The images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible.
– Jacques Rancière1 Photography is a strange and powerful beast. Shortly after the artist Louis Daguerre invented the first-known method of ‘fixing’ an image, writer Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed daguerreotypes as mirrors with a memory, ‘faithful witnesses’ of reality.2 Fast-forward to nearly two centuries later: the flawed assumption that a photograph can be synonymous with reality has only evolved a short distance. The photograph not only serves as an apparatus of representation today,3 it has been a corroborator in sculpting historical record.
In recent decades, counter narratives in the humanities have helped shift the way we look at historical events. The widespread use of photography in digital crowdsourcing, considering the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as an example, has expanded debates about the authority of visual representation. Yet, the photograph remains an important instrument in opaque systems of power, which helps structure how we perceive the world around us and our roles within it. John Tagg describes this well: ‘What lies “behind” the paper or “behind” the image is not reality – the referent – but reference: a subtle web of discourse through which realism is enmeshed in a complex fabric of notions, representations, images, attitudes, gestures and modes of action.’4
For Steve Sabella, a Palestinian artist who has
spent more than half of his life growing up in occupied Jerusalem, his national identity has been tethered to particular images that are circulated the world over. Mainstream media regularly depicts Palestinians as a traumatized or violent population, living in exile or under occupation, at odds with Israelis in the pursuit of land. There have been many efforts to ‘rescue’ this image of Palestinian identity, yet perhaps the most difficult perception to re-write is an internal one—what Sabella refers to as a ‘colonization of the imagination’.5 ‘Once we are locked inside the images of ourselves, these images take on a life of their own. ... [They] often outlast
us and can replace us as the “remembered” reality.’6 Liberation from the burdens of these ‘mental images’7 necessitates a manipulation of the imagination. Sabella has freed himself from the psychological entrapment of exiled displacement. He describes this achievement as akin to, ‘dancing in the air, the core ignited ... It’s a spark. But to do that, I had to break my bones, to become more malleable to change.’8 A visualization of this process is first apparent in his series In Exile (2008), where the artist cathartically destroyed and assembled symbols of entry and exit. While it is not necessarily a sequential narration towards the attainment of mental freedom, Euphoria (2010) may propose an autobiographical remapping of the artist’s relationship to his homeland. Its repetitive, fragmented structures can symbolize a detachment from associative images of border and exile. Beyond Euphoria (2011) is likewise a series of splintered assemblages, its three- dimensional source material flattened, distorted, and restructured in two dimensions.
All of these intended ‘dissolutions of forms’9 challenge photographic veracity, their abstract compositions far removed from any perceived mirror of memory. Unlike the aforementioned fractured constellations, Independence is viscerally and deceptively whole. It is a new visual experience, wherein the only borders lie on the images’ edges themselves, and the outlines of the figures contained within them appear intact. The two females – one appearing young, the other older – could be floating or flying. Some of the images in the series are monological, though most portray the characters engaging in an intimate gestural dance. On closer inspection, fragmentation emerges. What could possibly be parts of bone or metal appear on or beneath the surface of their diaphanous skin. Lacking any facial detail, they are stripped of characteristics that could convey expressions, left with the sole sense of touch. Amidst a dark void, they appear in blurred obscurity, like anonymous forms suspended in extremis.