Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s practice often deals with the friction between restriction and freedom, public and private, individual and Gulf society. She is influenced by the memories, culture and socio-political conflicts of her home and her work often contrasts the former with the surroundings and cultures she experiences during her travels and through the fast-paced internet culture. At the root of her practice lies a constant search for a sense of belonging. Hailing from a country where the public sphere is often subjected to multiple layers of restraints and rules, especially given her identity as a female artist in a Gulf Society, she questions the concept of public and private space and the freedoms each one affords, investigating these themes through video, painting, photography, installation and text, especially poetry. A central aspect in all her works is the metaphor of untamed nature versus nature restrained by man.
Born in Qatif in Saudi Arabia, Abu Abdallah pursued painting at the University of Sharjah before she developed an interest in the camera and documentary films, further pursuing Digital Media studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. One of the upcoming artists of her generation, she has been working across mediums and has been widely exhibiting internationally.
The exhibition For the First Time in a Long Time at the Kunstverein in Hamburg was Abu Abdallah’s first solo exhibition in Europe, which presented four works - The Salad Zone, a single channel video projection work; Trees Speaking with each other, an installation work in the form of a greenhouse; The House That Ate Them Whole being another 10 minute video projection; and lastly Bad Hunches, an elaborate wall-to-wall work on canvas.
The film The Salad Zone (2013) focused on everyday life. In the video, Abu Abdallah examined the absolute, the prescribed and the absurdity of social agreements in a time of abundance and the resulting constructions of fear. Through the work, she questioned what remains of memories and encounters when their visual reference is removed from its context.
Trees Speaking with Each Other was an installation in which Abdallah reminisced her childhood. In the greenhouse, she presented a special variety of tomato that has now become extinct due to the land reforms in Saudi Arabia. Revoking the childhood memory of the taste, the installation testified to the fact that once things lie in the past they can only be reproduced artificially and yet never be the same again.
The House That Ate Them Whole (2018) told the allusive story of a house that devours its tenants while dreaming of freeing itself from its static situation. The background to the work is a reflection on how our everyday environment - the interior of houses and the things we accumulate in them - shapes and influences us. The microcosm of the domestic space is here linked to the socio-political issues of our society. The observation of banal everyday life is decisive in Abu Abdallah's thoroughly humorous analysis of different cultures and social forms; always guided by the question of how these are reflected in our lives and identities.
This theme was also resonant is her large-format painting installation. With the principle of collage, Abu Abdallah also pursued a pars pro toto strategy that focused on the self in a constantly changing environment.
Speaking about the exhibition, curator Tobias Peper said, "Sarah Abu Abdallah has an exceptional eye for stories about the sometimes absurd inner workings of different societies and cultures. She finds them in the seemingly banal and common and directs our attention to the micro-politics of our everyday life.”
While the exhibition was on display at the Kunstverein in Hamburg from August 10 to October 20, 2019, it now travels to the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, where it will be held from December 18, 2019 to April 11, 2020.