Mustafa Sabbagh is an Italian artist and photographer, born in Amman, Jordan, in 1961.
He grew up in the Mediterranean Sea area but was educated overseas. In New York he became assistant to Richard Avedon and in London a lecturer at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Mustafa Sabbagh “has been recognized as one of the 100 most influential photographers in the world, as well as being one of the top 40 nude portraitists – the only Italian – in the world” according to Enrico Ratto in an interview in ’Maledetti Fotografi’. His recent work centres on rewriting history of art through photography, as the main instrument of epochal mythology. Convinced that aesthetics, refined and audacious, cannot exist without ethics, Sabbagh bases his work on the search for today’s myths that admit the intrinsic weakness of the human, transfiguring it into a beauty that, even if daring, pushes the viewer to search within himself for the truth. Mustafa Sabbagh’s photographs are often portraits revealing the psychological nature of character. They are masked faces, sacred icons, figures borrowed from Christian symbolism and art history, as well as still lives. Beauty, the unusual, the strength of the works, rendered through the photographic medium, are brought out by the use of a black background, as if they emerged from birth, like the Maieutic technique, which according to Plato helps others to ‘give birth’ to the truth. This method consisted in the exercise of dialogue, that is, in questions and answers, such as to determine it in the most autonomous way possible. So Sabbagh takes us before his subjects and questions us. The artist is inspired by the seventh book of Plato’s The Republic in which the myth of the Cave is told. In the story, prisoners who have never seen light since their birth, once they achieve freedom and have their ‘sight’ restored with the help of light, discover that everything becomes interpretable, enabling them as men to go beyond the limits of their knowledge of the moment. With Plato’s myth of the Cave within Mustafa Sabbagh’s photography, we are placed in front of new views and it is up to us to interpret them and try to understand the world.
Black contains many meanings, possibly the whole life of man. From the black night, to the darkness in which lovers hide or fear monsters, as happens with children. Black, chromatically is the absence of colour, while its white opposite is the sum. Divine and profane, black and white. The ‘non-colour’ that contains the sensuality, the mourning, the black of military shirts, the ink, the elegance of black, the darkness of reason generates monsters, the black souls, the wickedness of the human soul, the flags. Black desire, black humour, Soulages’s painting, Ad Reinhardt or Hermann Nitsch, Malevič’s black square. From the words of the French philosopher Alain Badiou, “black symbolizes indiscriminately both the lack and the excess” (Le noir. Éclats d’une non-couleur – Editions Autrement, Paris, 2016).
Marika Marchese: What is black to you, Mustafa? When was the first ‘black’ work born?
Mustafa Sabbagh: Black is a thought, not a vision. Conception occurs in total darkness. Life begins with black, the amniotic fluid is black, and so is the origin of a new life … or of a new work.
“Night, you guided me,
Loved more than the early dawn,
Night, which you transformed,
With sweet alternate ardor,
Even in the Beloved of the Beloved the heart!”
By Giovanni della Croce, ‘The dark night of the soul’
Black is interpreted by Gregory of Nyssa, in the ‘Homilies on the Song of Songs’ as “as the great Moses began to enjoy the vision of God in the light, God spoke to him through the cloud; finally, having become more sublime and perfect, Moses contemplates God in the darkness”. What we learn from this is that the most precise knowledge leads the soul to look at what is hidden. To have Faith.
“Black for Kandinsky resonated inwardly as ‘a nothing without possibility’, a nothing dead after the death of the sun; and it is the same colour that Rimbaud associates with a vowel, the letter A of Atramentum, the ‘black swathed corset of shining flies’. It is the colour of the absence of light, of non-light, of non-life, which covers the human skin like tar on the feathers of birds” (critical text by Roberto Farneti – exhibition by Mustafa Sabbagh, ‘XI commandment: Honor to Black, Atramentum, Museum of San Domenico – Forlì).
