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Steve Sabella | Martina Corgnati | Contemporary Practices Journal

 Volume VI, 2010

In 1997 Wijdan Ali wrote that, generally speaking, art Palestine-made is overwhelmed by its content, or, as Nada Shabout put it more recently, prisoner of an obsession, obviously the obsession about its own country. It was right around this obsession almost every artist of Palestinian origins, maybe in particular those who reside far from the Territories under the Palestinian Authority or from Israel, constructed their own artistic path and, in some cases, their own credibility within the international art system, always ready to welcome their fight, and to ensure its citizenship right much more willingly than with other realities that are less celebrated by the mass media.
Steve Sabella ( Jerusalem, 1975) is one of the very few artists of the last generation who was able to escape the bottleneck of operations and contents of this obsession by enlarging it, including broader themes that embody the perception of the self and of the world outside, themes that can be shared on a universal – not just ideological – basis. A much more important merit if we consider the medium used by Sabella from the origins of his history as an artist: Photography. With photography he could have very well been a documentarian, stressing in particular all those elements that are so popular within the current “war of aesthetics” like nearly most of his colleagues had done. Well, he did not. From 1997 on, the images, series and projects of Steve Sabella are periscopes drowned in the invisible of human condition, the uncanny and the search for a meaning; an “exile” that starts as physical and contingent and ends becoming mental, a category of the soul that needs an answer, or a series of answers from each one of us; answers that change – evolve during a lifetime. So, Sabella raised the horizon to his own eyelevel: From a contingent one to a universal one, escaping every rhetoric, though not losing his identity as an artist, but on the contrary, conquering it.
Reconstructing the process that had led him to the conception of probably his most famous work, Jerusalem in Exile (a project started in 2006 and still in progress), he explains: “I realized that I was not physically in exile, but rather, I was going through a process of mental alienation leading to a unique form of mental exile.” Mental exile, as in alienation from apparently familiar places and situations, is evidence of a loss or an impossible recognition. Freud defined the object ofthis condition as “the uncanny” that takes us often by surprise, confining us to its paradoxical evidence. Somebody is coming towards us from the bottom of a dark corridor: Something looks familiar, but at first we do not recognize him. Only at last we understand that it’s just our reflection in a mirror.
Suddenly a taste, or a smell, recalls a very distant memory, only apparently dissolved, but in fact just buried into some hidden corner of our subconscious. It’s Proust’s Madeleine, that for a moment brings to the present not only a place or dissolved circumstances, but also an inner self that is lost and that became another with time. Exactly so, the loss refers to a previous self, together with the place and the landscape. In fact in another project, made little time before (Till the End. Spirit of the Place, 2004) Steve Sabella emulsified some rocks with the image of places, buildings or fragments of a landscape representative of his childhood’s environment, that was already transforming and disappearing. The city is changing, it’s being transformed, covered by complex and even conflicting meanings that it didn’t have before. Well, this kind of experience has not been made just by people who lived or have grown up in Jerusalem: Which city did not undergo an important, maybe even excessive or violent transformation within the past few years, both in the Arab World and outside? What happened for example to Cairo, London, New York (where Steve Sabella actually lived and studied, and at the moment resides in London)?

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