March 6, 2015
Steve from Palestine
“My art is not about Palestine! It’s about my life.” Steve Sabella quickly corrected me as I started our interview with a line about his art and its connection to the land of his birth. Sabella rejected the effort to label him. “Many people seek to put labels and categories on my work,” he told me. And while aware of the expectations surrounding a “Palestinian artist,” he has long held that what other people think of him is of no consequence to his own truth. Sabella is not trying to distance himself from Palestine. Far from it, he assures me, but he contends, “I think it is better to be from someplace” than to be defined by it. Steve from Jerusalem, Palestine, rather than Steve the Palestinian. Instead of national labels doing the introduction, Sabella argues, understanding people as simply from somewhere—recognizing the individual instead of projecting their representation of a collective upon them—allows for clearer communication between us all. “I used to think I was from the galaxy, now I’ve come down to planet Earth,” he whimsically adds. It is his “Declaration of Independence,” to borrow the title of his recently penned statement, which has defined the young artist’s determination to avoid being categorized or labeled:
From this day onward, I declare that I am a citizen of planet earth and beyond. I am from everywhere and nowhere. No geography or culture defines me. I represent myself and my views only. I am not an ambassador of any country, not even the one of my birth, Palestine. I have uprooted myself and choose to plant my roots in the air, to always remain in transition. Free.
“Declaration of Independence” by Steve Sabella (2014)
To make the point, at a recent solo exhibition, Fragments at Berloni Gallery in London, Sabella stripped away any explanatory text or identifying marker; only “weak art” would necessitate them. Ever playful, he hastened to add, “This is my opinion. You may think my art is bad, but you should perceive the art in any way you want, without the intervention of text.” Sabella wanted every individual to bring their own experiences to the exhibit and draw their own interpretations. But can art really be that free of mediating influences? I ask Sabella about his decision to participate in exhibits funded by authoritarian Persian Gulf regimes, such as Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. These regimes are image savvy and their paramount interest is to promote their own welfare while pursing policies many believe to be inimical to the well-being of their people and Arabs in general. “Who isn’t image conscious today?” he responds. Such state-led efforts have pushed so many Arab artists forward, Sabella argues. “If they tried to do it the old Western way...it would not have gone anywhere.” While Sabella believes that the resources of the Gulf have been a force for good in the Arab art world, funding alone is not enough. “What is needed is the intellectual,” he tells me. The Arab art world is waiting for a proper intellectual sphere of art historians and critics. Those people, Sabella informs me, are currently earning PhDs at European and American universities and will soon return to the region.
Out of Place
“As a visual artist growing up in Jerusalem, Sabella seems to have been intuitively aware of the pitfalls of photographing it,” Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata wrote in a 2004 article in the Journal of Palestine Studies. “Sensing how photography has been used to contribute to the mythmaking around him, this internal exile goes out into the open, beyond the city walls, to find his freedom between the rocks and the sky. The city that from time immemorial was considered a bridge between heaven and earth may be absent in Sabella’s photographs, but everything in them indicates how, in solitude, the native photographer rebuilt his own Jerusalem.”
Born a Christian in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City in the Israeli-occupied eastern half of al Quds, Sabella spent his early years as an artist in his native home, but, as he related, “felt exile while living in Jerusalem as all Palestinians do” since the nature of Israeli occupation precludes Palestinians from connecting with their surroundings. His feelings of alienation from Jerusalem led him to identify that the city itself is in exile as everyone has a constructed idea of it in their imagination.
His visual research as part of the project Jerusalem in Exile (2006) on the mental images of the city, led him to realize how people’s imaginations have been colonized by a system that influences their perception of the actual ground they live on, which he further explored in his essay titled “The Colonization of the Imagination” (2012). It is this idea of internal exile and the image-making surrounding Jerusalem that has inspired much of his work. The 2004 collection Till the End conveyed a Jerusalem as envisioned by the artist:
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. The following year, Till the End – Spirit of Place was conceptually expanded into a monumental collaborative undertaking, gathering images and memories of Jerusalem as remembered by Palestinians globally.
“I am from Jerusalem” in the Euphoria & Beyond exhibition catalogue, by Christa Paula (2011)
Sabella left Jerusalem for London in 2007 and later relocated to Berlin, where he currently resides. Prior to his physical exile, he exhibited the 2006 series Exit.