This article is an old interview taken after the exhibition “Akupunkture” of a lebanese young artist I met in 2016: Sarah Saleh.
Today, four years after that exhibition, and in light of recent tragic events in Lebanon, I have decided at the end to ask her some questions to see if things have changed in the meanwhile.
I am not reinventing the wheel when I say that women, especially nowadays, are seen as an object. Women are shown as surrogates of men, surrogates of the media and advertising. Women are forced to answer to the canon imposed by society’s idealistic view.
Sarah Saleh, from Lebanon, attended the NABA Academy in Milan and she rejects all of these statements. One might wonder, how? The answer comes straightforward: with her own art.
Before her, many artists tried to underline the difference between the real beauty, that doesn’t require perfection to be noticed, and that kind of beauty promoted by the mass media, artificial and vain.
Collage by Sarah Saleh
Sarah’s work is inspired in particular by Hannah Höch and Cindy Sherman. Both of them, in fact, strongly believe in the negative effect of magazines and mass culture on women, because of the disturbing idea promoted by these tools of the female body as a game, a sexual object. And this is the consequence of the lack of imagination.
The first one, Hanna, was a member of the Dada movement of Berlin. She wrote about the hypocrisy of men, in her works combine male and female traits into one unified being. That’s also the case of Sarah who uses the technique of collage to create figures that are hybrids. Woman or Man? You cannot really tell, because in a collage everything is possible. One can see the leg of a man next to the leg of a woman, the same can happen for eyes and hands belonging to different sexes. The result, although this form of art has a strong impact on the observer, is provocative, ironical and thus, interesting.
The aim of the exhibition can be read through Sarah’s words: “I want to depict the reality, not those fake illusions of the magazines. Look at this mirror. – and in that moment she was pointing at a silver paper on the wall, similar to a tinfoil- “That is the beauty that mass media reveals. It’s not real, it’s like a glass with no reflection. I called this paper mirror, but it’s not. The commercial beauty is like this crumple paper.” It’s clearly a risk for girls and women to try to reproduce the artificial beauty of commercials, especially if they believe it’s perfection. But perfection is boring in the end.
The title of the exposition of Sarah Saleh is “Akupunkture” a distortion of the noun “acupuncture” which is an alternative medical treatment, that involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body to manipulate flow energy. A key component of traditional Chinese medicine and painkiller.
The name also brings to mind the needles of plastic surgery, which idolizes the perfection and the transfiguration of the body in general. In these cases the needles are not used as a therapy but as a drug, the only one table to sedate the pain caused by the non-acceptance of one’s self.
In the name “acupuncture” all the letters “c” have been changed in “k”(“akupunkture”). The sweet movement of the letter “c”, a curvy letter, became straight, thin.
After we have substituted the letters, we can see another word in the name “akupunkture” and that is “punk”, an index of a style which rejects sexism and conformism and looks for gender equality. A message between the lines.
What about the artistic process of Sarah? It’s always a thorny question to ask an artist, but the answer is very fascinating.
Sarah: “First of all, I cut in pieces the pages of cheap magazines. I choose the images I like the most, instinctively. Then I create my own page, my own collage. And then I invent a story.”
The inspiration comes before the narration. The story can wait.
My exhibition took place the 15 and 16 June at Lume, Universitary Lab, in Santa Caterina street, Milan, recently moved to Porta Venezia. It was the first one for Sarah.
Alessandra: Now, in 2020, society had to face a long series of tragic events, first of all a sanitary emergency, which affects the entire world, but for Lebanon things were also worse, so it’s not easy to talk about beauty, perfection and the fashion industry. What could you say about that now? Do you think that the Beauty Industry has changed?
Sarah: I believe that the definition of the ideal body image and the media exposure has evolved significantly especially with social media platforms. Brand and influencers on instagram and facebook are trying to make a positive impact by displaying plus size models, fit or senior models.
Alessandra: So can we dare to say that beauty art and politics are aligned?
Sarah: Unfortunately not. There are still many injustices in the beauty industry and a lot of work still needs to be done regarding representation of women and marginalised groups in the media (especially in the Middle East).
Alessandra: When you have decided to dedicate your art to activism?
Sarah: Living in Lebanon is a constant struggle, you have to fight for your rights everyday whether it’s women’s rights or basic human rights. The beauty industry is not the reason why I decided to fully dedicate my art to activism but the numerous injustices we are facing in the country – just to mention some- no access to 24 electricity, women unable to give their Lebanese citizenship to their children, no access to our money at the bank, the kafala sponsorship system for migrant domestic workers (a form of modern slavery). We are oppressed by a ruling incompetent patriarchal system that is exploiting us everyday and the only way to get out of this oppression and seek freedom is to fight everyday in the hope that one day justice will be served.
Alessandra: And the last sentence suited perfectly also our country, Italy. What about your last art projects?
Sarah: Since the revolution started in Lebanon last October 2019 to fight against a corrupted and incompetent governement I have been building a collage on the revolutionary wall from a collection of images captured by different photographers in local newspapers. This public artistic space developed out of the recent mass uprisings in Lebanon as did the “Tree of revolution”, which is a collaborative installation project in the city center that I helped create.
Lebanese anti-government protesters erect a Christmas tree made of protest banners in Beirut’s Martyr Square.
Alessandra: What are your plans now?
Sarah: Following this experience I have started experimenting with political activism through artistic and design practises and I will be pursuing a Master’s degree in Disarming design – a two-year program at the Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam- committed to design practises in situations of oppression acting on the overlap of design, crafts and politics.
Thank you so much Sarah for sharing these thoughts.
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