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Stages of Transition: Visualizing “exile” in the Work of Steve Sabella | Dorothea Schöene | Afterimage Journal

n extensive body of scholarship within the various fields of the humanities has worked to broaden the definition of the term “exile,” though the implications of the word
itself remain unclear. Definitions range from an inescapable perception of the world as a “foreign land,” where all of us are estranged and alienated, to a narrower intended meaning of the displacement of a person from his or her homeland.
The term is commonly used in a wide variety of rhetorical formulations, and not always with the acknowledgement of the inherent differences among usages. In these various contexts exile is usually described with connotations such as exclusion, displacement, estrangement, dis-familiarity, translocation, and translation. The referent may be ambiguous: when are we talking about exiles, and when are we talking about nomads? When is the displacement voluntary? These differences lead to further questions, including what constitutes cultural and national identity, and when do these identities begin to overlap with multinational or even global identities, which play increasingly significant roles in a globally linked society. Where one nation alone is no longer home to a person, the question of exile may not necessarily become obsolete, but most certainly becomes more complex.
Even the most comfortable scene may become exotic and strange due to a lack of shared cultural forms or artifacts. Where we enter a transnational or postnational approach to art, we need to acknowledge that art criticism may not match the multinational identity underlying each work: an author’s or art critic’s linguistic or cultural background may not allow him/her to fully grasp the coded language underlying an art work. How permeable is art and its meaning when described in words? How translatable does it remain?
Palestinian-born artist Steve Sabella has addressed his own personal experience of exile in his works since the mid-1990s. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he encountered a sense of estrangement and uprooting from an early age. In 2006, he began a consecutive series of photographic works to document his experience of exile in its various stages of adjustment and emotional perception, using two disparate forms to address this issue. One, entitled Exit (2006), is a series of hands—aged, twisted, without any further identity—that paralleled Sabella’s own state of mind and feelings of alienation and estrangement right before his departure from Palestine. The other, Jerusalem in Exile (2005–), is a conceptual project in which the artist invited Palestinians from around the world to share their personal views and mental images of Jerusalem. The project gained international attention, leading to its production as a documentary film of the same name in 2007. By pursuing this investigative form of art making, Sabella found evidence that the city was so fragmented in its own residents’ perception that it could no longer claim a unique, uniform identity—the city itself was drawn into exile.
Sabella completed a BA in Visual Arts at State University of New York Empire State College in 2007, followed by two master’s degrees in England, one from the University of Westminster and the other from Sotheby’s Institute of Art. With a clear impetus on documenting the leave from his homeland, Sabella’s work raises the question of where the space for exile is actually located. And, in turn, it suggests that exile may begin on native soil.
In London, Sabella continued his work on exile with four photocollage series: “In Exile(2008), “In Transition (a photographic work created with vigorous hand movements while taking the image)” (2010), “Euphoria” (2010), and finally “Beyond Euphoria” (2011). The titles clearly indicate the emotional stages in which the artist found himself, but reveal—in conjunction with the actual artwork—an aspect more linked to the process of each work: the more euphoric the artist became, the more he aimed for a dissolution of forms. The titles serve almost as a closing remark to an ongoing process of arranging forms and elements— sometimes with a repetitive layout of similar forms and visual elements, and at other times using distortion and fragmentation of color and shapes. The artist points out that his method of making photocollages is more like painting than documenting a state of being or photographing a particular moment. This long, elaborate process of arranging and distorting forms is only indicated by the title as a reflection of the inner state of being, the emotional condition of artmaking—a personal archeology. To give exile a form means to reveal a sensitive, personal experience, and to acknowledge at the same time the inescapability of these circumstances, the complexity of definitions and conditions under which exile is experienced by the tormented individual.
Taking into consideration that his works are the final result of a long, almost painterly process of arranging, the question remains as to how much can be retraced and what the most important part of his art is. Is it the elaborately arranged layers of the actual art object, or their inherent reference to a previous act of capturing his own state of mind? “You’ll understand my life through my work,” the artist claims.1 This statement is true in a double sense: first, because of his intimate portrayal of his emotional state of being; secondly, because Sabella, for the most part, documents his immediate surroundings. His oeuvre is thus a continuously growing diary and portfolio of his own life’s documentation.
The series “In Exile” uses a metaphor ubiquitous in Western art: the window. Windows demarcate a permeable boundary between inside and outside, between private and public. The boundary can be crossed by looking through the window from either side; it stands as both entry and exit. Its translucent character suggests voluntary exposure, and comfort with being unmasked to the Other’s gaze. In contradiction to this seemingly comfortable exposure stands the arrangement of the work: Sabella’s collage collects a seemingly endless number of windows, pointing in all directions with no clear arrangement or structure—a disquietude in opposition to the common perception of a window.

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