Between West & East: Sarah Al Agroobi, the experience of a cosmopolitan life

I discovered Sarah Al Agroobi’s work a few months ago at the Versus Group Exhibition, a famous art gallery in Istanbul.

As you probably already guessed, for some time now, following my experience in the Gulf countries, I am interested in Arabic artists and the way they question the mutations of the world we live in.

So when I saw Sarah’s name associated with a masterpiece that precisely just caught my attention, I decided to know more about her personal experience as well as her artistic approach.

I visited her website and I realised how much she is a multicultural woman.

Indeed, Sarah’s mother is Syrian and her father is a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates. She was born in Belgium and she spent several years in Turkey, due to her father’s job. She graduated from the Royal College of Art, in London.

In order to know more about her artistic reflexion, I choose to question her about the concept of identity, the way she feels towards her multicultural way of life and the relationship between all the influences surrounding her.

As I could see on your website, you were born in Belgium, you studied in London, your parents are from Arabic countries… How do you feel regarding this paradigm ? Do you feel Belgian ? Emirati ? Or your relationship towards identity is more global ?

I feel like I belong everywhere and nowhere. My recent work discusses that very topic head on which was exhibited at Abu Dhabi Art this year in November “To foreign for here” and “to foreign for home” (see attachment), are both visual explorations of displacement, disruptions and the poetic role of place.ToForeignForHere_100x80_ResinFibreboard_ADA

ToForeignForHome_100x80_ResinFibreboard_-4 (1)

Both works call into question the notion of home and now the duality of both Middle Eastern and Western contexts can bring a socio-cultural awareness to spatial-temporal marks of rupture or exclusion.

The works present an unsettling distinction between the foreign and the familiar to where the text within the work acts as the process of a human cycle of creating and destroying, peeling back the strata of the deployment of materiality.

It is neither too foreign for home or too foreign for here, yet the word “to” is used as a preposition to guide the viewer. Both paintings abstract the landscape to the point where location is vague, non-binary but rather entangled in multiple associations to texture, viscosity, corrosion and fragmentation.

The obscurity of location further pushes the audience to think critical about the urban discourse of cultural duality and intervene socio-cultural dialogue. The work was inspired by an exert of the poem by Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada, that reads: “So, here you are too foreign for home too foreign for here. Never enough for both“.

I also saw that you question the colonial Western discourse towards East. Could you explain what is this discourse according to you ? What is your opinion about this discourse and what do you think about the relationship between this two “worlds”?

With regards to your question of colonialism, I approach it through the western gaze, in my painting entitled White collared boys make born coloured girls cry, it’s a diptych where two paintings are in dialogue with each other addressing notions of othering, whitewashing and white male supremacy in my own experience.

The work was an outcry to interpose itself in an ongoing wider debate around systemic gendered bigotry where my ethnic background was brought to the forefront of conversations and whether my identity would position itself against a western background curated by my male counterparts.

I saw a pattern in response to my work, where men would often condemn the work for being ‘too ethnic’ or ‘too Arab’ to which I would question whether the remarks would be the same if I was a man. The work was a physical and emotional response to institutionally facilitated sexism and bigotry against the Western exploitation of Arab culture and identity and in doing so, allowed me to question that if I dressed like a man, I could have a conversation man-to-man. That was when I used the traditional clothing of the men in the Middle East called a kandora to symbolise not only the ‘skin’ of me, but it also became the symbol of a counter narrative in which I could be seen as equal.

The work functions as sort of self-portrait to where the shift the conversation towards the body and perhaps the absence of the body is where I can carve out a place for personal contemplation. The compositional consideration is where the canvas (kandora material) functions as an object, the edge of the painting is considered to where it frames the kandora as seen as a sort of relic to “testify” a position taken against my counter-parts. This is where the ‘subject’ or the work becomes the ‘object’ in itself. The scale of the paintings conveys a kind of physical deliverance.

On one hand they are targeted in specific areas of the body, the lungs, the heart, the leg, as battle scars or open wounds that symbolise the decay of the body or absence of a body.

On the other hand, they act as an agent of mark making that reveals something tangible beneath the surface of the cotton fabric, peeling back the strata of flattened paint. The name itself is a play on words, White collared boys (implying people of privilege, white men, or people in kandoras themselves).


Finally, you are the co-founder of Arab Art Salon. Could you tell me more about this project ? Was it a way to express your Arabic heritage ?

The Arab Art Salon is a ‘hypothetical space’ in London where Arab artists gather to engage in critical thinking and art discourse. I co-founded the group with post-graduate Arab Artists from the Slade, Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins where we would need to discuss contemporary art practice in the Arab region on a consistent basis.

We hosted Exhibition, private tours, panel discussions, studio visits, talks, and an online platform entitled OUT OF CONTEXT, which is an extension of that ‘space’ where shared views on contextual displacement are confronted through text-based, time-based and print-based media.

Without the Arab Art Salon I don’t think my post-graduate experience would have been as beneficial to the development of my practice. We, as a group, found a gap in the conversation and filled it ourselves and for that I am forever grateful.

If you want to know more about Sarah’s work:

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