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 bycages. 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.
Each section of Fragments uncovers a different side of Sabella’s mental, physical and familial worlds. Honest and forthright, the works express anxieties associated with being in exile. Metamorphosis (2012), for instance, is another disembodied world of fractured imagery, only this time we see walls rather than windows, and bricks so densely packed that the thick cement between them creates an obstructive barrier. This motif is repeated, producing an image of claustrophobic occlusion. In others, barbed wire sticks through the surface of the walls, knotted and stitched through the images, resembling a hastily repaired wound.
While these images are probably the most iconic in Sabella’s oeuvre, it was really his latest project that brought the exhibition to life. For 38 Days of Re-Collection (2014), Sabella spent 38 days in his
hometown of Jerusalem, staying in a house that was owned by a Palestinian family until 1948 when it was occupied by an Israeli family. While there, he visited the house he was born in and collected fragile pieces of paint that was peeling from the walls. He brushed light sensitive emulsion onto these strips of paint, then printed photographs that depict images of people, kitchen objects, architectural details and marble patterns onto their surface. Displayed in box frames, the works looked like archeological finds and fragments of petrified nostalgia. In 38 Days, Sabella does not simply construct images but creates relics from his own imagination based on a very personal perception of place.
These abstract souvenirs evoke notions of home and alienation and the friction between perceived and physical distance. On a more political level, they question the duality of Israeli occupation and Palestinian Right of Return. Sabella was referred to as an artist in exile long before he left his home in Jerusalem, a place that bars access to its own (Palestinian) residents. In his work, he attempts to reconstitute the place he has been exiled from through images, recreating a world he once knew that has now become so distant.