Ebb and Flow / Moving Through Mourning
by Nadine Khalil
I met Sarah Brahim during a studio visit of another Saudi Arabian artist last year, when I was on a visit to Riyadh. I was familiar with the burgeoning art scene there but I had never encountered Sarah before, who had recently moved back from Portland, where she grew up. Her Swedish-German-American mother moved her there from Saudi Arabia, a place she had made her home at the age of 21 and raised a family, as Sarah was born during the Gulf War. At the time, Sarah and I connected over the deaths of our mothers in a charged conversation that seemed to prevent anyone else from entering the room. We marvelled at how the loss of a parent becomes protracted and abstract over time, like constant static in the backdrop of one’s life—sometimes un-noticed but always there. When I think back to our exchange, I remember not the words but the body language, the sense of space, the inexpressibility of mourning, and how Sarah, dressed in black, carried herself with a sombre gentleness.
Over several months, Sarah and I had regular discussions about her movement-driven practice. Trained as a dancer and choreographer, she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance and received her BFA from London Contemporary Dance School in 2016. Her corporeal research, looking at the body through biological, physiological, and experiential lenses, began during her studies at Oregon Health and Science University, where she specialized in medical anthropology and public health. After she got her medical degree in 2017, she led a peripatetic life moving from one art residency to the other before returning to live with her Saudi father in 2020.
While much of Sarah’s work examines notions of the unseen body and an inner language of pain and transformation, her most recent performance-video Soft Machines/Far Away Engines (2021) for the Diriyah Biennale moves away from interiority and embodied memory to a collective depiction of breath, connectivity, and shared states of being.
Nadine Khalil: I’m thinking about how much of your work gives form to absence, where absence becomes a form of presence, like with Who we are out of the dark (2020), cyanotypes that have this ethereal quality to them, or the sense of negative space.
Sarah Brahim: The issue is how do we externalize what is happening inside us so we can understand it better? How far do we exist outside our bodies? The work you mention emerged from losing my mother eight years ago. She died three months after I joined the BFA program at the London Contemporary Dance School. I was so unprepared. I had physical responses I couldn’t control—it took years for the loss to stop randomly hitting me. In retrospect, it was one of the most intense experiences of pain I’ve ever had. It was purely physical and included cramping in a way that I knew was linked to grieving. At the time, I was practicing every day, so I was able to observe and release it. I became fascinated with how pain gets stored in the body, with witnessing when it became a part of me and when it slowly faded. Movement was the only thing that allowed me to progress and get through it, the density of it.
NK: I understand what you mean. It is during moments of stillness that the passing of my mother, nine years ago now, resurfaces. At the time, I found that by throwing myself into work I could cope, until recently, when the pandemic slowed everything down, I felt like there was a landslide in my stomach. This feeling of not being anchored was what I came to understand as grief.
SB: This reminds me of a quote by Agnès Varda: “If we opened people, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”1 For me, it felt more like an earthquake. I began to explore the experience of quaking in the body through movement, when your whole stability is shaking.
NK: It’s clear how art and movement enabled you to process this pain; how did your medical studies impact you?
SB: Medical anthropology was my introduction to thinking about pain in the body. Predominantly, we were studying Western techniques as well as Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic practices. We were engaging with case studies where these different traditions would collide, like in a modern hospital in Tanzania, situated in a rural village. We analyzed how to assess a patient’s problem through the existing body of knowledge rather than just one discipline. The Eastern schools were more concerned with the roots of pain while Western methods were less exploratory and more about how to fix or alleviate the problem by following a formula that works.
NK: It’s uncanny how time tricks you with sudden death. There is the speed at which it occurs and yet its long duration. How do you look at the passing of time in your work?
SB: I made a work called Bodyland (2021), which came out of Performance Works NorthWest run by performance artist Linda Austin, a nine-month choreographic residency in Portland (2019–2020), where I found myself trying to express the weight of stories that our body holds by focusing on the memories and imprints of my mother and grandmother. I recalled that they had very dominant, beautiful hands—that’s when the hand gestures emerged as part of my research. There’s something about watching an elder express themselves—the accumulation of life embodied in that—and the gravity of emotion, which I wanted to transform into something communicative, creating a language that described the heaviness of pain transmitted. I articulated gestures that felt connected to my mother’s and grandmother’s bodies and the burdens that we shared.
NK: Your articulation comprises a system of gestures, which you amplify in singular form in Who we are out of the dark.
SB: Yes, in that body of work I was interested in ways of photographing and containing the human form. I met a master indigo dyer from Mali, Aboubakar Fofana, who has honed 11 shades of blue. The lightest is what they call the blue of nothingness and it’s between blue and white. In his culture, babies are wrapped with this shade. The darkest is that of night sky, which is the colour they use to wrap a deceased person. The colours in-between are the tones people live with. The material I use is transparent because the work is performative and activated outdoors by the sun and wind, bringing motion to the hands and plugging them back in to the natural world. I’m very interested in using material to disguise the body, so it takes on other shapes. With fabric you can become the rock or the mountain and your body is just the form holding it up.
NK: This reminds me of your work Roofless (2019), which similarly merges the body with the environment. You’ve spoken of trying to replicate this feeling of movement in buildings, like those in the midst of construction, wrapped in tarp. Where does this impulse come from?
