Steve Sabella

Steve Sabella (born 1975, Jerusalem, Palestine) is an award-win­ning artist, writer and public speaker based in Berlin. He uses pho­tog­raphy and pho­to­graphic instal­la­tion as his prin­cipal modes of expres­sion.

His work has been exhib­ited inter­na­tion­ally and is held in col­lec­tions including those of the British Museum in London and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, where he was one of the artists com­mis­sioned for the inau­gural exhi­bi­tion in 2010.
In September 2016, Sabella pub­lished his award-win­ning memoir The Parachute Paradox with Kerber Verlag. The artist’s first mono­graph Steve Sabella— Photography 1997-2014 was pub­lished by Hatje Cantz in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Akademie der Künste Berlin, with texts by Hubertus von Amelunxen and Kamal Boullata. He has pub­lished essays on the art market, was a speaker at TEDx Marrakech (2012), and has been the sub­ject of sev­eral doc­u­men­taries, including In the Darkroom with Steve Sabella (2014), screened inter­na­tion­ally. Steve received the 2017 AFAC grant for his new photo pro­ject Palestine - UNSETTLED.

Sabella holds an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster and an MA in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. In 2008 he received the Ellen Auerbach Award from the Akademie der Künste Berlin.

“I encoun­tered the work of Steve Sabella at a time when the art of pho­tog­raphy, or
pho­tog­raphy as art, seemed increas­ingly irrel­e­vant to me, unattached to a world long
since over­drawn by images…It obvi­ously needed a Palestinian artist doing aston­ishing
work to shake the very foun­da­tions of the cer­tainty of my view and inter­pre­ta­tion.”

Hubertus von Amelunxen (Author and Curator, Member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. President of the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland).

Steve Sabella’s art prac­tice, as Amelunxen has written in the artist’s mono­graph cov­ering 20 years of work, upends the common notions of pho­tog­raphy in our image-sat­u­rated world. Since his begin­nings in Jerusalem, Palestine, Sabella has pushed the medium to its limits, from exper­i­men­ta­tion in dark­room pro­cesses to iPhone pho­tog­raphy. In doing so, he has con­sis­tently invited viewers to ques­tion the appear­ance of reality, oper­ating both as an artist and researcher who unlocks visual codes sur­rounding us. His works are, as the his­to­rian and artist Kamal Boullata writes, “a dream to dis­cover.”

Perhaps what Boullata refers to is an imag­i­na­tive world deep­ening with every image Sabella cre­ates, each inde­pen­dent and inter­con­nected. To under­stand his recent art­works, critics often refer to the first. And yet, the uni­verses con­tained in his works are always placed in dia­logue with the world we inhabit. Encountering his 38 Days of Re-Collection (2014), one sees ancient frag­ments, pieces of chip­ping frescos, until noticing the pho­to­graphic detail of a kitchen counter or wooden ladder, and reads the cap­tion: “B&W white film neg­a­tives (gen­er­ated from dig­ital images) printed with photo emul­sion spread on col­ored paint frag­ments col­lected from Jerusalem’s Old City house walls.” In this capacity to be both rad­i­cally imag­i­na­tive in his visuals, and reflec­tive of the his­tor­ical real­i­ties from which they orig­i­nate, Sabella has con­tin­u­ously redrawn the border of truth and illu­sion.

For all of Sabella’s formal exper­i­men­ta­tion, he is also an artist who dares to speak to the pol­i­tics and powers of today. The pho­tographs from 38 Days of Re-Collection were taken in a Palestinian home occu­pied by Israelis since 1948. His instal­la­tion Settlement–Six Israelis & One Palestinian (2010), com­mis­sioned for Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, places the viewer in the midst of a spa­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the con­flict, with six life-sized pho­tographs of Israelis on one side of an inter­ro­ga­tion room, and one of a Palestinian - the artist him­self - directly oppo­site, all of them clad only in their under­wear and standing in front of an imposing con­crete wall. Sabella pho­tographed the Israelis, and an Israeli pho­tographed Sabella. Still, con­cepts of nation­ality need not com­pletely define this work. There is a provo­ca­tion to its blunt title and pre­sen­ta­tion, yet, sup­porting the ges­ture is a many-lay­ered con­cep­tual struc­ture, probing the rela­tions between self and other, pas­sive spec­tator and active sup­porter. No doubt these pho­tographed sub­jects also speak to the pecu­liarity of indi­vid­uals regarding each other.

