Sarah Farahat: Art and Social Action


Sarah Farahat '08 explores life, culture, and politics in the Middle East.

More and more often, we see proof that it’s not enough to make work solely for oneself, or for the vague virtue of art for art’s sake. There’s too much to this world, too much that directly intersects our own lives, to let ourselves ignore the role we could and ought to play in making it better.

Shouldering that responsibility takes a hundred different forms for a hundred different people. There’s no instruction manual, no approved “right way.” But there are mentors and examples to look toward, physical, live proofs that it can be done, and done without sacrificing that which makes Art fine, and precious. But it can mean expanding one’s definition of Art to include variables you can’t control, such as public participation, or politics, or collaboration. It means mastering the tools of more than one toolkit.

Sarah Farahat ’08 is a good person to look towards. Her work continually questions and pushes the line between art and activism.

In a recent issue of her publication, Beruit Journal for Radical Activation, produced while part of the Ashkal Alwan Residency Program in Beruit, Lebanon, Farahat asked Lebanese poet and hip-hop artist El Rass:

“Does the artist have a responsibility towards social justice?”

Rass responded, “I think everyone has this responsibility. The artist has an extra responsibility. She or he has the means of participating in shaping the collective mind…He has the luxury of going into the details of things and asking questions about the details of things because he has the character or talent to do so.”


A storytelling session as part of Farahat’s 2011 show, “Can You See Me Now? (Part 1)”

Farahat graduated from PNCA in 2008 with a degree in Intermedia Studies, an interdisciplinary major that encourages students to synthesize critical thinking, making, and research in the context of contemporary culture and creative practices. She had come to PNCA two and a half years earlier with a BA in Psychology from Occidental College. More recently, Farahat studied and produced work as one of twelve students in the inaugural class at The Home Workspace Program, “a ten-month, tuition-free, incubator-style art school” founded and run by Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, which was founded to reclaim the city after the aftermath of Lebanon’s civil war, more than fifteen years ago.

In the words of Christine Tohme, director of the Home Workspace Program, “that political cause has been transformed into domestic gestures, an introspective space, a place to ask questions about how to live, about dwelling, and about what we want from where we are living.”

While at Home Workspace, Farahat worked closely with Emily Jacir. Jacir was the resident artist for that first year of the Home Workspace Program and she soon became a good friend and mentor to Farahat. Jacir’s residency and curriculum choices played a large part in Farahat’s decision to apply to the program.

Farahat’s time in Beruit at Home Workspace Program was featured in an October 2012 article in ArtForum, with Beruit-based art critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie remarking that “In her ten months of living in Beruit, Farahat has done more community outreach than a nonprofit with years of programming and a budget to match… Farahat’s project was disarmingly sincere, unabashedly feminist, and deceptive in its simplicity. Her texts, seemingly off-the-cuff and confessional, were actually polished and probing.”

These outreach efforts included the Beruit Journal for Radical Activation, mentioned above, donation-only acupuncture, and a residency program for artists at a restaurant.

“I have this desire for public engagement,” Farahat says, “especially in a place where meaningful opportunities to participate in political life are few and far between.”


Farahat at the closing reception for the Home Workspace Program. Photo via ArtForum.

Her PNCA thesis work, entitled You Can’t Go Home Again, was a sound and video installation that became a meeting place/space. Her thesis centered around three conversations with Iraqi refugees living in Portland.

“I’m half Egyptian,” comments Farahat regarding the consistent theme within her work about being from the Middle East. “That’s where it partially comes from. My examining Iraq was more of a function of being American, and both having sympathy and a cultural understanding.”

Farahat’s work focuses still on community, assimilation, and human rights. She has lived and traveled not only in the Middle East, but in Haiti, Senegal, and Central America as well. As she writes in her artist statement, “Learning about and participating in grassroots struggles for liberation and self-determination informs my work.”

“Right after I finished my thesis,” Farahat explains, “but before I graduated, I went on a human rights delegation to Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams. They do social justice direct action work, in countries that have been affected by US military action.”


From Farahat’s PNCA thesis work. Photo by Heather Zinger ’10.

A few years later, Farahat was awarded her first grant from RACC (“This grant was the first time I felt I got paid for my work.”) to fund her solo exhibition, Can you see me now? (Part 1), a reflection on Palestine. The exhibition was built around a series of events, including a storytelling evening, film screening of Slingshot Hop Hop, presentations by Portland activists, and an artist talk.

“I like to think that there was room for breathing so that people can ask questions, can have multiple interpretations. Hence the various of different activities,” Farahat said, “With work that has political applications, having a space for dialogue is really important.”

“If you grew up in the Middle East, you know about Palestine. I wasn’t born there, but lived there half of middle school and high school. That’s the background for my interest in the region,” Farahat explains, “My mother’s parents lived in the West Bank in ‘61-‘62. My grandfather is an archaeologist. He studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, and my grandmother was an English teacher at the Friends School there. My mom went to the American University in Beruit.”

Farahat is currently applying for a Fulbright Scholar Grant.

“I had some amazing professors at PNCA. Emily Ginsburg, Anne Marie Oliver, Anne Johnson, Linda Kleiwer. I call the Annes and Emily my ‘trifecta of awesomeness’,” Farahat explains. “They were Intermedia gurus and they really helped me out. Emily’s been a really big supporter of my work.”

by Killeen Hanson, MFA ACD '12 and Wayne Bund, MFA VS '10

— Posted on 03/08 at 04:04 PM

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