SB: I don’t feel there’s a barrier between my life and my creative practice. Most of my practice is improvisational. When I see spaces that strike my curiosity, I’ll spend time in them, moving, researching, and filming. It is not different from an experience in a landscape—coming to a place and listening to what’s there for you and what you can leave behind. Even today, I prefer to work outside [more] than in a studio. Outside is where so much life happens.
I guess I started to see the world through movement. In a way, I was taking from what I learned in the classroom about music and movement and noticing it outside, in architectural composition. In the conservatory, we weren’t training to be ballet dancers—it wasn’t about excelling in a particular discipline like ballet. It was about using the form as a tool to investigate the body. The question was how do we use this form, this musicality, and these restrictions to make ourselves as big or small as possible?
NK: What propelled you into the world of dance in the beginning?
SB: It’s a humble story. When I was young, my mum noticed that I was introverted and wouldn’t speak to people. She put me in dance classes so I could make friends. She grew up dancing so she knew it was a good place to be. Because I started when I was three, it has made me who I am. I got lucky with the teachers and mentors I had. As soon I was old enough, I was at dance all day after school, and now I can’t see things without that lens. My view of the world is through my understanding of the body speaking. That’s why I began isolating gestures, studying my own hands and expressions. After my BFA, I had to go through a process of unlearning to find my art practice and language. I had trained for so long that my body would fall into these learned movements, like performing on autopilot.
NK: You’ve incorporated a lot of improvisation in your latest work, Soft Machines/Far Away Engines.
SB: For me, there’s nothing you can do that’s repeatable; the beautiful moments that express human spontaneity just happen. But yes, it was structured improvisation—this way, the work cannot fail but has the potential to exceed expectations. I would define the parameters of a certain situation for the performers. Although the work traces a linear process from the breath, mapping how movement travels from the inside, I didn’t want it to be narrative or conclusive. I was interested in the morphology of the breath as an ancient, elementary movement that can become more complex and support instrumentation. I worked with seven creative people (myself included)—only one of whom was trained as a dancer—in duets and groups. I would coax them into tasks that captured certain conditions of the body, which they would enact and then switch roles. I was interested in the idea of breath and movement coming to the surface of the skin. In that moment, the body is the first and last border. Then maybe, in that transition from a single body to a shared space, the movement breaks through, and you don’t feel your body anymore.
NK: You also timed the projections on eight screens, which fragments the way the viewer receives the work. This plays into the notion of mediated presence and the body as digital material, which you’ve explored before in Our Cup is Broken (2021), a commission for Shubbak Festival in London, in collaboration with Portland-based video artist Fernanda D’Agostino.
SB: The best way to describe it is that we created a house with many digital rooms, which are activated by movement. For example, in the indigo room, when you stand still, you become an outline and disappear. I performed live via webcam and we used Isadora, a hyper-performance tool that can create layers and multiples of the body. Although we programmed it, I could discover what the visual potential of each space was, so there’s an element of uncertainty. I’ve ended up with reflections on my screen that I’ve never seen before because some of my movements are improvisational and the program reacts differently each time.
NK: You also drew on your vocabulary of hand gestures there, which makes me wonder, is the language of grief abstract? Does it occupy this space that’s beyond language?
SB: I think it’s an experience that’s hard to put in words. When we met, it wasn’t that we were able to articulate it very well, it was that we understood it without speaking. Have you been able to write about your mother’s death?
NK: Only recently in a poem for Beirut, after the August 4 port explosion in 2020. Somehow, my mind linked the sense of being uprooted with the loss of my mother. [I shared the poem with Sarah. A few excerpts: A man writes / about writing himself out / of disaster. I write / about the failure in documenting / subtraction […] an afterimage unmakes / the world as she leaves / natural light bleeding / the impossibility of / seeing everything / at once […] You say you always / shed past / iterations, as if / it happened to someone else. / I don’t […] is memory matter / that we carry / my mother wasn’t / alive for charred coral / and concrete dust […] In fictive archives, / maps minus territory / we find a way / outside ourselves.]
If you would write something in response to my text, for your mother today, what would it be?
SB: [After a few days:] I land. / I depart. / I land. / I depart. / I depart. / I depart. / I land. / I depart. / I land. / I land / I land. / I fall. / I recover. / I land. / I land. / I am landing. / I am landing. / I am falling. / I am free falling. / I am falling. / I land. / I am recovering. / I recover. / I depart. / I depart. / I land. / I depart. / I depart. / I depart. / I land. / I land. / I land. / I fall. / I recover. / I fall. / I recover. / I land. / I land. / I am landing. / I am landing. / I am falling. / I am free falling. / I am falling. / I fall. / I land. / I am recovering. / I recover. / I land. / I depart.
NK: Say more.
SB: This came from a dance I made shortly after my mother passed. I was playing with the idea of falling and recovering—what it felt like to land. As time moves forward in the near-decade since her death, I feel a continuation of this cycle of grieving mentally and spiritually, if less physically. As I grow and change, so does my perspective of my life, her life, and our time together and apart. Often it feels like an ebb and flow, and this physical poem is a reflection of these waves.