Khaled Sabsabi: A Promise

Khaled Sabsabi’s exhibition ‘A Promise’ comprises major works created over the past 20 years. Large-scale and immersive new media installations as well as intimate paintings are on view. The presentation is informed by the notion of ‘Tasawwuf’ a practice within Islam where the ordinary presents opportunities for moments of heightened spirituality, and where the individual coalesces with the collective in a symbiotic relationship. In conversation with the artist about the exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, that he co-curated with Matt Cox, curator of Asian Art at AGNSW, Sabsabi shared that ‘A Promise’ will lead in 2021 toward ‘A Hope’ at the Campbelltown Arts Centre. The artist said ‘it’s not that one exhibition closes and another opens… it’s about continuity regardless of time. Time for me is imagined. I think if we can accept that, it will change our perspective on how we see each other.’

Khaled Sabsabi, 70,000 Veils, 2004-14 (detail). Collection of the artist © Khaled Sabsabi

What did your visits to Lebanon and surrounds spark aesthetically and conceptually, and how have these trips changed?

I migrated with my parents as a child to Australia in 1978, due to the Lebanese civil war and settled in Western Sydney. Since then I’ve grown up, lived, studied, worked, loved here and everything else. In 2002 I went back to Lebanon, and Syria, Turkey, parts of North Africa and some of the Mediterranean geographies. It was an opportunity to reflect on my Australian and Lebanese experience. I got repositioned into the culture and place, into my heritage and traditions. Possibilities happened where I reconnected spiritually with who I was, some of the knowledge or information I’d forgotten. In particular I’m talking about ‘Tasawwuf’, which is Sufi heritage, and the meaning of that also. Since then I’ve come and gone many times and each trip brings new experiences and a new lesson, and questions with it. It continues today. My anchor is here in Australia, this identity and community. I’m privileged to have those two identities in my experience.

How have your feelings of identity evolved over time?

Over the last four years, although I’ve been making art for a very long time, I’ve been a full-time practicing artist. I live and breath art making. It’s given me the time to reflect back on what I’ve produced not just from a timeline, but looking at style and philosophies; what I started out with and what drove me to where I am today. What does that mean? Something which is wider and broader that is more about a spiritual connection of being inclusive and finding common ground familiar to all peoples, of all cultures, of all times. These are the things I think about and empathise with. This is what drives us as a community, as human beings.

Khaled Sabsabi, Organised confusion (video still), 2014. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of the artist 2019. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program © Khaled Sabsabi

I received that from reading your statement the show ‘embodies hope and trust, but also anxiety and relief as it is either kept or broken’. This speaks to collectivism but also to how individuals act. Do you ‘mediate’ or try to create awareness and peace across cultures in your work and why?

It’s quite a broad question because it can be really complex and take time to unpack. It’s about understanding the human condition. We can also simplify it as well. Yes, we are complex entities and beings. We don’t understand ourselves, let alone try to comprehend what’s around us. To better understand what is around you is to understand what is within yourself. And that is a lifetime, an age struggle. But, it is individualistic in the sense that your actions will determine what you project out to others.

If I can use an analogy here of the Whirling Dervishes; as they spin in a counter-clockwise direction, they have one hand facing the sky and one hand facing the earth and it’s about receiving goodness and then being a medium to be able to channel energies from one realm to another. That says it all, in the sense of what drives you to do things, we’re all responsible and accountable. Having that picture in my mind translates – what drives you to do what you do.

Can you talk about how your choice of mediums relate to your concepts?

I started out making hip-hop. All hip-hop was about for me was an alternative means outside the hierarchical structures and to be able to find a voice to express yourself and be yourself on your grounds, by your means. I’ve maintained that philosophy in my visual art practice. If I make a painting or a video or sound or sculptural piece, for me it’s all about the continuation of hip-hop; what I mean about that is sampling, some people say you subvert or appropriate or adapt them, to put my voice in the conversation. That’s part of responsibility and accountability; you have to offer your voice in the conversation.

To answer the question simply – concept first and then the medium dictates itself, it speaks out. Did it achieve the idea, maybe not? Some of my works are not complete in the first instance. I’ll revisit work from ten years ago, if I feel I can further add to that work.

Khaled Sabsabi, South@ – part B, 2017-19. Collection of the artist © Khaled Sabsabi

Does that come from your sense of the work, or dialogue and shared experience with the audience?

The idea of using the multi-sensory experience, it’s about giving and receiving. I leave room for the work to be absorbed and reflected upon by its viewers. You want the viewer to bring their experience and themselves to the work – we as human beings already come with our own perspective on things before we enter into what the other person is thinking. There is that at play. I do like to put the viewer in the position as much as the work.

In 70,000 Veils (2014) there are symbols of crossing the threshold using the 3D, Sanjak (2002-12) has the sacred ceremonial banner there as a way to greet you and farewell you. As you walk around in ‘A Promise’ there are also 14 small portraits, or is it something else altogether? Then you’re sitting between the Messiah (2019) work and the Prophet (2020) work on your right hand side, those works are very intimate and you the viewer have to move in close proximity to view and interact with the work. The works are not protected, they are fragile. It’s not being exclusive, you’re inviting the viewer to have a physical connection with the object and idea. South@ (2017-19) looks like chalk on black canvas. It’s somewhere between a child’s or architectural drawing, it’s abstracted and it’s positioned quite low. The viewer has the power to oversee the physical presence of the wall and the idea of separation.

With Organised confusion (2014) you are right in the centre of the ceremony between the contemporary football environment and a traditional cultural scene, and the dance or interpretation or discussion that’s happening between the chanting of the football fans and the performer. The mask brings it back to the individual, for you to inhabit that space.

Khaled Sabsabi, Organised confusion (detail), 2014. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of the artist 2019. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program © Khaled Sabsabi

It’s an interesting time to be holding space about interconnectedness when we might be feeling isolated.

I know people say ‘strange times’. Prince is one of my inspirations; he’s one of the great ones. He says ‘And love, it isn’t love until it’s past’ in his song Sometimes It Snows In April. For me, that’s where time is now. We have to look after each other, that’s what it boils down to. The most basic of form of connecting is looking after each other. If we can learn one thing out of this episode it’s not to take things for granted, not just our lives but our loved ones, family and communities.

You’ve participated in the AGNSW ‘Together in Art’ program; do you feel a new resonance with the role of art, your work and society now?

My hip-hop, sound art, installation, all my work I have made for the greater good or wellbeing of society, I truly believe that. It’s about finding ways to be able to express your view and also not be undermined, nor fall into the political string throughout our history, time and place. I’ll continue to make that work until I feel I can’t make anymore, or feel like I have nothing else to say. No artist or human being is able to determine what their work or life will mean to others.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 2021
Sydney