'The West takes our values and packages them as its own': UAE-based artist Sarah Alagroobi on rejecting the filters put on the Arab world

The Abu Dhabi-based multidisciplinary artist addresses questions of identity and whitewashing in her works


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 11 Jan 2024, 8:39 PM

Art can be a confessional. It simplifies what is complicated or complicates what appears to be simple. It is a space for introspection as much as it is a site of reflection. No wonder then this is where traditional mores meet contemporary realities to reflect the complexities of modern life. Those who are in the arts often find a way to speak to the world — writers do it through their writing, musicians do it through their music and artists do it through their art.

As a multidisciplinary artist, Sarah Alagroobi is steadily expanding on the definition of what art can be. From painting to multimedia, from books to poetry, she is among the young voices in the Emirates who is redefining what art can achieve. Born and raised in Belgium, Sarah moved to Turkey when she was only eight years old. Her father had been a diplomat and this meant that a young Sarah would see more of the world as she went on to live and study in Sharjah, Italy and the UK (where she pursued her masters in painting in the Royal College of Art in London), before returning to Abu Dhabi. Today, the sum total of this early exposure reflects in her work that engages with Arab identity while questioning the filters West often puts on it.

“Being a half-Emirati, I moved around a lot,” says Sarah, who also works with museums and historical sites in Abu Dhabi. But the positive was that she was always able to cherrypick the aspects of the Emirati identity that deeply resonated with her. Today, the most beautiful aspect of that identity, she says, is that there is no “one-sided way” of looking at it. Young aesthetes like Sarah represent that evolution.

Art as vehicle of change

What do we think about when we think about Emirati women? “They are known to be quite enigmatic, there is a certain mystery to them,” says Sarah, adding that she, on the contrary, is more forward-facing. “I don’t shy away from difficult conversations. It’s important to acknowledge where we really thrive, but it’s equally important to acknowledge our shortcomings. As someone who lives in this environment, it is important to be able to create social discourse around topics that are often either carried out in closed sessions or curated to fit into a vision.”

And what better medium to address those subjects than art? Sarah is an advocate of art that transcends disciplinary borders. This means the message is her medium. “More than an aesthetic vehicle, I view it as a vehicle to challenge the norms. I use it to discuss notions of othering, displacement, sociocultural norms, whitewashing. That, in itself, expands beyond the scope of painting, video or photography. It becomes a creative practice that deals with sociocultural or sociopolitical topics.”

Ararat, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 cm from Subtracting the Imaginary
Ararat, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 cm from Subtracting the Imaginary

You only have to look at her 2021 series Subtracting the Imaginary to get a true sense of the message. These ‘psychedelic’ works examine her relationship with memory and an identity that cannot be boxed in. At first glance, they seem fractured, but on a closer look, these fragments come together to make the whole. But why is the ‘self’ so fragmented in the first place? That is, as Sarah says, owing to the multiple identities that we inhabit in modern societies.

Her most defining years were spent at the Royal College of Art where, while digging deep into conversations about decolonisation of institutions and addressing issues of colourism, she experienced racism herself. She remembers being questioned on how she spoke English so well despite being an Arab. She was also dismissed as someone who would not understand Western context too well because she belonged to this part of the world. The works of art she’d create would lead others to question her integrity. “My identity was foregrounded and I became the subject instead of the work. I noticed this only happened to those who were not from the West.”

A still from Ivory Stitches and Saviour
A still from Ivory Stitches and Saviour

That led her to create an immersive work of art Ivory Stitches and Saviours that took a dig at how the ‘saviour’ figure is always adorned in white and examined the fetishisation of those from the Middle East. “I filmed it in the rolling hills of London, and it has a very John Constable-sque quality to it. It was primarily a response to the kind of discrimination I faced.”

Learning the rope

Witnessing the artistic eloquence in Ivory Stitches and Saviours, it is nearly impossible to guess that the artist could have ever suffered from a learning disability. It was not until her mid-20s that Sarah’s dyslexia was officially diagnosed. While initially it meant she’d attend special classes in school, Sarah decided to focus on speaking, and speaking well.

