Fetishist Visions. A Conversation with Mustafa Sabbagh

Interview by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

Sabin Bors: What are your artistic influences and how have they shaped your work over the years?

Mustafa SabbaghThinking through images… It was the title of a retrospective dedicated by the MAXXI Museum to Luigi Ghirri; it’s one of the forms studied by the nonverbal thinking psychology… and it’s the way I live, assimilate, breathe, I let myself be penetrated by all that’s art, on mixed supports – from canvas, to life. Thinking through images is autistic, it’s authentic. Studies in architecture led me to deepen art through an academic approach; but it’s not that, what penetrates me. It’s not a name, it’s an image.

It’s carved fingertips of Pluto sinking into the marmoreal flesh of Proserpine; it’s the continuous, nervous and lascivious line of Schiele’s nudes; it’s the Lament of the faceless Dido by Henry Purcell, and of the bistered face’s Dido by Klaus Nomi; it’s the violaceous bruise which tumefied Nan Goldin’s eye; it’s obsessively spelling Lo-li-ta’s name out in Nabokov; it’s perception of the sanguineous, sexual tension that you can smell through the accidents of Cronenberg’s Crash… Millions of images, movie frames, printed words which digged and dig me deep, that I let resurface whenever I am behind a lens, in front of a purpose: my planning vision. Unaware, thinking through images, with the unconsciousness of a man who trusts in an unconscious that has well-nourished.

Sabin BorsWould you say that the rather “noir” atmosphere in some of your series reflects a form of Romanticism? If so, how do you reinterpret it photographically?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Romantic art favored man’s relationship with Nature, and tended to pure individual freedom; in this sense, as every Noble Savage [1], I indeed am a romantic – and my use of diptychs is, perhaps, my romantic way to tell the undivided, to proclaim, following Goethe, that “it is my daily mood that makes the weather.

But actually I am a romantic son of cynical, contradictory times; therefore the form of Romanticism present in my photography couldn’t be otherwise than noir – or rather, black – because every passion is by definition blind, when lived with honesty (which is to say through and through). Passionate about black as a perfect mirror of these contradictory times, I get even more involved in proving that ‘black’ doesn’t mean ‘negative’ but ‘deep’; that’s why I try to give it depth, photographing black on black. Contradictory as I first person am, what interests me is taking a common belief in hand, and turning it into its diametric opposite, because nothing is reducible to its appearance, least of all in photography – which, differently from the reportage technique, in art lives on intimately built perceptions, into the realm of the mise-en-scène aware of itself, as Baudrillard wrote [2]. A mise-en-scène en noir, in which my main aim is searching for the authenticity inherent to every individual.

That’s my kind of Romanticism 2.0; black as my passion, true as my fiction.

Mustafa Sabbagh, Mari_Untitled, 2014 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, Mari_Untitled, 2014 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, Onore al Nero_Untitled, 2014. Courtesy of The Format Contemporary Culture, MI © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, Onore al Nero_Untitled, 2014. Courtesy of The Format Contemporary Culture, MI © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsHow do you see the co-influence and commixture of art and fashion today and how does photography relate to this confluence, in terms of it as a media?

Mustafa Sabbagh: What made me approach photography, leading me to love it deeply, is the fact that it provided me with a language through which I could express myself in the way I most intimately perceived. Therefore, not just thinking, but even speaking through photography. Consequently, photographing in fashion wasn’t way too different, for me, than photographing in art; photography is the medium through which I lead my form of anthropological research, that is definitely my message. In this sense, my main interest in fashion wasn’t much in what, yet in why some people were wearing certain clothes; similarly, in art, I’d like to understand in which direction we are heading, reading it through a current as I did before through a dress. Both are semiotic systems, socio-cultural indices.

Photography as a medium, and art and fashion as reading keys – free from infertile clusterings, as both useful tools for the same purpose – which I master as a connoisseur, subverting their codes as a dissident.

Sabin BorsYour compositions are highly sculptural, sometimes infused with a sense of sensual Baroque where light plays a crucial role. How did you come to this pictorial use of light in your work?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Light is sensual in the liaison it engages with its shadow zones. Baroque is sensual in the liaison it engages between carnal exteriority and impalpable interiority, to the point that even the mystical ecstasy of a saint is portrayed by means of the same ardor of an orgasmic ecstasy.

In my compositions, I do not pursue sensuality as ultimate aim, nor do I refer to Baroque as a privileged artistic current. I have to confess to you that, loving photography as you love the companion of a lifetime, and feeling that it does not enjoy the noble status of arts such as painting and sculpture – mostly in Italy, often prisoner of its own history, and contributing factor that nowadays owning a mobile phone would instantly turn everyone into a photographer – my work revolves around trying to rewrite the history of art through photography, groped to demonstrate its equal stature. It’s not the aim of an artist, but the attempt of a lover…

In this perspective, I take advantage of the lessons learned from the study of history of art itself, primarily from the use of light – voluptuous as the embrace of a lover, favoured by the darkness. A body should be caressed, not raped, and every single detail should be discovered and rediscovered, not betrayed.

Mustafa Sabbagh, UNfashion, 2009 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, UNfashion, 2009 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, Beauty Suspended_Untitled, 2012. Ft. Marco Brollo © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, Beauty Suspended_Untitled, 2012. Ft. Marco Brollo © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsHow do you balance your compositions so as to accommodate both the beautiful and the elements of grotesque? Why did you chose this aesthetic to express your views, considering most of your compositions reflect fetishistic constructions?

