Khaled Sabsabi Wins International Shajah Prize

Khaled Sabsabi is going from strength to strength, a former Blake prize winner and presented this month with an international award by the Sharjah Art Foundation as part of the Sharjah Biennial. The prize is only offered to eleven international artists and selected by an international jury comprising Hicham Khalidi (Associate Curator, Lafayette Anticipation, Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette, France) and Alia Swastika (Director, Biennale Jogjia 13 and Programme Director, Ark Galerie, Indonesia).

In Issue 33 Khaled Sabsabi had a conversation with Kon Gouriotis about the force that drives his practice.

Khaled Sabsabi is an artist who is not afraid to change his practice and medium in order to retain true to his feelings and keep his message alive in our consciousness. He moves with ease from audio and visual installation, to photography, collage and sculpture. His new multi-channel video work, with photographic collages and sculptures, delves deeper into the disrupted lives of everyone caught up in the chaotic war in Beirut in 2006 and the divisions within Islam.

The poem We Kill You by the revered Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) is the inspiration for your new work under the same title. When he writes, “We will kill you, we’ve got a nice book, but we’re not good at reading” Qabbani is talking about the Quran, but he’s also saying many Arabs are not good at understanding the Quran. It’s a resonating stanza.
Yes I think that’s what Qabbani meant and as an artist I want to investigate these ideas further, to expand understanding on principles of extremist entities and organisations. In his We Kill You poem, Qabbani in 1972 is essentially speaking about these people who belong or identify with these groups and or share similar beliefs. The fact is that this message today continues to be relevant, vindicating the historical killings of Husayn and Ali [in the 7th Century], which divided Muslims. The current context is the Arab rulers that govern their countries on doctrines of Husayn and Ali’s killers. So it is quite complex, but also simple like drinking a glass of water.

Are these centuries of historical divisions in your new work about the acknowledgement of the confrontation or is it a resistance to actually resolving something?
Well, the challenge in presenting anything that considers the politics of histories is how the work will appear – in this particular case, the work may look or seem confronting to some but to others; it may be an opportunity to articulate their differences and find common ground.

So the intention of We Kill You is for peace?
My intention is to remain open enough as to leave space for people to project their emotions and thoughts. After all it’s just another construct.

Yet with We Kill You what started as a series of 66 hand-painted photographs in Guerrilla (2014) has expanded into a multi-interdisciplinary installation that resembles the curatorial intentions seen in the exhibition ON ‘n’ ON in 2007?
Correct, not since ON ‘n’ ON at the Campbelltown Arts Centre have I thought about my work in connection with other works. It’s interesting how I need to think that way now and how the new work is responding to that thinking. Although We Kill You will not be at the scale of ON ‘n’ ON exhibition, which required the entire Campbelltown galleries space. We Kill You will be a multi-channel video projection work with 11 photographic collages and several sculptural works.

“Whether one likes it or not, the world is attached to the Arab region because of oil, and this will continue to be the case until the oil runs out. My experiences have forced me to fold the 2006 war into other wars.”

The disruption to the initial intention of Guerrilla and now We Kill You is considerable?
I think it’s an ongoing process and disruption is part of that process. With the paintings, the original idea was to paint 99 photographs as a form of therapy. The number 99 and its meaning are due to its spiritual explanation and by painting the photos I was able to materially smudge the 2006 Lebanese conflict. When I revisited the work in 2014, I thought ‘how ironic that nothing has changed’ and I decided to bring and maintain these paintings under the Guerrilla title to form a direct physical association to the three-channel video work. The intention for the video was to give the viewer glimpses into people’s experiences during the Lebanese civil war as well as their thoughts on other related conflicts since. When I presented the Guerrilla photos at Milani Gallery Brisbane for the first time in 2014, I presented 33 only, to signify the conflict’s length in days. I do have another completed set of 33 paintings to equal 66 but decided that the final lot of 33 photographs should be part of We Kill You, used in a different way to complete this cog, the role of the photograph as the image and witness.

For We Kill You, you have compressed time again as you did with 70,000 Veils, but for this work your iconography is more direct.
The situation inspired a more direct action. Whether one likes it or not, everyone is aware that the world is attached to the Arab region because of oil, and this case will continue until the oil runs out. Within the use of iconography, my experiences have forced me to fold the 2006 war into other wars, as war is just that – war. This context motivated me to give the remaining 33 photographs a different presence. I dissected the photographs into equal strips and then reassembled them, mostly by weaving the strips into geometric shapes, such as crosses, crests, eclipsing circles or just as one strip. And they resemble emblems used by the crusades, Islamic Fatwa and other ancient empires and their representative symbols, moving between the ancient and the contemporary. The significance of the use of numbers, like other works of mine also embodies spirituality, mathematics and science references and meanings.

Why did you prefer the discipline of painting considering the last time you painted was as a teenager at Granville Boys High School?
That’s a good question and I cannot really answer it, but I can tell you the approach is not one that is separate. There is little difference in approach, whether it’s virtual or physical.

The detail in the painted photographs appears as if you’ve been painting miniatures all your life. The leap in disciplines is extraordinary. Can you talk about the brush process that you used?
It is like the 70,000 Veils work, where 10,000 photographs were individually layered and then composited within a single moving frame and video. Here nothing was random, yet it gave the viewer the impression that it was chaotic and unsystematic. Even to the 3D treatment which was inlaid manually to achieve the depth of field that I required. Also each layer was created through a process that involved transformations from an analogue to digital existences and back again. It’s very similar with the painted photographs − which required adopting methods and tools used in different forms of calligraphy – old and new.

So, the photographs were taken digitally and printed on digital paper but then you applied a painted process. Did this appear as a reverse process to you?
I think it’s about reclaiming the image no matter how, as most of the time we go to past or in reverse to understand the present. By applying paint on the digitally produced photograph I actually reclaimed it, transforming the images beyond destruction.

“Actually forget the artist as a storyteller. I wanted to tell this story to any person who is bothered to listen.”

Why did you decide to work so closely with the colours of the image?
The significance of connecting to colours of destruction was to offer an alternate or obscured view on the same event. After a war everything becomes complex and difficult. Also everything isn’t as it was and will never be. Working within the destruction palette as you ask, enabled the blurring between what is real and unreal, what is destroyed and manufactured.

It appears you were tidying up the destruction.
It was more about flattening and disempowering it, which was another step to reclaiming the image and its resolution. There are also the politics within the mediums of painting and photography as well as histories and materiality.

The correlation between the war experiences and methodology applied to the photographs reflects your philosophy of folding and unfolding time. How did these two entities came to be together?
When you are in these testing situations you no longer think of yourself as an artist. The primary purpose and function is to document. It’s only later you are able to reflect on, as an artist, as a human being. Actually, forget the artist, as a storyteller. I wanted to tell this story in particular to any person who is bothered to listen, jolting reality and memories: because the reality of people living under uncertainty, regardless of religious affiliations, is such an ugly thing.

The gestation period for your inspiration appears to have come in two overlapping moments for Guerrilla and We Kill You.
I’ve been contemplating We Kill You since 2011 and Guerrilla since Beirut 2006. However it wasn’t until I was in Marrakech in 2014 that the We Kill You concept solidified and became clearer. I connected with Mohammed, a practising Sufi and a Moroccan Gnawa musician, and at the time of our meeting, what astounded me was his reclaiming of one of his musical instruments which was once used to shackle people as slaves. What absorbed me was Mohammed’s story and experience which linked me back to Nizar’s poem, echoing Qabbani’s voice.

It’s Our Thing
Blacktown Arts Centre

Khaled Sabsabi is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane

Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

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