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.
Impression jet d’encre sur diasec monté sur alu­mi­nium, 200 x 200 x 3,5 cm. Signé et numé­roté par l’artiste. Edition de 6 + 2 EA.

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.
Journalistes pho­to­gra­phes : Atieh Darwish, Mustafa Mohamad, Majdi Fathi, Mohammed Asad, Ashraf Amra.

2. Vidéo.
Durée : 10’. Son : Gaza Suite, com­po­si­tion ori­gi­nale de Ghazi Barakat.

Oeuvres dans les Collections publi­ques :
Donation Claude & France Lemand 2018, 2020. Musée, Institut du monde arabe, Paris.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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