“Real Beauty Hurts”: an Interview with Mustafa Sabbagh

by Carla Ingrasciotta
January 18, 2017
Carla Ingrasciotta
Sabbagh Mustafa

After the success of his first retrospective in Palermo, “XI Commandment: You shall not forget“, the Italo – Palestinian artist and photographer Mustafa Sabbagh takes over Rome and the spaces of Contemporary Cluster to present and reinterpret his well known photographic series “Onore al nero”.

The show – inaugurating on January 28th and open until April 15th – combines his famous series as well as new and united artworks, specifically conceived for the Cluster. Once again, the artist takes the opportunity to reflect upon the concept of beauty, focusing on the skin which has always represented one of the artist’s main “fetishist” interests.

Carla Ingrasciotta: Let’s start from the upcoming exhibition you’re having in Rome. How did you start your collaboration with Contemporary Cluster and how are you developing the path of the show in its spaces?

Mustafa Sabbagh:  As an artist, I look for experimentation; as a man, I search for the challenge. I do not love what’s not able to stimulate me, nor does a win by forfeit. Contemporary Cluster is a newborn 3.0 Fluxhall, under the aegis of Giacomo Guidi, in which the guest artist experiments, and faces himself, through unexplored territories, flanked by excellences for each of the sectors they belong, to create art-applied fetishes.
Common thread for “CC#02 feat. Mustafa Sabbagh” develops around an inner feeling of mine: art is disease, it must infect yourself in order to have an impact. Contemporary Cluster as a waiting room; my artwork as a black, liquid virus which – from the walls – bleeds into scent, jewel, furniture and sound design, as torture, or care, instruments.
I deeply enjoy in challenging myself, but I carefully choose my playmates; after all, I am a Palestinian with Austro-Hungarian roots.

C.I.: “Onore al nero” is one of the series that made you famous internationally. In May 2016 you presented the series in Palermo where you have been conferred the honorary citizenship. Could you tell us about that experience and which were your expectation after this retrospective?

M.S.:  Palermo is not merely a place; Palermo is a story, in many ways similar to mine. Neither of us is a DOC product; we both are the result of a meeting between cultures, the outcome of a love coexistence – even when, as for Palermo, love rises from a domination. Palermo stands as contamination in its roots and hospitality in its most inner nature – despite the human suffering, in terms of efforts, that this could mean, which is always enrichment as capacity of surpassing oneself limits, such as a great life lesson. It’s a tightrope walk, it’s Sublime, in the constant feverish vertigo proper of beauty. The International Charter for Mobility promulgated by the Orlando Council and its next reception of Manifesta, in 2018, are but two of the symbols of Palermo’s contemporary enlightened vision, which impressed me deeply and which I wanted to thank through my black, schizophrenic, but human – therefore authentic – first anthological exhibition, beyond the platitudes of a tourist advertising.
For this reason, during my honorary citizenship conferment, I said “Palermo is a mother“, with its all women Holy Patrons and with its maternal generosity; for this reason I put no expectation in Palermo, because I don’t think it would be right to have expectations of who already stands, lucky you, as your mother.

C.I.: Born in Amman and raised between Europe and Middle East, you define yourself as a nomadic individual. In which way your cosmopolitan attitude has influenced your art and practice? Do the cities you explore inspire your work?

M.S.:  When I was in Jordan, they used to call me “the Italian”; once in Europe, I was “the Arab”. Having lived side by side with boys from the refugee camps, proud in their beauty, has gone into making me falling in love with the marginalized, with the aesthetic of the unfinished, with the wild side – that I found, once arrived on the other side of the world, in Pasolini. There may be physical (therefore artificial, mystifying) boundaries, but you cannot confine one’s thought. And when you grow up with two cultures, I think it helps you to embrace all of them. My nomadic attitude makes me feel at home wherever I am, and foreigner in any place I live. A vehement, impetuous dichotomy, which finally led me to a landing: nomadism is my deep form of traveling, and cultural contamination is the only way I know and possess to be son of my choice, as of my time. As a matter of fact, I profoundly think to be an outcome of our times.
As an absolute value, I cherish and treasure contamination – not only regarding places, but most of all regarding thoughts. Infected thoughts have made my mind stronger, and basically disconnected -exactly like viruses, or short circuits. I believe that this aspect represents an important key of my artwork: a black Madonna, a de-genre Vesperbild, a smoke-addicted Milady… and, on the whole, the imperfect, therefore human, magnification

C.I.: Since you mainly work with models, I guess you need to establish a particular relationship with them. Talking about your method, you say that shooting is almost a sexual act. Could you tell us something about your practice?

M.S.:  Relationship I have with the portrayed is a kind of love one: sexual, even intense, because it definitely is a penetrative act coming not through physicality, but through emotionality. My photography is intimate, because I take the liberty to strip the portrayed of all his insecurities, of all his fears: to me, that’s the most erotic act. At that time subject becomes an instrument, because I want to get through him to the visual satisfaction of my mental concept; the model realizes that I mostly love that particular, imperfect side he has always refused, and this ensures his total trust and surrender in my manipulation, for my own pleasure – mainly because it indeed is a mutual pleasure. I shoot what I feel the need to put into light, I capture what I built inside of me, through my almost maniacal planning attitude.
One of my most beloved artists, Robert Mapplethorpe, said “Whether it’s a cock or a flower, I’m looking at it in the same way: in my own way, with my own eyes“. My way of seeing resides in prolonged planning, in a protracted pleasure culminating in the acme of the shot, because aligning myself with my subconscious, and capturing it through my work, is the most totalizing experience I could ever try out. Therefore, each and every portrait of mine is a self-portrait. My work is always an act of psychological investigation – first and foremost towards myself. To me, self-portrait is not just a physical representation, but above all a mental projection. I project my project on the subject (if you’ll excuse the pun!), and I shoot only when I can see it on him, definitely seeing myself.

Yes, shooting is almost a sexual act; specifically, an onanistic one.

C.I. One of your main topics, and maybe obsessions, is the beauty. Talking about it you say that the real beauty hurts, it is disturbing and imperfect. Could you tell us more about your idea and how do you translate this concept in your art?

M.S.:  “Beauty” is all that awakens an instinctual idea of attraction and, at the same time, of protection. If it’s only attraction, that’s not beauty. Dark circles from too much work, or too much pleasure; veins pulsing life; perfect – because authentic – imperfections… Talking about “imperfection”, I refer to the marks left by each story, whether individual or collective; I think about skin and about life, I think about not so superficial scars, I think about heat-affixed marks on the soul. That rough, raw beauty between Caravaggio and Pasolini. On the occasion of the publication of my first monograph, “About Skin“, in 2012, I asked an engineer – now a good friend of mine… – to help me in developing a light that could fully grasp the red and bluish of the circulatory system, under the skin. I do not like flat faces, I do not like flat things, I don’t like flat life. I do not like things that cannot sting me, cut me in, touch me deeply. That’s why, to me, real beauty hurts: real beauty does not reassure. It’s uncomfortable. Real beauty injures, but it doesn’t mean we have to avoid it. We all are a bit masochists, after all, and the most beautiful act of masochism is to love beauty. A sadist cannot love beauty, and I am deeply masochistic in my task’s performance: its research… because my mind is my most erogenous organ.

C.I: Any new project you’re working on?

M.S.:  One on danger made flesh, one on plasticity of the wound, two new publications and a direction…  Never had just a single book on my nightstand.

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