The black figures of Mustafa Sabbagh are covered with a layer of black clay and the contrast between the opacity of the material and the ‘fresh’ draft determines, just like the colour, vivid and shiny on the canvas, the plastic value of black on black. The subjects portrayed, in the absolute elegance of the composition, live suspended in a metaphysical atmosphere, such as the video installation ‘Anthro-popgonia’ (2015), set up for the personal exhibition at the San Domenico Museum complex, in the Church of San Giacomo. In the seven diptychs, men and women, today’s Greek myths, are floating, the paradox between media’s hyper-communication and the ever increasing lack of communication, embody the obtuse behaviour of our generation subjugated by perversions and fears in a continuous self-celebration through social networks, exaggerated narcissism and ephemeral that embodies the groundlessness of everyday life. The artist photographer in the XI commandment: You shall not forget, gives a warning in which memory must be the medium to reach Nirvana, in the words of the artist, the catharsis. Sabbagh’s works are extremely cultured, a sublimated richness of references to literature, art history, philosophy, religion and all that is life. So, by deciphering the colour black, we see a galaxy.
M.M.: What do you believe in, Mustafa?
M.S.: I believe in the myth that becomes human. And I believe in the man who, to find it again, gets rid of his divine nature.
The XI commandment, ‘Memory as commandment and schizophrenia as a method’, in which schizophrenia is indicated as a convulsive method of searching, without pause, of light at the bottom of the darkness, in which alteration of our thought is where Mustafa would like to push us. He would like us to feel as misfits would in this society and reject the basis of a new ‘sentimentality’, which should let ourselves be touched or un-touched depending on the situation. In this splitting of the mind, we must reach (it is a duty), an order that the artist gives us through these photographs, triggered by his unconscious, to push us to continue, choose whether to have Leth – forgetfulness or Alètheia – truth. As pilgrims we access the sacred way (of immortality), reflect on human experience and on its relationship with the Cosmos. It is known that memory was considered by the Pythagoreans a fundamental element of intellectual activity, in order to have from her an important food for an immortal spirit.
In Forlì, Mustafa Sabbagh’s XI Commandment confronts another great artist, Antonio Canova, for the bicentennial of the creation of Ebe, creating a second maiden, this time alive, almost like Sarah, wife of Abraham. Which contains the maturity of life, no longer the goddess of youth, considering that eternal youth is one of the characteristics of the Gods of Olympus it is difficult to evaluate exactly its role. Perhaps in an archaic period of the myth its presence was necessary to give the Gods their perennial youth. Here instead, Ebe is black, no more than an ethereal white, she is a mature woman, she has a sagging skin no longer turgid, reminding us of what we are and that time runs its course, which leads us to the myth of Chronos and abandons us, in the exasperation of being mortal men.
The disturbing artworks of Mustafa Sabbagh, kidnap the viewer, deny him of all stereotypes and give him a new vision of the world, regenerated. Starting from the night of myth, to the dichotomy of memory, we enter a path waiting to find the soul, hidden in some corner. Many projects by Mustafa Sabbagh are concerned with humanity observed in all its aspects, plumbed and thrown back to the viewer to enable him a personal vision. On the one hand, like a curious child who tries to know how the game is procuring him fun and on the other, with the scientific eye of a ‘disconnector’ of reality. Considered a ‘serial accumulator’ of social urgencies filtered through the darkness of an unconscious, Mustafa Sabbagh upsets with the refinement of the mind and the wisdom of a gesture, returned to us in the form of art – because the revolution, in the same words of Sabbagh, should be conducted in a tuxedo.
M.M.: What motivates you to create beauty? What do you let yourself be inspired by?
M.S.: Not from the pixel, repeatable metaphor of the cloning of man, a real tragedy carried out in this historical moment. The only way to create beauty – consequently, for our salvation – is revolution, and revolution as a weapon in our possession is to realize that beauty is a wound to be preserved. You do not want to heal. It is embracing the pain that sublime comes – and art is sublime, or it is not art.
Inside the Church of San Giacomo, welcomed in the Museum Complex of San Domenico, a wall that this time does not divide, but unites the two edges of a skin, made of past with stuccos and plaster casts of the sculptures, conjoin to create the future for Mustafa Sabbagh’s works. It is black and is treated with the Japanese art of ‘Shou Sugi Ban’. This technique preserves wood for over a hundred years. An oxymoron if we think of the act of burning combined with conservation, rebirth and memory, Sabbagh delivers them to the users also in the form of a sensory installation.
