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Palestinians in Germany "End of the Berlin Spring" | Daniel Blax | TAZ

April 2024
(google translate)
"End of the Berlin Spring"

The Photo Artist
Steve Sabella's studio is located in the Berlin Bohemian neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. He has set it up in his old apartment, from which he can look out onto the bustling Kastanienallee. A cat sits on a chair in the bay window and jumps up as visitors enter. Large-format works of his hang on the walls. Sabella is a photo artist whose images hang in London, Paris, and Dubai. He proudly reports that he has just taken on a teaching position at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, where he will teach "painting with light," as he puts it.

The 45-year-old has been living in Berlin since 2010, but he doesn't feel tied to the place. He simply likes it here. His wife is from Switzerland, and his daughter has just moved to Paris for her studies. Sabella originally came to Berlin with a scholarship from the Academy of Arts, having previously lived in New York and London. "I spent the best ten years of my life in Berlin," he says of the time before Corona. He used the pandemic to work like crazy on new projects day and night. But has he settled in the city? His works have been exhibited worldwide in over 120 exhibitions, including 25 in Italy alone – but only 7 in Berlin. Nevertheless, he doesn't want to complain; it's not in his nature. He flips through the catalogs lying on his table and a monograph published in 2014.

Currently, some of his works are on display in the Berlin villa district of Dahlem. The Emirate of Qatar has set up a cultural house there called "The Divan," which regularly hosts events. The interior is simple and elegant, all in white and gold. Under massive chandeliers and on Rococo chairs, Sabella recently spoke at an event with the curator and religious philosopher Almut Shulamit Bruckstein about his work and, inevitably, about the situation in the Gaza Strip. "I can't find words for what's happening there," Sabella said. "It will take generations to process this."
In the upper rooms, images from his series "Everland" are exhibited: they merge colorized shots from historic Palestine with scenes from other regions of the Middle East into fairytale dreamscapes of an imaginary Orient. Downstairs, there are city views of Jerusalem and modern silhouettes of the city. Sabella comes from an established family from Jerusalem; his great-grandfather was a leader in the Old City.

While establishing himself as an artist, he worked as a photographer for the UN from 1999 to 2007. This allowed him to travel to Gaza several dozen times. "I'm one of the few Palestinians who has seen all parts of Palestine," he says, calling it a rare privilege. In art, he sees a means of self-liberation from everyday life under Israeli occupation. The occupation is "like an endless captivity. No one wants to live like this," he says. Not only the land is occupied – so is people's imagination. "Many cannot imagine a life in freedom," he suggests.

Sabella sports long curls, mostly wears black clothing, and always pairs it with red socks; he paints his fingernails black. His images are sometimes enigmatic and fantastical, sometimes metaphorical and political. For the installation "Settlement," he had six Israelis and himself photographed in their underwear. "That's my most radical work," says Sabella; it now hangs in the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. For the series "The Great March of Return," he combined images of demonstrators at the Gaza border fence with shots from space to create cosmic panoramas in the style of Renaissance art, resembling frescoes from the Sistine Chapel with a touch of agitprop.

For another series, he photographed ornamental tile patterns and kitchenware on the wall of an old house in Jerusalem. He printed the shots on color scraps prepared with photo emulsion, which he scraped off the walls of houses in the Old City. The fragments appear transient and fragile. Cultural scholar Ella Shohat and others have used the motif for book covers. It shows "how an image can tell whole worlds," says Sabella as he clicks through his website on his computer to show the images.


Many in the community are therefore considering emigrating. "People are starting to make serious plans," says Fadi Abdelnour. "Some even talk about fleeing." Yasmeen Daher knows people who have already left the city. "An acquaintance of mine returned to Beirut," she says. "Many I know want to leave again – not just Palestinians, but others too," says Fidaa al-Zaanin. "Racism repels them." Only Steve Sabella is taking a different approach: He plans to rent a shop around the corner from his apartment and convert it into a studio. He hopes that in the space, he can more easily engage in conversation with the people in his neighborhood.

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