Steve Sabella: Independence | Seth Thompson | Afterimage

January/February 2015

In the Middle East, one's identity is often defined by a passport. When someone mentions a country or place, a mental image of that location and its people is frequently constructed. In much of his work, Steve Sabella has questioned this construction, which is built by time and memory, as identity is much more complex than it appears. 
Born in Jerusalem, Sabella, who often considers the plight and struggle of the Palestinian people within his work, had at first glance appeared to deviate from this course when he created his Independence series, a body of photographic works realized in 2013. The exhibition at Meem Gallery consisted of seventeen deliberately grainy images of figures floating in an abyss-like sea of blackened water. The bodies are distorted and ambiguous and could even be described as painterly, as their representa­tion within the water appears almost to be created with gestural brush strokes. The images were bonded directly onto acrylic sheets using the diasec process, which give the two-dimensional photographs a sheen-like quality. 
Refraining from either the blatant or the literal, most images depict two figures interacting with each other in a sort of tender play, whereas others show a solitary being, who appears almost in a state of raptured bliss or meditation. For example, Independence 5 (2013) portrays a single figure floating in a void-like space-arms extended and legs curled­undisturbed by either the passage of time or circumstance. For this exhibition, the images were more intimate in scale than in previous showings-all measuring 81 x 45 centimeters-which seems appropriate for this dream-like and suggestive body of work. About it, Sabella said, "Looking back at my work, I see that I was unfolding visual palimpsests that explore the multiple layers of my past, and the influence perception had on my 'reality'. Today my images gain their independence from my narrative."1 
The images were hung individually or as diptychs or trip­tychs. For example, Independence 8, 9, and 12 were grouped together to form a triptych depicting a subtle sequence of playful interaction between two bathers. Curator Meagan Kelly Hoffman wrote, "The Independence series really lends itself to dialogue and conversation, and Steve and I both felt that grouping together some of the works was a natural reaction to the body of work. For instance, there is a natural progression between Independence 8, 9, and 12, and it was an instinctive reaction that led me to group them this way."2 
Sabella has experimented with photographic abstraction in his previous work, and notes that his Independence series, although a technical departure from his more recent collage work, is nevertheless influenced by it: 

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