In the 1970s, a sub-culture ascended from the embattled streets of the Bronx, New York – hip-hop. It’s stylised rhythmic beats lapped by opinionated vocals, reflecting the extreme social realities of urban culture on a universal scale. Attaining popularity in the 1980s, this musical art form offered freedom of thought, expression and demonstration; built on the notion of the open society it was not defined by a fixed moral or cultural code. Keeping ‘it real’!
An explosion of rap culture in Western Sydney during the 1990s gave rise to a number of artists who extended this musical platform into new mediums. Khaled Sabsabi was among them. Forced to leave Lebanon in the late 1970s due to civil war, Sabsabi and his family found refuge in Western Sydney. Informed by lived experiences and the black civil rights movement in the United States, he began his creative life as a self-described ‘socially-engaged hip-hop performer’ in the mid-80s. Not a purest to form or medium, he made the natural progression to visual art, voicing his personal views on the complexities of place, displacement, identity, and ideological disparities associated with migrant experiences and marginalisation – issues that became prominent on his return to Lebanon in 2003. A re-engagement with the region and its people allowed the artist’s practice to traverse mediums, borders, cultures and disciplines to create site-specific installations, sound art and photography that challenge extreme principles and actions and demand social change and commonality. ‘I make work that is in continual transfer from the local to the global, from the physical to the philosophical and back again, to interconnect the interrelatedness and cycles of daily life,’ says the artist.
Sabsabi’s works have been widely exhibited in Australia and internationally. Recently he has participated in the 2018 Adelaide Biennial ‘Divided Worlds’ and the 21st Biennale of Sydney’s ‘SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement’ with works that employ Sufi teachings within a socio-political landscape. 99 Names (2018) was a ten-year healing process for the artist, assisting him in coming to terms with first-hand encounters of the bombing of Beirut in 2006. The hand-painted photographs capture the city’s ruins and touch on hatred, excessive pride and disconnect from God. Bring the Silence (2018) is an eight-channel video displaying different views of a Delhi tomb, the shrine of the great Sufi saint, Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya, who saw that a love of God led to a love of humanity.
Sabsabi continues to embed this Islamic mysticism in his works. A self-portrait (2014-2018) is a modular work of 114 individual pieces, each consisting of seven different layers, signifying the seven different segments of Nafs (Arabic, Persian and Urdu for ‘the self’); hence the title of his latest exhibition. Curated by Eugenio Viola, ‘A Self Portrait’, at the Perth Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), is the largest survey of Sabsabi’s oeuvre to date. It features the aforementioned new commission as well as several works not previously exhibited: Centre of… (2017) and Lefke morning (2012). Comprised of two paintings, the former is a chaotic use of line and form ‘blurring the obvious and the material by challenging dogmatic notions of representation,’ says the artist. ‘I see this work as a debate that can only exist if people approach the process of negotiation with an openness of opinions.’ The latter Lefke morning is a single-channel video piece, suspended vertically above a Persian/Turkish rug. The work provides a glimpse into the spiritual and communal gatherings of members of the Lefke Sufi Order who come together every morning for spiritual meditation in the form of Zkir ceremonies. ‘My aim for the work is to invite audiences to witness a world that eloquently explores visual manifestations of subtle social realities and the power of shared spirituality and geography,’ explains Sabsabi. The intention is mirrored in corner (2012), a handcrafted embroidered ceremonial flag, Sanjaq; or in Sabsabi’s view ‘a map’ linking communities, ‘a kind-of revealing of reality through a process of meditating upon current politics and practice in the context of history.’ We Kill You (2016) is a multi-screen projection, photo-collage and a video mapped sculpture, that continues Sabsabi’s enquiry into contested geographies, selective histories and ideological movements and realities affecting all of us, specifically Arabs and Muslims.
In his promotion of awareness and acceptance, Sabsabi enters post-colonial theorist, Homi K. Bhabha’s ‘third space’ – the interstices between colliding societies, offering the opportunity to re-purpose perceived barriers of cultural difference. Under this theme, Sabsabi focuses on shifting, multilayered identities to shape a new, hybrid version of one’s self.
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA)
3 August to 7 October, 2018