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    Artist Sarah Alagroobi on creating a safe space for conversation in the GCC

    Sophia Dyer

    Founder of The Letters Project and The Native Informant, Alagroobi uses mixed materials to foster open discussion

    There are few people who become the unelected voice of a lived experience. Fewer still, who carve out this space for themselves through creativity. Yet, the self-proclaimed ‘artistically contrarian’, Sarah Alagroobi is dominating conversation in the region. 

    Fiercely intellectual and brazenly confident, the half-Emirati-half-Syrian creative has become a voice for those struggling to find their place in society. “Whether I intended to or not, I became the unofficial spokesperson for the mixed race or mixed community,” she shares. “I felt that, as people who have been marginalised or under-represented, we are forced to fit into one or the other. This creates a mentality of, ‘if you’re not with us, then you’re against us’, but for me, I questioned ‘why can’t we be both?’”

    The daughter of an Emirati diplomat, Alagroobi grew up between Belgium and Turkey, before moving to Sharjah to complete her degree. “I felt completely disenfranchised when I moved back to the UAE. I think for me, what was interesting is that I was coming back to a country that claimed to be mine. So, I oscillated between feeling entrenched, because this is my tribe, yet completely othered at the same time,” she admits.

    Making a career from the discomfort, Alagroobi now spends her time exploring themes of culture and identity through both the Arab and Western lens. An artist, podcast host, activist, researcher and teacher, she uses several media to shed light on societal issues. 

    The Letters Project

    “My art is conceptual, but maybe more psychological,” she explains. “Once you lay out beds of acrylic, it gets lost and the only way to rediscover it is to uncover it. That lends itself to uncovering people’s experiences and traumas. I love the idea that whatever is captured in the dark will always come to light. It’s the idea of not shying away from your truth. This is the bedrock of authenticity, to sit in your truth and not negotiate it,” she adds.

    Sharing her truth is undoubtedly something that comes natural to Alagroobi who admits she has always been this way. “I knew who I was very early on because I was placed in environments where one had to recognise oneself in order to survive. I think that, coupled with my contrarian personality, meant I had to understand my identity and say it with my chest.” It was in this candid approach to her mixed Emirati experience, that a space was born for others to do so too, albeit anonymously. 

    The Letters Project was created seven years ago, back when the Instagram stories feature had just been released. Alagroobi, who was living in London at the time, started sharing her opinions on the platform. With each message vanishing after 24 hours, Alagroobi would keep the conversation going by sharing responses from her DMs anonymously and saving them to a ‘stories highlight’. Eventually, she stepped back from injecting her own voice and let the nameless users do the talking. Creating a dedicated website, the artist invited people to submit letters on any topic that she would then post anonymously to Instagram, thus The Letters Project was born. 

    Since its inception, the website and Instagram account have received over 3,000 entries from people wishing to share their stories. Over the years, “certain stories have had a profound impact on society and really pushed the narrative,” Alagroobi explains. “Half-Emirati identity, social stigmas and taboos placed upon women were big themes. I think people resonated with these stories, and it expanded into a wider conversation that wouldn’t have been foregrounded in mainstream media.”

    The Letters Project

    Putting her name to the fringe project has not been without challenges, however.“When you are trying to carve out a space for individuals to exist, you must be willing to be the martyr,” says Alagroobi casually. “It means you’re going to get a lot of flak and you’re going to have people that disagree with you. You have to have a thick skin to deal with this, but I feel l was almost trained since birth, as I’ve always been told I’m confident and outspoken.”

    Continuing to use her voice to create public dialogue, last year, Alagroobi started her own podcast, The Native Informant. Inviting other speakers into the space, she leads conversations that tackle socio-cultural discussions in an open and honest format. Guests from across the region join the artist to share their personal experiences and opinions on hot topics including ‘cancel culture’. Staying true to her policy of open and non-judgemental dialogue, during Alagroobi’s podcast disclaimer she states, “subjective reality is not the only reality, your truth is not the only truth.” 

    Self-publishing her first book Fire and Sun in 2023, the multidisciplinary artist continues to create space for accessible conversation. “I think we should be able to be multifaceted and I hope that translates for other people who haven’t seen themselves reflected in cultural discourse,” she explains. And indeed, her 20,000 followers prove that her unfiltered expressions are echoed by myriad communities. 

    Much like her layered acrylic paintings, Sarah Alagroobi is shaping the zeitgeist of the region through her exploration of the many cultural nuances that form its uniquely blended reality. 

    Follow the conversation on: @sarahalagroobi; @thenativeinformant; @thelettersproject

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