Shadi Al-Atallah is a multi-disciplinary artist working between London and Bahrain. Their life-sized distorted self-portraits explore mental health, queerness and racial identity, inspired by spiritual practices, family history and their childhood in Saudi Arabia.
Shadi Al-Atallah's own queer, mixed-race identity is bodied forth in vigorous, complex work that engages boldly with non-normative identities, composite cultural affiliations, spirituality and mental health.
Part of a wider series drawing on the theory of ‘catharsis’ in Aristotle’s Poetics – the first work of western literary criticism, and the text that set out the model on which all subsequent ideas of tragic drama have been formed – Al-Atallah’s large scale paintings capture experiences of profound release and heightened, almost unbearable sensation. The works revolve around the idea of catharsis as a radical working-through of emotion and of the self: a vital, healing process that restores spiritual equilibrium, but one whose psychological intensity verges on being physically painful. Considered in both a literal sense and a figurative one: Al Atallah’s chosen subjects are bottlenecks for emotive force coagulating and compounding.
The distorted, overlapping limbs of Al-Atallah’s figures seem to externalise the deep internal contortions produced by the building-up of unsustainable emotional pressure. At the same time, they capture the performativity of the convulsive, expulsive dancing practised by East Africans captured and sold into the Arab slave trade in the Saudi Arabia of Al-Atallah’s birth. In a violent eruption of energy and feeling, this dancing brings the individual perilously close to loss of control. Yet as a restorative act of magical healing, its aim is to rebalance and fortify the soul and mind in a manner that parallels Aristotle’s idea of the catharsis (from the Greek word meaning ‘cleansing’ or ‘purging’) experienced by theatregoers in ancient Athens.
Incorporating ink, acrylics and pastels, the paintings apply the force of these traditions to the fraught experience of contemporary identity-formation. As composite self-portraits, Al-Atallah’s figures capture the subtle, perpetual mirroring processes that take place when one’s own identity emerges in concert with that of others, and by identifying with other people. Together, Al-Atallah's works form a set of highly personal reflections on a childhood poised between cultures, identities and sexualities; of emotional and psychological tensions, and of their release through performance and creation.
Al-Atallah graduated from Camberwell College of Art in 2018, and graduated in 2020 with an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art, London. Solo exhibitions include Fuck I’m Stuck (J. Hammond Projects, London, 2019); Roadblocks, Cob Gallery, London, UK (2018). Group exhibitions include Without a Painter, Fitzrovia Gallery, London, UK, (2019); Full English, curated by DATEABLE ART, London, UK (2019); the head, the hand, Blank Projects, Cape Town, South Africa (2019); SHARKS, Swim Gallery, San Francisco, USA (2018); Absinthe, Collectivending, Spit and Sawdust, London, UK (2019); Gender Fuckery in Contemporary British Art, at b.Dewitt, London, UK (2019); The People Art Resistance (Part of the AfroPunk takeover, 198 Contemporary Arts, London, UK (2018). Public commissions include LDN WMN (curated by Tate Collective x Mayor of London, Tate Modern, London, UK (2018).
In 2018, Al-Atallah was invited to speak on a panel of artists as part of Insights: Beyond Gender - a talk organised by Tate Modern which explored gender and representation for artists today. Al-Atallah’s work is included in The Dean Collection, USA; The Underdog Collection, Italy and the A4 Arts Foundation, South Africa.