In merging the human and cam­eral gaze, Sabella has some­times treated the camera like a brush, pro­ducing ges­tural and fluid forms from the basis of a static image. Critics and scholars have found a painterly quality in his works, such as the kinetic bodies of the Independence (2013) series, whose photos Sabella took with an iPhone. Others have noted a musi­cality, linking notions of polyphony and coun­ter­point to a body of work that so often brings diver­gent voices into con­tact. In photo-col­lages like In Exile (2008), Metamorphosis (2012), and Sinopia (2014), Sabella cuts, layers and tiles pic­tures of the everyday, such as images of Bahrain’s polit­ical graf­fiti (and its over­painting by the police), or a cactus standing on a win­dowsill in London. These vibrant planes of color and form give a pulse of our world, but also con­jure worlds unseen. Sabella is an artist who never repeats him­self, so each of his works stands as a unique medi­ator between past and future, absence and pres­ence, reality as such and dreams yet to be dis­cov­ered.
Steve SABELLA, In Exile, 2008.
By Charlotte Bank, Nafas Art Magazine - Universe in Universe, July 2010, Steve Sabella, In Exile.
Physical exile in London fol­lowed mental exile in 2007. There, his artistic grap­pling with the omnipresent feel­ings of alien­ation took on a new, more com­plex shape. The win­dows shown from mul­tiple per­spec­tives in the works of In Exile are views from the place where the artist lives. The sym­bolism here is inten­tion­ally many-lay­ered. The win­dows provide prospects and hope, seeming to permit the widest variety of angles of view, but still remain closed and keep the viewer out­side, like an unin­volved observer. Life plays out in front of the window, but access to it is blocked. Here the artist seems a cap­tive of the eternal search for him­self in the mosaic of his mental land­scape. He draws the viewer into dis­turbing views and robs him of bal­ance and secu­rity. He decon­structs the familiar in order to assemble it anew, thereby cre­ating a new con­stel­la­tion of reality that estab­lishes par­al­lels to the expe­ri­ences of a never-ending exile.
By Najat Rahman, Syracuse University Press, 2015, In the Wake of the Poetic.

In Steve Sabella’s haunting work In Exile, images recur­rently depict a somber but metic­u­lously con­structed exile. Each image seems to repeat and pro­lif­erate images of houses or apart­ments, as if they are set­tle­ments or homes arti­fi­cially con­structed and imposed. The images are imbued with the dark colors blue and gray, brown and black, as we see in the image In Exile 1. In In Exile 2 spaces are sur­rounded with barbed wired. As Sabella once pro­claimed, “I stitch my wounds with barbed wire.” The “re­con­sti­tu­tion” of self is para­dox­i­cally one of vio­lent suturing that has not been able to rid reality of barbed wires, at home or in exile, but remains lib­er­a­tory. With light ema­nating from the inside of these inte­riors at night, the images are not without a sense of hope. Despite the dark gray, blue, and black, the flitter of inte­rior light sug­gests move­ment nonethe­less, per­haps a break­through from all lim­i­ta­tions.
By Charlotte Bank, Institute for Middle East Understanding, March 28, 2016, Re-con­structing Dasein: The Works of Steve Sabella.

The works of Steve Sabella reflect sim­ilar con­cerns. A native of Old Jerusalem, that ever­con­tested piece of land whose priv­i­lege (or curse) it is to be holy to the three main monothe­istic faiths, Sabella has been on a relent­less journey since he left his home town through the frag­ments of his own psyche, to para­phrase a sen­tence by Mourid Barghouti. A journey that has led him to finally come to terms with his state of per­petual alien­ation and even find the lib­er­a­tion that root­less­ness can also offer. Steve Sabella has now reached the point to which Vilém Flusser refers in the fol­lowing words, “Emi­grés become free, not when they deny their lost home­land, but when they come to terms with it.” Since the col­lages of In Exile (2008), a series cre­ated in London one year after having left his home town, Sabella has been using large scale pho­to­graphic col­lages to reflect on this exilic state of mind.
By Sara Rossino, May 2010, Exhibition Catalogue, Metroquadro Gallery, Turin, Steve Sabella, In Exile. Conversation with the Artist.

