Video artist Sarah Abu Abdallah: ‘You can be your real self online’

The Saudi Arabian artist is currently studying at Rhode Island School of Design

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“Saudi Automobile” is the name of the artwork that got 24-year-old Sarah Abu Abdallah noticed. It was the early spring of 2011 and she was about to graduate from Sharjah University, where she’d been one of a pioneering class of four students of Fine Art. She came across a wreck of a car that another student had been using for a different project. It had no doors, no wheels, no windows.

“It was around that time that I was introduced to Bruce Nauman and all these early video artists,” she remembers. “I was alone, with a camera, and I had this feeling of freedom: I can do whatever I want to do. And this car was lying there.” Dressed in a black abaya that gets increasingly mucky throughout the performance, she videotaped herself painting it pink. “This was my way of claiming it.”

The video of the event and the pastel-pink car itself were selected for an exhibition at the home of her teacher, the artist Isak Berbic, and that in turn led to group shows in Dubai, Jeddah, and Venice. The latter two were organised by the London-based non-profit Edge of Arabia, and this autumn, Abu Abdallah took part in a road trip across America organised by the group, stopping off to participate in talks in Texas, Louisiana and Washington, DC.

She’s now back in Rhode Island, where she’s studying for a Master’s in Digital Media, working on projects with the activist and musician Joey DeFrancesco, and exploring her interest in the collision of performance and video art. Recent work commissioned for 2014’s Art Dubai can be seen online: a series of unsettling, digitally animated video clips in which actors reading out real-life Facebook status updates. “People keep going on about keeping it real,” an artificial voice intones in one piece, “but no-one’s asking what real really is.”

If there’s anything about Saudi Arabia that’s made its way into Abu Abdallah’s work it’s this rejection of the idea of authenticity. “Growing up with computer screens and the internet was a huge part of everyday life,” she says of her childhood in Qatif. “I’ve been reading essays about how you can be your true self online. It’s a space just like any other space.”

For the most part though – and despite the spike of international interest in Saudi artists – she sees herself less as part of a regional community and more as a global citizen. “I’m more interested in documenting the human experience,” she says, “than a geographical place.”

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