Fending For Peace
Khaled Sabsabi In Conversation with Abdul Abdullah
When traversing Australia’s art world, you’ll naturally encounter artists. Amid conversation, it will dawn on you; there is little to be unpacked. The artist might enjoy their craft, and they may be very articulate. Their work may also take a lot of effort to interrogate. But once you remove the layers of obfuscation, little is left. I may even fit in this category; time will tell, and self-interrogation is hard. Occasionally, though, you’ll meet an artist who works with such intense purpose and complexity that their ideas seize parts of your brain and permanently affect the way you see the world.
When I was in art school, Jenny Saville changed the way I saw mark-making. When I started my professional practice, Richard Bell and Vernon Ah Kee showed me how art could be a vehicle for holding the powerful to account. In 2011, when I first experienced Khaled Sabsabi’s work, I was introduced with a slow intensity to modes of thinking that stretch back thousands of years and interrogate how humanity fits into time and space. Without hyperbole, I can say Khaled’s practice changed how I engage and understand time, my relationship with the metaphysical and the divine, and how these discourses have shaped our history and current political context.
When I first met Khaled, I was a little intimidated. They say you should never meet your heroes, but sometimes it works out well. I still joke that he reminds me of Robert DeNiro. Not today’s DeNiro, but the era of the late 80s and early 90s. His affable, good-natured sense of humour, sensitivity and care sit alongside a natural authority. People like Khaled emit an aura, letting people know that while they are enjoyable company, you are to take them seriously. Being familiar with his practice, I had a picture of what I thought he might be like before we met. I expected a quiet, solemn, deeply considered man. While these descriptions are accurate and applicable to his character, a youthful exuberance lies just below the surface.
This excitable version of Khaled appears when discussing cars, the state of our industry, and politics. It also arises at the dinner table when we’re talking old-school hip-hop and the Parramatta Eels (he told me one reason he barracks for them is that they’re the only NRL team to have an Aboriginal name, and I should support them, too). But, there is also the caring, gentle side of Khaled that you see when he speaks with and about his wife Yamane and their children, and when he talks about artists and curators he admires. Most artists I know, know lots of other artists, but few engage and examine other artists’ practices like Khaled. I think a fair observation to make would be that he believes we’re all contributing to an ongoing critical discourse. The quality and integrity of those contributions are a reflection of our capacity and value as artists.
The integrity of how Khaled approaches life is reflected and emphasised in his multimedia practice. It is rigorous, deeply considered, at times poetic, and at other times explicitly political. While interviewing Kon Gouriotis OAM, a curator of the exhibition It’s Our Thing at the Blacktown Arts Centre in 2016, I was fascinated to discover Khaled’s first foray into a creative, political, professional practice in the 1980s was as a hip-hop performer and producer. A photo of Khaled was on display with the rap group Just Us, who he managed as one of the first hip-hop groups to sign a recording contract in Australia for their LP, Voice of The Hunted, in 1988. Like other Black and brown kids of his era who didn’t relate to rock acts like AC/DC and Cold Chisel, early rap groups drew Khaled’s attention, including The Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. He tells me the latter group’s seminal 1982 hit, “The Message”, particularly struck a chord.
“When I heard ‘The Message’, I was hooked. Me and other kids from around Auburn and Granville and those areas, which were migrant communities, mainly newly arrived,” he says.
“We could relate to the rhythm, the beats, the spoken word, all those sorts of things. But, besides that, what was the alternative? It was Australian rock, which was good, I suppose, to some people. But we couldn’t relate to those stories. We were hurting, man. Things like ‘The Message’ sort of encapsulated that hurt. We could associate with what was being said, and it was important.”
Through hip-hop, Khaled started using creative practice to engage social justice issues, youth outreach and community building. In the late 1980s, he formed a rap duo with Ilhan Goktaz, called COD. Together they rented a house and built a home studio in their garage where local kids came to listen and make music. They eased tensions between the area’s Turkish and Lebanese youths, who bonded through creating art. Working as a hip-hop producer, Khaled got his first taste of experimenting with soundscapes.
“The hip-hop kids used to say to me, Peacefender [Khaled’s rap pseudonym], your hip-hop is so weird. Because it was like a wall of sound. I would mix and layer things out of the norm, like Hendrix with Prince, Queen with Funkadelic and Average White Band, although now you’d think they’re not far from each other. I would rap through a telephone and call myself while I was rapping, and things like that, so it was pretty out there,” he says.
