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We Came Whirling: Khaled Sabsabi’s A Hope

Khaled Sabsabi’s solo exhibition surveys over twenty years of his wide-ranging practice, using circular metaphor to conceptualise the rhythms of life, politics and faith. What emerges is an incisive engagement in current geopolitical debates, an affirmation of the place of spirituality in contemporary society, and an abiding commitment to Western Sydney. Stephanie Berlangieri's preview, from Artist Profile 57 (2021), wends through the exhibition's tender dealings with its thematic, conceptual, and physical material.

We came whirling out of nothingness, scattering stars like dust.

The stars made a circle, and in the middle, we dance.

– Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī 

Founded by the followers of the poet and mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī, the Mevlevi, or Mawlawiyya, is a Sufi order originating in Konya in south-central Turkey. They are commonly known in the West, somewhat inscrutably, as the “whirling dervishes,” for their ritual (sema) performed as part of dhikr (remembrance of God) ceremony. Through a rejection of the ego (nafs), the dervishes seek communion with the divine through a practice of repetitive spinning. In doing so, they mimic the movements of the cosmos: the solar system’s planetary orbits around the Sun, or perhaps, the circling of electrons about the nucleus of an atom. 

Sabsabi himself practices Sufism (Tasawwuf), belonging to the Rifa’i and Naqshbandi orders – which he refers to figuratively as “fire” and “air”– on his maternal and paternal sides respectively. Their apparent opposition seems to characterise the duality at the centre of his practice, the to-ing and fro-ing between the seen and unseen, material and immaterial, political and spiritual realms. Importantly, in the Sufi worldview, these concepts are not pitted against one another, but constitute a revolving continuum.

Speaking to Sabsabi about his upcoming survey at Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C), we continuously return to ideas of cyclicality and recurrence, both at the macro and micro levels. Titled A Hope, it is the second instalment of an exhibition conceived in two parts, jointly curated by Sabsabi, Matt Cox, and Adam Porter. The first, A promise, 18 July 2020 – 10 January 2021, was presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and closed at the beginning of this year [2021]. Despite operating at radically different scales (the AGNSW delivered a modest representation), both shows are predicated on the same spatial device, featuring only one access point to both enter and exit the exhibition. To leave the gallery, the viewer must re-experience the exhibition in reverse; a tactic meant to invoke the constant process of reflection Sabsabi notes as critical throughout life. 

To the artist, the two venues also operate as symbols of the centre-periphery dynamic that exists between Central and Western Sydney. Since immigrating to Australia from Lebanon to flee the civil war in late 1976, Sabsabi has lived and worked in Western Sydney in many capacities: as a youth and community worker, activist and artist. He has witnessed changing attitudes toward the region over the decades, from the implementation of the Western Sydney Arts Strategy in the late nineties to the more recent allocation of $30 million from the $60 million Packer Gift. He is uniquely positioned to respond to Western Sydney’s various permutations, especially as it is increasingly subject to significant strategic government and private investment to accommodate anticipated population growth.

A Hope opens with the installation Aajyna, 1998/2021, an early work which has been remade for the exhibition. It gives form to a harrowing childhood recollection of hiding under a building during a violent clash and shelling bombardment in Tripoli. The work derives its name from the Arabic word for dough, which the artist recalls making by mixing flour with the condensation dripping down to the makeshift basement. Sabsabi makes use of the evocation of memory through smell, covering the gallery walls with coffee-coated canvas to emulate the coarse surface of the building’s foundations. A series of speakers placed in a grid formation on the floor vibrate visibly, replicating the low hum of the conflict outside.

The viewer is then led through Sabsabi’s well-known video installations Wonderland, 2014, documenting an ecstatic crowd of Western Sydney Wanderers fans, and MUSH, 2012, an eight-pointed star and cubic structure upon which is projected footage of domesticity and worship, abstracted to resemble Islamic geometric patterns and tessellations. Occupying the central exhibition space is 40, 2021, a major new commission comprising two large-scale projections, eighteen double-sided paintings exhibited as three pillars, and eighty smaller paintings, both featuring Qur’anic inscriptions. The work takes the religious significance of the number forty as its starting point: Jesus spent forty days fasting in the wilderness; the Prophet Mohammed was forty years old when the Qur’an was revealed to him; many Hindu devotional prayers are made up of forty stanzas. Sabsabi here highlights the commonalities between faith traditions.

One next encounters A self-portrait, 2014–18, a two-channel video installation showing the Egyptian Qur’anic reciter Abdul Basit Abdul Samad chanting passages of the religious text, paired with 114 layered collage works (representing the 114 chapters of the Qur’an) each including a cut-out of the word “Allah” in Arabic script. The installation serves as a transition point from works focused on the interior world to those concerned with humanity more broadly.

In an adjacent vestibule, two sequences from the series 8.4.9.1, 2019, another reversal here referencing the 1948 Arab–Israeli war, are displayed on opposing walls: one side to be read left to right, and the other right to left. These intimate works are overpainted images sourced from a 1970s propaganda magazine depicting Palestine Liberation Organization forces in various scenes of resistance and triumph, and their arrangement signifies the artificial binary between the “East ” and “West.” In our conversation, Sabsabi remarks that this dichotomy “is simply a construct, intended to distract us from systems of colonial hegemony. Apartheid in South Africa, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Australia’s own history of genocide – they’re all the same thing. It is our responsibility as human beings to dismantle these systems and resolve the violence.” In light of recent events [in Palestine], the work achieves even greater import.

Moving from this passageway one enters an impressive re-presentation of Sabsabi’s 2018 Biennale of Sydney work, Bring the Silence, 2018, followed by At the speed of light, 2016, which is composed of five screens arranged in a circle. In an adjoining corridor we encounter several works, one of which is 5th Pillar, 2020. In Islam, the fifth pillar is the hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In these painted text pieces, Sabsabi incises the names of the prophet Muhammad’s first wife (Khadijah bint Khuwaylid) and daughters (Ruqayyah, Umm Kulthum, Zainab and Fatimah Zahra) onto photographic prints, proposing that these women instead inhabit the vital place of the fifth pillar. With reverence, Sabsabi recalls a spiritual teacher once describing the women as “our mothers in spirit and soul.” It is also significant that when completing the hajj, pilgrims perform seven circumambulations (tawaf) of the Kaaba, the sacred shrine, in an anticlockwise direction. As with the whirling dervishes, this unified movement is intended to emulate the celestial bodies. The gentleness of this work contrasts starkly with the images of brutality in Divine Victory, 2010, presented opposite.

The “final” work in the exhibition, or rather, the work positioned at the point where the viewer must necessarily turn around, is Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement, 2011, depicting a weekly gathering of Naqshbandi Sufis in a scout hall in Western Sydney. This might be Sabsabi’s best known documentary style work. Together, the works in this space are experienced as a cacophony, representing the various modes of the artist’s practice and reaffirming the oppositions present throughout the exhibition. We are reminded of the polarities so that when we revolve, we might collapse and integrate these contradictions like the whirling dervish.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Campbelltown Arts Centre, New South Wales, and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

EXHIBITION
Khaled Sabsabi: A Hope
4 January – 13 March 2022
Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW

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