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Sara Alahbabi on Breaking Emirati Stereotypes

- By Sophie Arni

I had the pleasure to interview Sara Alahbabi (b. 1994, Abu Dhabi), recent recipient of the sought-after Salama Bint Hamdan Emerging Artist Fellowship. A graduate of the Visual Arts program at NYU Abu Dhabi, Alahbabi made headlines thanks to her skillful demonstration of Emirati stereotypes with her photo series Here’s What They Think of Me (2016). I sat down with her and asked her about the motivations behind the photo series, her future plans and the changing role of women in the UAE.

Sophie Arni: Thank you for this interview. Let’s get started!

Sara Alahbabi: Of course. Sophie Arni: I remember Here’s What They Think of Me well. You were crafting and perfecting the series in the amazingly challenging photo classes of Prof. Tarek Al-Ghoussein at NYU Abu Dhabi. Let’s start with the title. “Here’s What They Think of Me” - what does it entail?

Sara Alahbabi: Choosing the title was the hardest part, honestly. It was a crucial part of the series as it plays a big part in how people will receive the work. I started this photo series based on the misconceptions that people had on me personally, as an Emirati and in general about Emirati society at large. That money grows on trees, that we ride camels to schools, and that we let our maids raise our children.

Sophie Arni: How was the reception like? Did people understand you were in fact critiquing these stereotypes and not celebrating them? It’s a fine line.

Sara Alahbabi: There would be the people who got the irony and the people who viewed as truth. Thankfully, everyone seemed to get I wanted out of the series: awareness. Sophie Arni:And tell us more about these stereotypes. You were saying that they affected you personally?

Sara Alahbabi: Yes. For one, people would constantly joke and poke at me during high school, saying that my maid helped me do my homework. You hear “your maid helps you” often at schools here when it's not true most of the times. I wanted to break these stereotypes by showing them staged. To see the situation as if they actually happen all the time. Awareness is the first step.

Sophie Arni: What were your sources of inspiration for this work? Did you talk to people about it and compiled the stereotypes you wanted to break? Sara Alahbabi: I talked to many people of my community and through shared experiences we came to shared thoughts. I then went ahead with the ‘one concept, one photo’. Sophie Arni: The UAE has such a divided population between the 10% locals and 90% immigrants and expatriates. This demographic division is something that is clearly felt once you live in this country. You think it causes the development of snap judgements about Emiratis and their lifestyle? Sara Alahbabi: I think culture feeds into stereotypes. Sure, this divide fosters preconceived judgements but it takes more than just demographics. The language barrier between Arabic and English is a huge issue for one. I know many people of the Emirati older generations that would not want to communicate English as they don’t speak it properly enough. The media is another thing. From the tales of the Thousands and One Nights to the image of Abu Dhabi as this oil-rich metropolis with fast cars in between camels, we have been fed with literature and movies about the lure of Orient - to think à la Said! The image that we take our camels to school and park them in front of malls is an extreme stereotypes but they affect interior social stereotypes. I hope that future initiatives and art projects like mine change the way people view us Emiratis. Sophie Arni: I think it’s a great initiative and powerful art you created. Can you tell us more about your career as an artist? Were you always pursuing photography? Sara Alahbabi: No actually, I have never done photography before this project. I was formally trained in painting and sculpture, which turned out to be a great foundation. and I approached my staged photographs as painting compositions. Constructing the scene, controlling the light, picking colors - I found the formal decisions to be similar between photography and painting. I also exhibited my final photos as lightboxes in darkness, adding an extra sculptural and installation aspect to the work. Sophie Arni: I thought the lightboxes worked really well. They positioned your photographs as advertisements for an ideal, elevated, luxurious life. Sara Alahbabi: Gregory Crewdson was a huge inspiration behind the lightboxes. Sophie Arni: Let’s talk about your previous works. You also produced Kundura (2015), an public art installation on the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. Sara Alahbabi: As much Here’s What They Think of Me was well-received, the work I'm the most proud of is Kundura. I encircled 30 palm trees with pieces of white cotton cloth, that kunduras, the national dress of men here are made of. I invited the public to come and walk through this created maze.

Sophie Arni: A maze? Sara Alahbabi: Men traditionally protect. It’s in our household culture. The maze is a protective one, but it’s also a hard one to navigate. Women feel like they have to prove themselves twice in order to earn it. Sophie Arni: At the same time, there have been considerable efforts to put Emirati women at the forefront: governmental level, art scene, design, education… Sara Alahbabi: Yes but it has been an ongoing process and there is still a long way to go. Women strive right now, but working, driven women are still a minority. It’s understandable. It’s hard to let go of women in our family structure. There’s this idea of purity. There is a saying I’ve heard too many times: “a woman is like a white paper, any black dot will show.” Sophie Arni: That’s a lot of pressure. Sara Alahbabi: Yes, exactly. It’s a very hard thing to change. But girls of my generation are learning how to cope with this structure and find new ways to thrive within it. Sophie Arni: And art is perfect medium to shift paradigms. Sara Alahbabi: There are some things you can only express with art, not words. I haven’t seen many Emirati artists doing work around stereotypes for example and I want to see more. And I always want to produce work that socially-rooted. Sophie Arni: Any plans for the future? Sara Alahbabi: I just got accepted into the Salama Bint Hamdan Emerging Artist Fellowship. It’s a huge honor and I’m excited to go back into art-making for a year. I’m planning to pursue a MFA after that. In the long run, I really want to teach. I hold education close to my heart.

-- All images: works of Sara Alahbabi, courtesy of the artist.

#unitedarabemirates #abudhabi #middleeast

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