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.
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.
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.