"The price they paid for this was living in two worlds, in uneasy tension between two identities permanently in conflict that forced them to experience the self and the other in ways that may be incomprehensible to an outsider.”
Kamal Boullata 2009, Palestinian Art: 303
Steve Sabella’s oeuvre unfolds like a book. Its chapters chronicle the artist’s journey towards visual and intellectual maturation and bravely investigate his shifting psychological states, narrating a deeply personal individuation process. Thus, in order to fully appreciate the triumph of Sabella’s recent work, it is vital to take into account the evolution of his practice, from his first photographic series Search (1997) and Identity (2002) to the work presented in his current solo exhibition Euphoria & Beyond at the Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai (May 2 to June 11, 2011).
Sabella was born in 1975 and grew up in a large Christian Palestinian family in a Muslim neighbourhood in the Old City of East Jerusalem. He was twelve when the First Intifada erupted. The uprising remonstrated decades of humiliation and fierce repression of the native population by the Israeli colonial project. It raged for almost six years and was violently countered. Mounting pressure to affiliate along religious/national lines was fragmenting established communities, a fact genuinely resented by the young Sabella. He rebelled and, instead, fashioned for himself a fictional (or hyper-) identity, located in the liminal space between belonging and not belonging. Whilst this permitted him to move freely across the city with his camera, it ultimately engendered an unshakable feeling of alienation. To visually illustrate – and mitigate- this sense of disaffection, or ‘mental exile’, has been in the forefront of Sabella’s practice since his emergence as an artist in the mid-1990s.
It has been noted that, in contrast to the older generation of Palestinian artists, the young contemporaries have opted to avoid the pitfalls of overtly political image production. Sabella’s first three series (Search 1997, Identity 2002, End of Days 2003) do not show Jerusalem. Instead they steer the viewer into depopulated landscapes beyond its city walls, offering glimpses of harsh beauty and superficially integrated alien objects. Light, in different spectra, is significant and is utilized to create an imaginary reality, a promise of relief in a world beyond the visible. The yearning for escape is palatable. Importantly, these early works incorporate aspects of fragmentation and re-assembly as well as the digital manipulation of the photographic image, prescient of Sabella’s mature formal vocabulary. The artist’s conceptual bearing, however, was articulated in the course of the projects created between 2004 and 2006: Till the End - Spirit of Place (2004), Kan Yama Kan (2005), and jerusalem in exile - tangible memories (2006-2009). Collectively, they focus on Jerusalem and comprise a thorough investigation of the dialectic between place and perception.
Sabella had already professed his ‘mental exile’. Now, however, he perceived an acute threat to the ‘true identity’ of his city. This threat was two-fold: Punitive damages to Palestinian property were escalating in East Jerusalem whilst new constructions were/are principally carried out by and for Jewish Israelis. This was accompanied by the appropriation and exploitation of the city’s image by the state media to reinforce the legitimacy of the Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital. Historically a multi-cultural city of global significance, the new brand Jerusalem was ideally to be homogenous and Jewish. Consequently, Sabella mounted a visual ‘rescue mission.’ He revisited places of personal importance, photographed each site and collected a stone which was then used as the base for the photographic image. The original installation was exhibited outdoors at the Khalil Sakakini Gallery in Ramallah. It has an archaeological quality to it and emanates a profound sense of loss. Yet it also offers an archive of subjective memories without resorting to the sentimental.