Picture this: the underground train halts and jolts you awake, you spill your iced coffee and you realize, with a fleeting gush of anxiety, that it’s your stop for work. Hurriedly, you join the teetering mass of anonymous employees dressed in dark suits, snow-white shirts and leather shoes and emerge onto the street, lined with phallic, millennial buildings; glistening blue and turquoise glass. Tesco Express. Boots Pharmacy. Starbucks. These relatable, prosaic vignettes of London city life under late capitalism are Gaby Sahhar’s kind of aesthetic infatuation and recur throughout their eclectic first solo show at Almanac, Turin – but with a glittering recasting.
Across five pen-and-ink drawings and one video, the image of business – articulated through clothing, corporations, architecture and furniture – enmeshes with the vitality of drag. Each theme jostles uneasily on the page or screen, teasing out capitalism’s antagonistic identity politics. The video Origins (all works 2019 unless otherwise stated) opens with the artist’s lithe body poised on an office chair, wearing a scarlet tank top, nail polish, a BDSM-style headpiece and one lethal, stiletto heel. The scene rhymes with the composition in I’m a Fraud, LOL, which depicts a genderless, alien-like figure – an echo of the artist’s own identity who hovers fluidly between the sexes – rendered in Mars Black lines evocative of sinews and exposed nerves. These svelte creatures form a corporeal mimicry across the works on paper, framed and doused in splashes of vibrant, cerise pink and green inks; staining and bleeding through their bodies and settings. Each piece is also slashed with cuts: emblematic of the artist’s heightened sense of fragility within our oppressive present, where sparkling lucre is synonymous with hetero-normative patriarchy.
Unlike the recent trend among contemporary queer painters, Sahhar dismisses art-historical influences, bar a few works by Otto Dix. From one perspective, their illustrations lack the technical sophistication that others – namely the USA-based ‘brotherhood’ of Kye Christensen-Knowles, Sean Mullins and Julien Nguyen – are exquisitely honing. But Sahhar’s focus on the now is also an irrepressible strength. Origins is laced with a synthetic, saccharine voice, which functions as an internal monologue for a ‘dormant femininity’ within the film’s male subjects. They recall tapping their Oyster card on London bus journeys at dusk, gliding past conglomerate chains and gazing at, what we can imagine to be, the urban views pictured in OO:33 past Midnight. They illuminate Sahhar’s exemplar of creative industry: transgressive, queer pop music and its emancipatory potential for LGBTQI+ communities. The simulated speech eerily conjures Sophie’s androgynous, helium falsetto, while the use of clothing to distort and blend gender binaries elicits Arca’s ghoulish, otherworldly outfits, replete with skirts, fetish gear and neon lipsticks. An archetypal businessman then abruptly appears on the LED screen, dancing to a hyper-feminine trance melody, resplendent among woozy, sugary synths and blooming, bubble-gum instrumentals. Sahhar convinces us pop can distil the feminine from the most masculine of characters – with wry humour and slender-ankled competence.
Twirling from the office to the club, the film culminates with in-crowd gay bar footage; silhouettes gyrate beneath pulsating strobe lights to the beat of Britney Spears and Rihanna. The narrator recounts pouring a rainbow of luminous shots into the back of their skull. And I’m reminded, almost feel, the atmosphere of another inspiration: the young London-based artist duo Rosie Hastings’ and Hannah Quinlan’s technicolour, soft pastel drawings of these spaces; their shirtless, toned locals, wearing cowboy hats and brilliant blue Levi’s; smudged and flecked to convey tired, rippled denim. Sahhar’s delicate, forlorn waifs counteract this archetypal club demographic. But the mood remains inclusive: everyone can experience the euphoria of Ariana Grande, escape consumerist ennui and gender conformity through vogueing, body popping, shifting and slipping, beyond our corporeality into the night.
Gaby Sahhar, 'Origins' runs at Almanac Inn, Turin, until 22 March 2019.
Main image: Gaby Sahhar, 1 foot on, 1 foot off (detail), 2019, ink on paper. Courtesy: the artist and ALMANAC, London/Turin; photograph: Sebastiano Pellion
First published in Issue 203