AMMAN- In 2016, Arab-American multimedia artist Shaun Rabah moved to Europe in search of a new place to create art and learn more about himself. On a weekend trip to Berlin in late January, Rabah decided to film and interview a Czech musician. At some point during the interview, he instinctively zoomed in on her mouth. As he was reviewing this footage later, he looked at the clip of the mouth and was very drawn to the visuals. Thus, he began filming the mouths of the people he came across as he travelled across Europe. Rabah has since used this body of work in short videos and augmented reality art pieces, all compiled to create his project U.

Rabah was becoming very surprised at the increasing polarization between groups of differing sociopolitical beliefs in the world, but specifically after the 2016 American presidential elections. When he began filming people’s mouths, Rabah realized a sense of unity amongst all human beings in the facial micro-expressions that manifest around that region of the face while expressing certain emotions. He therefore sought out to unite this body of works under a project to silently express and help others realize the deep primal connection that all humans share with one another, despite their backgrounds and beliefs. Initially, Rabah thought of naming his project “Wahid” which means “one” in Arabic. However, he chose to stray away from this oft-deemed cliché theme, and instead wanted to focus on the first layer of separation between the self and the other, which, he says in an interview with artmejo, “makes this common theme of unity so elusive.

Shaun Rabah, Our Passing Grains of Sand, Limited Edition Video & Augmented Reality Print, 80cm x 80 cm, 2020

U is primarily a video project. Rabah compiles several clips he took of people’s mouths side by side in a grid format, and allows his viewers to observe and experience the commonality of these people’s facial micro-expressions as they think for two minutes about the bad in their lives and two minutes about the good. Rabah says, “I hope that people can spend some time to recognize the emotions in these individuals and realize that they are from different regions, religions, and cultures and yet they all display the exact same micro-expressions and emotions on their faces.” He also allows people to film themselves and submit their own videos in an effort to engage his viewers and democratize his work. He describes his art as “a way to connect with others without being tied to…socializing protocols…Here you can just watch their mouth as they think about their life. Here you can just feel a person without wondering what they are thinking about you, and then maybe recognize those same feelings within yourself and realize that you are not so different at the core.”

In addition to the videos, Rabah also produces several artworks made using film stills. He combines these stills in a grid-like structure, similar to that of the video, and adorns them with several different colors, hues, and geometrical shapes and compositions.

Shaun Rabah, An Unfolding Reveal, Print and Augmented Reality Video, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2021

In this project, Rabah draws a lot of inspiration from the Bulgarian philosopher Peter Deunov. Though the project started before Rabah was familiar with Deunov, the concept of unity that U addresses is strongly echoed in Deunov’s work. In the video, Rabah recalls a quote by Deunov: “The whole human body is a reflection of the soul, the eyes are a reflection of the mind and the mouth a reflection of the heart.” In his work and teachings, Deunov speaks of human unity through a universal brotherhood in which people work together to better themselves spiritually, and in turn, the world. When asked about this concept, Rabah replied: “there is not much one can really contribute to the world in a pure consequence-free way if they are not working to improve themselves internally first and evolve as a result, enabling one to create with pure intent.”

Shaun Rabah, Meet Me Here 8, Plexiglass Print & Augmented Reality Video, 50 cm x 81 cm, 2019

The advent of the pandemic has inevitably affected Rabah’s work. With constant lockdowns and social distancing measures, people have been more disconnected than ever. Furthermore, with the internet and social media as the only forms of communication during this time, the ideological polarization that Rabah is trying to eliminate is at an all time high. Not to mention, masks hide a big part of human facial expression. When asked how the pandemic affected the course of his work, Rabah replied, “The pandemic only reinforced my sense of importance with this work and helped it evolve into a concise message on the concept of separation between I and U.” 

At a time when people feel more emotionally disconnected than ever, it is important to focus on works such as U. Rabah urges people to focus less on what separates them, and embrace their shared experiences. Though the pandemic was a shared experience amongst everyone, people have chosen to focus more on how they were separated from one another both physically and emotionally. Rabah says, “I hope this project can serve as a tool to keep us emotionally engaged with each other, even from a distance.”