The first time you find your­self in front of the art­works which make up the In Exile series by Steve Sabella, you have a strange feeling of famil­iarity. Not with regards to the places which are fea­tured in the images, frag­ments of a sub­jec­tive reality which is alien to the viewer, details of the everyday London life which the artist has been living with his family for the past three years since he left the Old City of Jerusalem. These shards of cap­tured mem­o­ries, decon­structed and recon­structed, are inti­mate to Sabella because they belong to his daily dimen­sion, but are dis­tant from the spec­tator, lacking a familiar or rec­og­niz­able ref­er­ence, extracted from an anony­mous any­where.
Cedar Wings Magazine, August 2014, Steve Sabella: Insights into the Nature of Identity and Visual Reality.

Sabella’s pro­ject In Exile explored the mental image that Palestinians hold of Jerusalem and has gained inter­na­tional atten­tion, leading to its pro­duc­tion into a doc­u­men­tary film. Consequently, Sabella has been using photo col­lage as a visual form for the state of mind that results from living in ‘mental exile’ and the tran­scen­dence of this state towards Independence (2013). As he writes, “the hard work was finding how to allow for a new trans­for­ma­tion, while accepting that my DNA will always stay the same.”
By Sheyma Buali, Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, July 2014, Review: Fragments.

Through Berloni Gallery’s floor-to-ceiling win­dows, Steve Sabella’s large-scale pho­tographs appeared like frag­ments, a fit­ting title for this four-part ret­ro­spec­tive of the Palestinian artist’s work. Closer inspec­tion of Exile (2008), Sabella’s splin­tered mosaics of images, reveals win­dows that are open, closed, opaque or pro­tected by cages. The most striking of all depicts Cecile, the artist’s daughter, looking through her window in dif­ferent direc­tions as images of her are cut up, mir­rored and repeated. This series opened the exhi­bi­tion and set the tone for the frac­tured feel­ings, frus­tra­tion and obstruc­tions that Sabella nar­rates through his pho­tographs.
By Hubertus Von Amelunxen, 2014, Steve Sabella. Photography 1997-2014.

In Exile (2008) is a cut through the place, a cut in the place, and a clear deci­sion. The series con­sists of five, large-format almost square color images. Only when the viewer comes close to the images does a con­crete figure emerge from the oscil­lating pat­tern of dis­lo­cated, upended, or bent frag­ments. The five images share the mor­phology of dis­lo­cated frag­ments shaken into an order, the onto­log­ical foun­da­tion of the place seen from an inter­me­diate space and cast off… In Exile exhibits her­metic struc­tures, blind win­dows, pro­tru­sions of dis­ap­pointed trans­parency… And like In Exile and Euphoria, a rhythmic move­ment is at work in the images ; now an arabesque sweep moving across the image, now a clearly con­tra­puntal arrange­ment, so that the images cor­re­spond to an almost musical writing, a score or nota­tion.

The Great March of Return, 2019.

1. Photo.
Printed on diasec mounted on alu­minium, 200 x 200 x 3,5 cm. Signed ans num­bered by the artist. Edition of 6 + 2 AP.

The Great March of Return is a col­lage including over one thou­sand pho­tographs cap­tured by five Palestinian jour­nal­ists from Gaza of the crowds who have gath­ered every Friday since March 2018 to end the Israeli occu­pa­tion. These images are con­trasted with photos taken of outer space merging the her­met­i­cally sealed Strip with infinity, cre­ating a mon­u­mental “pre­sent-day fresco” demon­strating a nation’s eternal fight for lib­er­a­tion.
Photo jour­nal­ists : Atieh Darwish, Mustafa Mohamad, Majdi Fathi, Mohammed Asad, Ashraf Amra.

2. Video.
10’. Sound : Gaza Suite, orig­inal com­po­si­tion by Ghazi Barakat.

Works in Public Collections:
Donation Claude & France Lemand 2018, 2020, Musée, Institut du monde arabe, Paris.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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