Khaled Sabsabi

Khaled Sabsabi is a humble artist making work with open-ended questions. All his work comes from his experiences, his history, which he forms into a poetic order, seeking beauty by revealing the sacred.

Sabsabi told William Verity on Radio National about a childhood memory from the Lebanese civil war: ‘I remember one image, there was an open truck … from the olive fields … above Tripoli. It was lined with bodies. I remember … looking down from my grandmother’s verandah. I could see mothers/people searching through (the bodies) and blood had turned to brown.’ An intense experience from a world in reverse. Yet Sabsabi has turned that experience into a promise for integrity and harmony.

Watching people looking at Sabsabi’s ‘A Promise’ in the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW)’s Asian Gallery, I found the types of encounters intriguing. There were those catching images on their phone while taking in the six works. Others seemed engaged in the relationships between the works. There was a level of acceptance in all these encounters.

‘A Promise’ is in three parts. An entrance, where the first work 70,000 Veils (2004-14) – consisting of multiple screens intended to be seen through 3D glasses – was placed, and then, on the south eastern wall, the single sacred object of Sanjak (2002-12), made by Rifa’i Sufi community and entrusted to the artist. Following Sanjak, a passage gallery led to the vast void where Organised confusion (2014) was placed. Three remarkable paintings, where each mark is infused with reason, were situated in the passage gallery. 

The state of being invoked by each component of each work surprised me. Messiah part 1 (2019) consists of fourteen expressive portraits, painted and drawn on photographic paper. Directly opposite was The Prophet (2020), with forty-eight images of traditional sacred manuscripts painted and drawn (also on photographic paper) over in a grid formation. Then South@ – part B (2017-19), a series of long white-on-black painted and drawn different-sized canvas panels, with numbers interspersed, depicting built forms; including barbed-wire fences, security cameras and buildings. Resembling a child’s hopscotch game, this work was hung at a child’s eye level to emphasise that connection.

Arriving at Organised confusion, the epicentre of a chant gave the feel of entering into a stadium. Yet, with its vast open space, the void also felt like a mosque, temple or church.

The chanting was so loud it greeted patrons at the entrance. Oddly, it didn’t overpower the low rumbling sound coming from the screens of 70,000 Veils, and added to the interconnectedness of the installation. At the entrance to the void, each work was visually accessible to the other, emphasising their constant dialogue.

I was struck by the vast difference in the presentation of 70,000 Veils from that at the Blacktown Arts Centre (2016) and at Milani Gallery, Brisbane (2014), where the screens were displayed in theatrical black boxes freestanding on raw wooden structures held down by sandbags. At the AGNSW, 70,000 Veils was installed into the building and ‘gallery’. The saturation of natural light from other areas of the gallery added a new energy to that projected by 70,000 Veils, in which each of ninety-two screens projects 760 seconds of vibrating images and sound. This rendered the work accessible to other sections of, and people throughout, the gallery. This then gave the sense that these ten compressed years of Sabsabi’s intimate encounters with people and places are operating in real time. The task of compressing so many images and sounds is astonishing.  This is a phenomenal work that has proven itself continually to give in every iteration.

In Bring the Silence (2018), Sabsabi’s five-channel 21st Biennale of Sydney screen installation, the room was saturated with the scent of rosewater. There was no climate control in the old Cockatoo Island workshed. I wondered how many people are aware of Sabsabi’s scented rosewater at the AGNSW. The scent is very subtle, only revealing its presence near 70,000 Veils. I suspect the gallery’s climate control accelerates its dilution. Sabsabi has incorporated ‘total sensory’ experiences ever since his first installation Aajyna (1998) – a single channel audio with twenty-eight audio speakers and  three canvas panels, each expressively painted with coffee to evoke the smell in bunkers. Perhaps the dry-ish scent isn’t as crucial as missing the 3D glasses.

Arriving at Organised confusion, I realised Sabsabi involves us in a cycle. That revelation suggested why each work has such profound alluring qualities. Organised confusion comprised, on two opposing walls, large projections – beyond human scale – of chanting supporters from the Western Sydney Wanderers Football Club, a team Sabsabi and his family love to support. There is no visual or audio from opposing supporters. On the wall between the supporters were six screens. Each screen depicted, in slow movement, a Javanese dancer Agung Gunawan with a mask. The intensity of this dancer’s movement is mesmerising because of the almost invisible pace of each gesture. Such concentrated movement brings Japanese Noh dancers to mind. Emphasising transformation, Gunawan’s performance with the mask personifies a wrestle with a separate being; perhaps a god. When Gunawan’s mask is removed, the physical evidence of the intense struggle is apparent. Much of the powerful screen experience is from the simplicity of controlling the moving image. Facing the screens is what appears to be Gunawan’s mask, in-situ, on a plinth illuminated by a single beam of light.

This emphasis on the overlooked highlights the synergy between the elements of each work and the masterful balance Sabsabi (with Matt Cox, Curator of Asian Art at AGNSW), created by the placement of each work in ‘A Promise.’ The design of the exhibition made every component of ‘A Promise’ accessible. Patrons ‘missing a few beats’ produce an accident that can suggest another mark, another path. These accidents draw attention to unpredictability, posing questions about one’s own understanding.

Sabsabi’s asking of questions and inviting the viewer to provide answers created a contemplative middle space where each of the six artworks in ‘A Promise’ developed Sabsabi’s poetic arrangement of the idea of acceptance. To understand ‘A Promise’ it’s very important to question what is and isn’t acceptable. The childlike painting of South@ – part B asks, ‘Is it acceptable to have stateless people in this century? Is it acceptable that the single Sanjak, a handmade embroidery, depicts prophets’ and angels’ lineage in Arabic that includes Jesus Christ as a prophet? Is it acceptable for this Sanjak to dream of Sunnis and Shiites as combined, not divided?’ Is it acceptable to have Wanderers supporters, shirtless males, chanting in one rhythm one song depicting the energy of the male spirit, hugging and kissing each other and, on their male bodies, large tattoos of the Virgin Mary, the Italian flag or birds flying on either breast?’

Cox’s curation of Sabsabi’s works was the most comprehensive analysis achieved on the artist’s home turf and is a powerful sequel to curator Eugenio Viola’s ‘A Self Portrait’ at the Perth Institute for Contemporary Art in 2018. Sabsabi’s next work will be presented at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2021. 

‘A Promise’ reveals a poetic order determined by our attitude to the idea of acceptance of others. Then, is it our promise that determines what level of acceptance is?    

A Promise: Khaled Sabsabi
18 Jul 2020 – 10 Jan 2021
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

A Hope: Khaled Sabsabi
August to October 2021
Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW

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