Interest is everything for the Man, for the complexity of the individual considered in its entirety: beyond belonging to a genre, beyond stereotypes, beyond dogmas, a beauty that feeds on contrasts and wounds.
Wounds that we find, again in the XI Commandment, considered magnificat of uniqueness understood as distinctive signs and as experiential enrichment.
The wounds are compared to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, in which gold, in this case, the pleasure of the senses, the aesthetics, fill up and cover every discomfort. The artist’s Wounds, are Canova’s plaster casts from the Possagno plaster casts, badly damaged by bombing in the Second World War, and given a second lease of life.
M.M.: What do you want to represent?
M.S.: What message do you want to give to new generations? I like to think that our destiny is to be proud of our misdeeds. The pursuit of perfection scares me, Marika. Perfection represents for me the true nightmare of contemporary man.
The artist, in the series Made in Italy© — Handle with care, acquired by MAXXI Museum of Rome (2015), is a series of 27 portraits of young men (sons of Italians together with Italian children of immigrants and immigrants children of Italy), standing by the sea, enveloped in an intense, intimate shade of blue that recalls the idea of infinity, in the words of Kandinskji, arousing nostalgia for their purity and supernatural nature. The artist tends to underline with this project that the young people in his portraits are not treated with the delicacy of their young age but as meat for slaughter, with origin, date and refining in Italy. Sabbagh does not like explicitly social works, “I was interested in the artistic gesture, the adolescents as bearers of a new value: the richness of diversity”. (Mustafa Sabbagh – interview with Francesca Interlenghi)
Looking back to the years when purity of looks, the simplicity of ambitions and the desire to live knew no limits and conditioning, we find another emblematic work of Mustafa Sabbagh, Candido, Compared to poetry, to a narrative in which “I was thinking of the weak of society while I was writing these words, a prelude to one of the projects I care about most. Everyone knows me for Black, but in reality Candido is a resounding work for me. It is a metaphor, the representation of pure innocence. The child represents all that unconsciously, without realizing it, can hurt.”
“When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child, to it, everything had a soul,
and all souls were one.”
(Peter Handke – Lied Vom Kindsein, quoted in Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, 1987)
How beautiful is Candor!
All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect Candor. [Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass – Preface, 1855]
Hurry to wash your hands. No matter what they are stained of, you’re a child. Cain child is not to blame; guilt is on those who know its sense.
And you do not know the sense of guilt; you are a child.
What, indeed, is Innocence?
To cast the first stone, just to see how many times it bounces on the water.
Close your eyes, and close them to the others, to count up to tentwentyfifty, to have time to run and hide. Stain your hands in red, in a bloody red, to admire in awe the traces of your own impression.
Clap your hands, even if they are stained;
there will come the time to beat your chest, which now – as a child – preserves a pure heart,
untouched by the barbarity of consciousness.
Forgive me father, for I have sinned: that is the moment when you lose your innocence,
when you distinguish, crowning it with sulphur, the sense of guilt.
But now, still crowned with withered lilies, you play in a cement garden painted in neutral,
silent, restless colours – like those of the flesh that protects you, that you
have stained on your bloody red hands.
By tempera, or by heinousness – unaware of itself, therefore candid.
You are absolved, because a child is always a candid presumptuous,
always a presumed innocent – whatever tragedy without texture could have stained his hands.
Nobody needs to fix a texture to bond a child; what really matters is not solution, just absolution.
For a handed-down innocence … therefore, betrayed.
Provided it is childish … therefore, innocent. [Mustafa Sabbagh, Candido – critical text, 2016]
M.M.: We could bring together a constellation of filmmakers, writers and artists of various kinds, all under your art, but with whom do you identify yourself most?
M.S.: With anyone who has been able to affect a furrow in me, because I am made of flesh, bones and memory.
M.M.: Often you said that when you create you let yourself be guided by a book, why is that? Do you follow a thread?
M.S.: The word still has the power, wonderful and convulsive, to surprise me, and a book is an accumulation of words. The only thread I follow is the one stretched to the spasm, on which I can still walk, like Genet’s Funambolo … another book.
M.M.: What end do you see for contemporary art?
M.S.: The only admissible conclusion for contemporary art is to create confusion, the only parent / generator of Individuals.