Bahrain National Museum COMMISSION
Bahrain National Museum commissioned Steve Sabella, among ten other artists to look at Bahrain and interpret it visually. Sabella came out with four artworks.
Sabella photographed the political graffiti of Bahrain on almost every wall in Bahrain during the Arab Revolution. He also photographed what the police has erased and then collaged all the graffiti together creating the voice of the whole nation.
At first glance, Sabella’s manipulated photographs from Sinopia appear curiously out-of-place amongst the other commissions, as they have such strong painterly qualities one wonders if they are photographs at all? Various, repetitive monochrome shapes are layered upon one another, creating a new world order of ambiguous architecture, with small identifiable elements, such as satellite dishes, windows and doors, give some reference point to the clandestine image. In contrast, a multi-frame rendering of Manama’s iconic skyline is at once instantly recognisable, yet Sabella’s technique once again is evocative of painting, this time more specifically watercolour, causing viewers to rethink not only their own presumptions about Bahrain, but also about the very medium of photography.
Verticality and horizontality—the stripes in the large work seem as if they were removed from walls. These are photographs of walls in Bahrain, colors and graffiti, as if heaped in time, torn off like scraps of wallpaper for the image, just as artists layer posters and compose time documents by then tearing them off. Sabella superimposes the photographs and erases them, allows heterogeneous times in the layers and removals, which now actually rhythmize the image, contrapuntally, in the horizontal and the vertical, with no end in sight. The image lies on the wall like a tapestry.
Sabella photographed the skyline of Manama from multiple angles and then flattened the 360-degree views into one horizontal plane, creating audio-like frequencies. Sabella later commissioned The Khoury Project to interpret the ‘audio waves’ to reveal the sound of Manama.
The resulting project Sinopia (2014) is markedly different from the earlier works; it abounds with a multitude of colors and forms, isolated individual components of images, abstract forms taken from the walls of houses as well as familiar sights such as satellite dishes, a kaleidoscope of the stunning landscapes and city views of Bahrain. This new way of carefully dissecting the image appears almost surgical and is, in Sabella’s own words, a reaction to what he calls people’s “obsession with trying to rationalize photography’s indexical relationship to reality.” Steve Sabella seems to ask us to go further than this and investigate the photographic medium as the relationship between the image and the reality it creates, rather than reality as it purportedly depicts.
Sabella moves beyond the surface of Bahrain to dismantle and reassemble his insights, building associations between diverse variables to construct new realities. The four works appear almost painted and question one’s perception of Bahrain as a location as well as presuppositions about the medium of photography itself.
Sabella photographed the colorful house facades in Al Muharraq and then collaged them. Much like the first piece in the series, viewers grapple with whether it's painting or photography.
RECREATIONAL PURPOSE EXHIBITION CATALOGUE
"Sabella’s compositions veer from the surreal depictions of mirrored cityscapes and the iconic 400-year old Tree of Life, to highly deconstructed energetic painterly collages reminiscent of cubist and fauvist paintings. In one collage, the compiled facades of buildings make up a completely novel cubist and chaotic cityscape, with only windows, lanterns and satellite dishes as recognisable elements. It is as if Sabella has stripped his Bahraini images of their specificity in order to construct a composite image with layer upon layer of information."
Later sequences of work such as “In Exile” (2008), “In Transition” (2010), “Euphoria” (2010), “and “Sinopia” (2014) document Sabella’s increasing fascination with abstracting his photographs, layering and repeating images to create atmospheric but less immediately readable pieces. Some involve direct and challenging imagery — razor wire and brutal metal shapes — while others have a much more tender, personal feel. The abstractness, though, creates even here a sense of distance, as if a question is being posed. The viewer is also challenged by the complex relationship of aesthetic with content. In abstracting his images, Sabella makes barbed wire and the harsh metal technologies of exclusion and social violence somehow beautiful. Where do aesthetics and ethics meet in such a picture?
Born in Jerusalem, Steve Sabella is a photographer whose portfolio depicts the challenges and struggles of the human condition in familiar yet abstract forms. As a Palestinian visual artist who has lived both under occupation and in exile, Sabella’s work brings into focus a sharp and sometimes uncomfortable view of contemporary life in the 21st century in a way that begs reflection by the viewer.
Sabella’s images take us from one world to another. His fresh, early work leads to the pivotal series “Six Israelis and One Palestinian” and “Metamorphosis”, ending with the painterly, rich series “38 days of re-collection” and “Sinopia”. Sabella’s monograph stands as one of the very few records for those interested in learning more about contemporary art and artists from the Middle East to peruse and study.
Sabella photographed the mysterious Tree of Life. No one knows where the Tree of Life gets its water from as it stands alone in the middle of the desert between the sky and earth, uniting the whole nation.
Standing alongside a similarly sleek work of the Tree of Life, Sabella grants the same aesthetic weight to the ancient tree as he does an entire city.
Sinopia enables both atopia and utopia—decisive placelessness and the possibility of a place—to sound. These lie close together in the syntagm of Steve Sabella’s work. Counterpoint prescribes the movement in the separation of possibilities, drivenby a conviction of the necessity to grasp the artistic work as a form of riposte to injustice, aesthetic as freedom and as hope.
Published by Hatje Cantz & Akademie der Künste
Steve Sabella Photography | Texts by Hubertus Von Amelunxen | Foreword by Kamal Boullata
"These graffiti messages—in all their appearances— are the visual materials for one of the images in Sabella’s Sinopia, which is the cover of the artist’s recent monograph.* This work resembles shredded and restructured strips of wallpaper in an explosion of colors, rising and falling on a vertical plane. Like a seismographic reading set to a musical score, its staccato composition galvanizes diverse voices, translating dialogue into a rhythmic visual form." Madeline Yale Preston