Virgin with a Memory & Autoportraits in Love-Like Conditions – Art Review

All autobiography, like memory, is fiction. In recounting and remembering, we edit and extrapolate something seamless out of the shards of our lives.

Identity is an act of imagination, and we become the unreliable narrator of our own rom com or arthouse epic.

In an act of deception that reveals this truth, Qasim Riza Shaheen’s mischievous work mingles found photos and chanced-upon strangers with legit lovers and life partners. As he explains on a tour of the show, these ‘autoportraits’ are ‘not about the self, but a projection onto the other’. Unlike the selfie, which crops out everyone else, the ‘auto’ includes who you’re with as well as whoever happens to passing by.

‘Whenever I visit people’s houses,” Qasim admits cheekily, “I like to go and check out the bathroom and see what products they have in their cabinet; what books, DVDs and magazine subscriptions they have in their bedroom; what margarine brand they have in their fridge.” He presents to us here a selection of objects from his own study – male dolls, intricate trinkets and Taj Mahal memorabilia – yet this is very different from sneaking peaks in people’s houses; by carefully choosing his autobiographical objects, he polices how we perceive him. Even the videos showing improvised encounters with randoms are precisely, obsessively stylised. It’s a perfectionist aesthetic that culminates in his performance piece One, a pavane-style dance with four glamorous men. Yet there’s a pert positivity at play beneath this infatuation with appearances. While Grayson Perry discounts individuality as merely a ‘vanity of small differences’, Shaheen’s work cheerfully inverts this: “We are more similar than different”. For him, truth about the self comes from the fiction we write with others.

The freedom that reinvention offers is much more urgent in Sophia Al Maria’s work on the floor above. For Al Maria, our subjectivity means “telling the truth is impossible”; yet the ability to author our own fictions is also confounded, in particular by gender politics. In many cultures, male freedom to be subjects casts women in the mute role of objects. Al Maria’s work makes visible a world where women are decanted into the negative space between men, and sexual violence is a rite of passage. Here, autobiography can be an act of revenge.

“There is something you need to know before reading this book:

I am not a reliable narrator.

The lines of my old diary entries are muddled with the thoughts of this story’s mute heroine, Suad. Even I can hardly tell the difference any more.”

So starts Virgin with a Memory, the novelisation of Al Maria’s rape revenge script, Beretta. Inspired by an Abel Ferrara film, Beretta rejects Saudi social realism in favour of sexploitation’s shlocky fantasy. “This is a documentary in the form of an exhibition,” Sophia says, and “all cinema, especially documentary, is fiction.”

Built around a deconstructed film set, Virgin with a Memory features the broken dreams of a project that has struggled against all kinds of opposition. “Nothing is ever finished, it’s only abandoned,” says Al Maria of a movie that will probably never be made despite raising over $1.5 million and the condescending support of Abel Ferrara (“Just let the chick make the film, man” he’s quoted as saying). Beretta is currently mired in an unwinnable legal battle over the title, rights to which must be signed over by a man who has retreated to the French mountains to be a monk. It’s yet another as if moment that blurs fact and fiction; just like Al Maria’s obsession with Les Blank’s documentary of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Beretta’s ‘making of’ is more fascinating than any end product.

Centre stage to the show is The Watchers 1-6, a septic six-pack of screens showing leering, lurid men with a wailing soundtrack of ‘digitally desiccated guitar’, and a composition by Cristo from Channel 4’s Utopia. While the novel’s tales of sexual intimidation are blackly comic, the show itself revisits that intimidation on its viewers. If you can prise your eyes from the Watchers’ rapey gaze, there’s an audition tape featuring an Egyptian actress who was subsequently jailed for drug possession (‘she was a scapegoat, the victim of her fame and beauty’, Al Maria explains), a compilation of ‘gazey’ Egyptian film posters, and an unwatchable video of animal slaughter filmed at the Eid festival.

On the way out, I bring up how in the script, one of the rapists has his throat slit halal style. Is this about the need to treat such men like animals? “It’s the product of a system where power gets passed down”, Al Maria explains. “The government rapes the men, and they rape the women.”

“So,” I ask, “Nobody wins?”

There’s no doubt in her reply. “No. Nobody wins.”

Both shows are on at the Cornerhouse, Manchester until Sunday 2nd November

words Vienna Famous & photography by Karin Albinsson


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