Even in such a fluid creative landscape as 2018, there are few that so easily transcend the boundaries of art and Internet culture as Sarah Bahbah. The artist, whose work consists of irreverently captioned cinema stills, has resonated with a new generation of Instagram addicts. Her following on the platform soared towards 910,000 within weeks of her collaborating with the Internet’s golden boy, Noah Centineo, whose conspiratorial smirk is matched with such deep thoughts as “Obsession is the illusion of love disguising fear.” Earlier this year, Dylan Sprouse cut to the quick with, “My heart doesn’t care about you, my ego does.”
By the time this goes to print, Bahbah’s likely to hit the one million follower mark, but her digital stardom proved just as powerful offline when a throng of burgeoning creatives maxed out capacity at Free Space’s Creator Class speaker series in Toronto earlier this fall. “People [describe] my work as elegant memes, and it’s OK because it’s my subconscious desire to be relatable coming through,” she tells me before the show.
Indeed, relatability is a strong current flowing throughout Bahbah’s photos, which combine lurid, sensorial imagery coupled with the dialogue inside her head. “It’s things that I’ve said or wish I had said,” in moments of love, friendship, heartbreak, or otherwise. “I only shoot once every six months, and it’s usually when I am healing from something and I have momentum to tell my story,” she says. By extension, Bahbah lends a voice to those who often can’t speak for themselves. “Each piece will resonate with viewers based off of their own experiences, but then when you bring them together, you’ll get a gist of my own story,” she says.
Bahbah’s unique approach is likely due to her unconventional path towards art. Palestinian-born and Australian-raised, she originally sought out fine art, using a DSLR to capture the subjects she wanted to paint. “I realized over time that I was really impatient and spending all this time trying to do all these pastel portraits—photography just feels more present and in-the-moment,” she says. After school, she ended up in creative advertising, where she worked as a social media creator for big brands like 7-Eleven. “I had to tap into that culture heavily.” In her art, she says, “The two worlds collided, as much as I wanted to keep them separate.”
Despite those original intentions, the high–low marriage has become central to Bahbah’s appeal, and attracted the likes of Gucci, with whom she collaborated on campaign images earlier this year. I ask about her future: “I just want more,” she says. “I want to speak to so many more people than I am right now.” If those numbers keep climbing, she’s likely to get her wish.
Photographed by Sarah Bahbah.