“They were the analogue days, and there was much room for experimentation. The process yielded the result. It was all trial and error, and that was the beautiful thing.”
From the early 1990s, Khaled worked with young people. He was the first Bankstown youth worker from a non-English speaking background to attend the basketball courts at Lidcombe, seeking Legal Aid for young Black and brown teens in the system. Some years later, his passion for social justice and experience in music led him to university after producing the sound elements for experimental works made by art students for their final submissions. The artist, musician and lecturer John Gillies noticed the sound production in these students’ work and encouraged Khaled to enrol in a Master of Art (MA) at Sydney’s then-named College of Fine Art (now called UNSW Art and Design).
Khaled initially struggled with the school’s learning environment, despite his long experience in sound production and experimentation.
“Some teachers, like John Gillies, had an understanding of where I came from, artistically and philosophically as well. But most teachers didn’t, and I would argue with them. One even said to me, Look, just don’t come back. He was coming at me in a highbrow way, and that annoyed me. So there was that position of power and taking advantage of that power,” he says.
“The other thing is the students; I just couldn’t handle the students,” he adds. “They were from a different class, totally different way of thinking, totally different construct to what I was used to. I felt isolated and targeted. So, I decided to put [my MA] on hold and took some time off. My first son, Walid, was born in 1999. I went back to Lebanon in 2002 for about a year, came back, re-enrolled [in the degree] in 2003, and then went back and forth. I got mostly high distinctions, you know?”
Khaled’s first trip back to Lebanon in 2002—after fleeing the civil war as a child with his family in 1977—saw him reconnect with his roots and Tasawwuf (Sufism).
“Due to civil war for years, when you’re a young kid, you remember rhythms and ceremonies, but they’re like dreams. But I reconnected, and that was a moment of real enlightenment for me,” he recalls.
“Real joy in the sense that I could see things subconsciously, I had memories manifesting right in front of me physically, and I could find meaning in them. So I started to pursue my learning. One thing led to another, and it all involved discussions, learning and travel, and staying in places for long periods, weeks and months on end to learn with teachers and sit in isolation, and all these sorts of things you only read about,” he says.
From here, Khaled pursued a rigorous period of creative development where he produced works including 99 (2010), Naqshbandi Greenacre Engagement (2011) and the physically and mentally exhausting 70,000 Veils (2014).
“For [70,000 Veils], I took about 10,000 photos over seven years, and then for three to four years, I started to post-produce them. I imported each photo into Image, then Photoshop and then stripped back seven layers from each photo. It’s sort of the idea of deconstructing and then reconstructing, taking a formalist image or frame and then reconstructing that, destroying then recreating that. It becomes this sort of abstract thing. I did this repeatedly; it was tedious and labour-intensive and led to me having carpal tunnel in both hands and having operations, which is very painful even till now. My hands are not as good as they used to be.
He continues, “The idea for me is the 3D acts as a threshold. It’s 70,000—there’s all this numerology going on. Is it the idea of 70,000 memories that we take with us, or 70,000 intentions or actions, or is it 70,000 levels of enlightenment? We talk about faiths, about one level of enlightenment. But to have 70,000 levels of enlightenment, can you even comprehend that? So there are all these things at play in this work. On the surface, it is what it is visually, but the deeper you go, the more you see in that work. For me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime work. I could never attempt to do that again.”
Since finishing his MA, Khaled won the Helen Lempriere Travelling Art Scholarship, the 60th Blake Prize, the MCG Basil Sellers fellowship, the Fishers Ghost Prize, the Western Sydney ARTS NSW Fellowship and the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund Fellowship for a Visual Artist. He has exhibited at the 3rd Kochi Biennale, 1st Yinchuan Biennale, 5th Marrakech Biennale, 18th Biennale of Sydney, 9th Shanghai Biennale and Sharjah Biennial 11. Next year, A Hope: Khaled Sabsabi—the second chapter of his survey exhibition—runs from January 3 till March 13 at Campbelltown Arts Centre.
When asked his advice for the next generation of artists, Khaled says they should be “true to the practice”.
“You do the work because it’s something burning inside you, to be able to express. Then the rest will fall into place. The exhibition, the fame, the sales will come, everything else will come. If the work’s from a well-informed, just position, everything else will fall into place.”