Steve Sabella looks perturbed. His hair is messy. He’s talking fast. He gives the impression of not sleeping much recently. The Israeli bombing of Gaza hospitals and schools in August makes him feel, in his words, “psychologically unwell.” War comes regularly to Palestine but never at a good time. Sabella, an artist born in Jerusalem, is also in the throes of a personal revolution.
In one email he declares that he has even changed the language he uses in describing his art, “after I finally liberated myself from exile,” a controversial stance for many Palestinians. He explains, “While the occupation is a given, what’s hidden is the colonization of the imagination. When I realized that my imagination is being colonized by a system – not only by Israel – I needed to free my imagination from what was keeping it from feeling free. Palestinians should wake up and declare their independence. They are making an atrocious mistake, waiting for the world to tell them they are free.”
The system the artist is referring to is the daily bombardment of visual imagery through mass media. Ever since the invention of photography, images have defined and controlled public as well as self perceptions, and especially so in the case of Palestine. For Sabella, the other war being waged in the Middle East is over the image. In the past he has written and spoken about the inability of the region to understand the power of imagery to commune globally at a time when those who control the visual image effectively win the debate. His response as an artist has been to increasingly explore and interrogate the image, its information and genealogy.
He observes, “This is the quest since the beginning of time – why are we here and what are we looking at. I want to trace back where that image comes from; and as much as I can trace it back, it is always an image. That makes me curious. Is the world a physical construction or it is a creation of our imagination?”
Steve Sabella left the city of his birth in 2007 to study in London, eventually settling in Berlin. Since the contemporary art boom in the Middle East began in the early 2000s, some Arab artists complain they are being ghettoized and are not allowed to make art for art’s sake. There is an onus on them to be engaged politically and illuminate regional conflicts in their work. Sabella challenges officially accepted narratives that posit the occupation in Palestine as the marginalized experience of a people taking place ‘over there.’ His art series Exit (2006), Metamorphosis (2012), 38 Days of Re-collection (2014) and Independence (2013), included in his solo exhibition Layers at CAP Kuwait, reveal the centrality of the occupation to modern consciousness. His work also challenges the limitations of photography, a medium that screams of the here and now.