Today, her eloquence comes from a childhood need to speak what she could not write. “I learnt things autodidactically. If someone would say something, I was able to internalise it visually. That’s why I turned to visual arts because it’s a universal language and is not tied to grammar,” she says, adding that a lot of her writing, including her book, are a result of audio dictation.

By the time Sarah finally decided to return to the UAE, she had developed a language to articulate what she had been experiencing in the West. She says it only helps that Emirati women of her generation are fearless and diligent in their belief systems. “They lean into aspects that women have so often been shamed for — for example, they are deemed emotional or conformist. Arab women, in general, are part of collective society and Arabs, in general, advocate for collectivism. In the West, it’s more about individualism. But today, there are extracts of individualism that are being planted into the Arab identity, where people are coming out and voicing their experiences as sole entities. They represent themselves as individuals, which means they combat stereotypes, challenge misconceptions.”

It is only understandable then that the arts scene is dominated by women. “They confront hard-hitting conversations in the most subversive way; women subvert the gaze. They lean into the best qualities of femininity; they lean into their ability to be empathetic, intuitive, compassionate and emotional. And they put all this into their work,” she says, adding that women sit comfortably into the arts scene because that natural form of expression comes so effortlessly to them and in arts, they find the outlet.

“Men have remained radically consistent because masculine energy can be rigid in its form. It allows the privileged to sit in that rigidity. It’s the women who are testing the boundaries of what surrounds them.”

Authenticity is non-negotiable

Testing the boundaries means that women in arts often have to come from an authentic position. In that sense, Sarah says, art world can be as limitless as it is limiting. “When you create a work of art, you create it with a desire to be responded to. Some works are conceptually driven while others are simply aesthetic. If you’re a local artist, you have to decide the position you want to take. And once you take that position, you will be branded as an artist who operates within a particular sphere. It is all about rooting yourself in indigeneity while allowing complexities of modernity to come through.”

There is a recurring motif of desert and falcon that once characterised artistic imagination of the Emirates. The evolution in the society is reflecting in its art. “Now, the topics revolve around family, tensions, experiences of womanhood. The conversation is shifting from the object to the subject. That’s the fundamental difference. That’s where the authenticity lies.”

Does the digital age afford us such authenticity? A time when even artists cannot afford to be reclusive because social media has become a vehicle to showcase their works. Social media, says Sarah, is in continuous rotation of being obsolete because every week, every day, something new comes up. “If I want to revisit a photo of myself from six years ago, it is only a click away. A conscious experience can only happen through nostalgia. Social media almost removes the concept of time but then it also controls it because of this transformative nature. As a person living in the digital sphere, you are constantly chasing something that’s never going to satisfy you. You’re feeding narcissism, you’re feeding this need to be validated. You’re feeding this need to vocalise concerns. You are actually chasing nothingness. You are climbing up a hill only to discover there is another hill after you have reached the top. People who are living that experience of social media, who really understand benefits but also the setbacks, have the strength to pull away from it.”

As we wrap up, we hark back to the note on which we’d started the conversation — when so many worlds reside within her, does Sarah ever conflate modernisation with westernisation?

“I don’t think that the West has brought any value that I deem better than Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian culture. We have a strong sense of community, solidarity, family. We embrace tradition and values. We understand each other in a way that cultivates a sense of honour, respect, loyalty, diligence, resilience that I don’t see in the West. In fact, the West packages these qualities from us and sells it off as its own. I don’t buy that narrative at all. I actually denounce it because while I grew up in the West, coming back here is articulating that privilege,” she says.

Could it mean that the West too needs validation from this part of the world? “Of course, we see this more than ever in mainstream media. A lot of podcasters are talking about traditional roles for men and women and why people should dress modestly. I tell them, ‘We have been doing this since time immemorial. And you are discovering this now?’” Point noted!



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