OPINION

Sarah Bahbah: An Artist Of and For Our Generation

by Madeline DeFillipis  | 15 October 2021

The millennial condition is often described as one which encompasses the universal through the subjective. Apps like TikTok have exploded in popularity due in part to the platform they give to regular people, airing their grievances, funny moments, ambitions and otherwise mundane lives. A large part of these lives is connected to mental illness and mental health, and a positive side effect of sharing these experiences means that people don’t feel so alone. What makes it so addictive? It’s real people, telling real stories that we can actually relate to, not another celebrity wishing that they could just pop into Sainsburys without being recognised.

 

This is exactly what drives Sarah Bahbah, the L.A.-based artist who has skyrocketed to fame via Instagram for her ‘elegant meme’ style photograph narrative series. Bahbah was raised in Perth, Australia, by Palestinian and Jordanian parents, and always felt isolated, whether she was in a white, western world or the ‘conservative Arab’ world of her parents. After moving to L.A. as a twenty-four year old, Bahbah felt lost. She was struggling with trauma from her past, an eating disorder and drug addiction, and had never felt more alone. She ultimately sobered up, found a therapist, and chose to work through her feelings through a creative outlet. Her inspiration for her now-famous work comes from subtitled French films.

@sarahbahbah on Instagram.

Film noir has a reputation for melancholic yet sensuous (even overtly sexual) messages and devastatingly attractive subjects who grapple with their internal darkness. Bahbah’s creative vision takes this approach into the contemporary setting, with lushly decorated sets, gorgeous actor/models dressed (or undressed) in sumptuous, if scandalous clothing. The most intriguing concept, though, is the narrative she attaches to each story. Her works have titles such as Fuck Me, Fuck You, I Love You, Me Neither, and This Is Not For You, and feature stars Dylan Sprouse, Laura Harrier, and Noah Centineo.

 

Despite her works being generally eye-catching and relatable in terms of its narrative content to any odd romantic, the appeal of her works is in the gaze it employs. Since Laura Mulvey published ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in 1975, it has been clear that a distinctly male gaze governs most popular cinema. Consider the controversy between the two directors of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman and Justice League films: in the 2017 film, director Patty Jenkins was lauded for her approach which did not over-sexualise the Amazonian warriors at the expense of their generally badass characteristics. In Justice League, director Joss Whedon and his male costume designer chose to pare down the Amazons’ outfits to accentuate their bodies.

 

Herein lies the appeal of Bahbah: her characters are honest and real (not to mention not all white). The sets might be imaginary and ostentatious, but the messages are heartfelt and consider the human condition in a modern world that threatens to eat us up and spit us out. What is more, Bahbah communicates these works directly onto her Instagram account, which is arguably the gallery space with the least barriers to entry of any in the global art world. With 1.1 million followers, she has a global audience that ranges far and wide; she sells her prints at reasonable prices for interested parties, and communicates directly with her audience. She represents a distinctly millennial (read: approachable) attitude to her craft.

@sarahbahbah on Instagram.

Perhaps her most touching and brave work is 3eib, which is pronounced ‘ay-ab’ and translates, according to Bahbah in Arabic to ‘shame’ that is expressed intensely. She created this work, in front of the camera for the first time, to finally expel her own shame at the sexual abuse she endured as a child. It examines her relationships with her family, her community and her religion as a child and now, her own identity and her own pleasure.

Unflinchingly honest and intensely relatable, Bahbah continues to use familiar faces in our cinematic repertoire to communicate universal emotions and make us feel a little less alone.