Sarah Abu Abdallah, The Salad Zone, 2013, video, color, sound, 21 minutes 27 seconds.

Sarah Abu Abdallah, The Salad Zone, 2013, video, color, sound, 21 minutes 27 seconds.

Sarah Abu Abdallah

When a woman from Saudi Arabia makes art, the global—which is to say, Western-dominated—art world typically expects her work to confront and denounce the oppression of women in her country. Sarah Abu Abdallah subverts this expectation. Although she addresses the everyday lives of Saudi women, she sets the macropolitical mechanisms of systematic oppression aside to focus on the microcosm of the private sphere, where her subjects come into contact with the wider world via the internet. The video pieces Abu Abdallah presented, together with an installation and a painting in her first solo show in Europe accordingly directed our attention to seemingly mundane yet ultimately unsettling scenes of domestic life.

In one recent three-channel video, The House That Ate Them Whole, 2018, the camera sweeps the interior of a villa in claustrophobic tracking shots, the architecture appearing in oddly distorted perspectives. To a soundtrack—both sung and spoken—that switches between autobiographical and surreal, a girl plays on a marble floor among piles of clutter. She and a boy who features in some scenes seem to be the only human beings left in the house. Has the rest of their family, as the title suggests, been swallowed up by the sinister home? These scenes, in which nothing happens, contrast with the imagination of a possible outside world: With an oddly flat affect, a voice-over recalls a loud bang outside the door and the smell of burning flesh; a girl, we are told, was killed in an explosion. Are the children in the video kept in the house for their protection, or is the house itself the menace? In an effect that mirrors the experience of aimlessly surfing the web, this unexpectedly dramatic story is interwoven with banal, quirky shots: one, for instance, showing household garbage decorated with sparkling visual effects.

Similarly, the video The Salad Zone, 2013, is a kind of visual stream of consciousness assembling experiences, impressions, and fantasies without a recognizable narrative structure. Shots of a barren landscape from a moving car are followed in associative cuts by an empty hospital bed and a bleak corridor. In a more explicitly absurd scene, two women in burkas lay into a television set with a metal rod and a shovel. Another character staggers around an ironing board with an enormous pot over her head: women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The installation Trees Speaking with Each Other, 2019, charted another indirect approach to Saudi life, examining the country’s history and society through the lens of emotionally fraught memories. A greenhouse bathed in garish pink light contained a variety of tomato, one of Abu Abdallah’s childhood favorites, that disappeared from the market as urban sprawl encroached into the surrounding farmland. Lone surviving specimens of the otherwise extinct breed were growing in the artificial ecosystem set up inside the kunstverein, with staff caring for the delicate little plants.

The presentation was framed by the friezelike painting Bad Hunches, 2019, which took up two walls and part of a third. On a long canvas, imagery related to the other works in the room—pictures of piles of tomatoes, a medical illustration of the human thorax, details of facades—were collaged over coarse black marks. Blending autobiography with fiction, Abu Abdallah’s work painted an ambivalent portrait of women’s domestic lives in Saudi Arabia: existences both sheltered and vulnerable, into which the internet injects cosmopolitan ideas as well as a stream of trivialities.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.