reabsorption of the city into an independent Morocco the following year. It’s full of sex – one of the main characters, Cherifa (Yumna Marwan) is a local prostitute specialising in S&M – and power relations which both plays out the politics of Western imperialism and subverts it. The third episode opens with Cherifa chucking rubbish and dropping ash over a whimpering horny fat European man; she is strong, he is shown as pathetic. Yet Cherifa’s husband finds himself forced to have sex with a rich white bohemian woman for whom he is working as a hired hand.

Al-Maria, who is Qatari-American and has regularly explored Arab and mixed identities in her gallery work, as well as gender politics, has given the local characters a sense of strength and morality that is lost on the Europeans. Lucy’s new husband, an English aristocrat named Hugo Cavendish Smythe (Hugh Skinner), has only married because that is what one must do – “It’s an institution” he says emphatically – despite being in love with Adham, a sexy Egyptian prince (played by Raphael Acloque) who is totally confident with his sexuality. By threatening to withdraw their allowance, Lucy’s father gets Hugo to become the local agent to his arms dealing business. Like all good TV fodder I found myself absorbed despite the often clunky dialogue (“I’m a whore, I have no time for politics!”) and with the queasy box set-binge feeling that I should be doing something else. 

Raphael Acloque in Little Birds. Courtesy Sky

In an interview earlier this year Al-Maria explained she ‘came from film and fell backward into art’, and that Beast Type Song, a recent commission shown at Tate Britain in 2019, was born of her frustrations about working in commercial television. That work is complex and multilayered, featuring the artist reading Michelle Cliff’s postcolonial reimagining of Shakespeare, Caliban’s Daughter: The Tempest and the Teapot (1991). In a separate interview, off the back of the same commission, she told Artforum that when working in TV, ‘My words would get twisted and turned, repurposed to support other narratives, and other biases. Things would be rewritten or recast based on an arbitrary set of ideas about what a hypothetical audience would or would not watch. Entire monologues and major plotlines were being revised in order to appeal to some imagined public’s white, hetero, boomer palate.’ There is no suggestion that she is referring to the production process of Little Birds there, though there is some crossover with Beast Type Song featuring Little Birds actress Yumna Marwan reciting from Mohamed Choukri’s In Tangier (2010). 

Nin wrote her original short stories as pornography for men, produced, it is said, for a dollar a day wage. Yet within them there is quiet subversion in sex presented through the female gaze. Likewise, despite the limitations of the format and restrictions of the medium (and it is important to reiterate: television was not always this conservative), in the series Al-Maria has snuck through some important ideas: a subtle readdressing of power relations within the identities of her characters, a retelling of postcolonial history in which women are at the forefront and imperialism as the product of frustrated male losers. For all the restrictions it presents, we need more TV made by artists like Al-Maria. To lift a line from Beast Type Song: “I’ve learned your language, now I’m going to curse you with it.” 

Little Birds is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV

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