Mustafa Sabbagh: How beautiful is the grotesque as present in the hallucinated monologues of Carmelo Bene? And how much poetry shines through theatre plays considered summaries of the grotesque, such as Bob Wilson’s Romeo and Juliet, or Jean Genet’s Les Nègres? I never trusted in Manichaeism; I believe that beautiful and grotesque, like good and evil, coexist and reverberate into each other, and make us complete to the extent that we become aware of the splendour of diversity as the only reading key of our own, amiable imperfections, of our own, inescapable, dark sides.

Thus, as the psychological balance is given to us from loving even the most obscure part of ourselves, the same way in my photography I look for the beautiful into the disruptive, the disquieting into the harmonious, to show that “love and art do not embrace what is beautiful, but what is made beautiful by this embrace[3]. Dostoevsky’s Salvific Beauty, Rosenkranz’s Aesthetics of Ugliness, Jurgis Baltrušaitis’s Aberrations are but epitomes of moments, sides of the same coin. That’s why, in front of a canonically beautiful model, I handle his formal perfection overloading it with disturbing elements – fetishistic ones included, allegories of an exquisitely human perversion. Knowing in order to desecrate, overturning in order to sanctify… I think this could also be my own form of fetishism.

Sabin BorsIn some of your series, the characters seem burlesque and provocative, yet they also reflect a strong sense of presence. They dominate the visual field. In others, there is a sense of frailty and submission. How do you balance the two?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Simply, I do not try to balance them, going along with the moment I live, that always oscillates – in photography, as in life – between the two humanly intermitting poles of lust and dust.

I am thinking about the Odes Funamboliques by Théodore de Banville, about Majakovski (“By what Goliaths was I begot | I, so big | and by no one needed?[4]), and I always think about Le Funambule loved by Jean Genet: “With his first movements on the wire, we will see that this monster with purple eyelids could dance only there. Doubtless, one will say, it is his singularity which has him balanced on a thread, it is that elongated eye, those painted cheeks, those gilded nails, which oblige him to be there, where we, thank God, would never go”.

My characters are all poised dancers willingly or not, depending on the moment; tightrope walkers suspended into the black. The only balance, the only point of connection, cannot be anything but the rope itself.

Mustafa Sabbagh, Memorie Liquide_Untitled, 2012. Courtesy of Museo Giovanni Boldini © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, Memorie Liquide_Untitled, 2012. Courtesy of Museo Giovanni Boldini © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsThere is an obvious influence from still life painting in your work, and some still life works as such. How did this particular genre influence your compositions?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Enlightened authorities the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Noam Chomsky have recognized, in linguistics, the importance of context, as an indispensable factor towards the attribution of meaning for every single word, in every single phrase. Context creates sense, grammatically as well as sociologically speaking; cultural relativism is a must, and every moral dogmatism is insane as well as mystifying.

So, in shooting my still lives, I look for the organic hidden behind the inorganic, the ‘still alive’ lying beneath the ‘nevermore’, recalling the Medieval, Renaissance and Flemish still life teachings, which put so much emphasis not on the object itself, but rather on the symbol that it concealed. In doing this, I take care to choose objects contextualized in the contemporary. The new memento of our moment. A cigarette becomes the emblem of a vice crossing times, places and peoples, a definitely democratic vice, and a dildo turns into a metaphor for a pleasure which surely is contrived, but equally it’s voluntary… Social allegories immersed in the contemporary, because it’s always the context that gives the meaning.

Sabin BorsWhat is interesting in your photographic sculptures is that they are instinctive and objectual at the same time, melding bodies in sculptural forms. How do you avoid the objectification of the body in your photographs?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Portraying a body as a sculptural form means paying homage to its art, to its sacredness, and I photograph each body with the same respect and devotion as it is a sacred urn. To me, nothing is holier than the human being, and photography – with its perfect capability of symbolic synthesis – becomes my ex voto. In this sense, I am not worried about the objectification or the reification of my bodies; as an atheist believer, I know I have acted in good faith.

Sabin BorsWhat is the difference between a clothed body and a naked body, photographically?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Photographically, I relate to a naked body with the delicacy proper to one who has in front of him a vulnerable matter, and with the familiarity of one who knows best its light points and its shadow zones. On the other hand, a clothed body is an open performative metamorphosis, an enhancement – or, at worst, a denial – of one’s own material identity. So, photographically, a naked body is in itself a work of art; a clothed body is a white canvas on which you can intervene. And, conceptually speaking, a clothed body is political, but a naked body is already democratic.

Mustafa Sabbagh, ArtLemma_Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of Traffic Gallery, BG © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, ArtLemma_Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of Traffic Gallery, BG © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsDo you think your use of unconventional elements can break the body normativity and somehow render identities a sense of freedom? How can the body subvert the dress codes and their normativity?

Mustafa Sabbagh: A body must obey to normativity only insofar as it bends to the dictatorship of fashion, here intended as clones’ producer and standardizing + mystifying trends’ incubator, imposing homologation and commodifying the person. In this sense, I accept dress codes only to the extent that they are voluntary acts of belonging: I’m thinking about subcultures such as Punk, with their safety pins stuck against the consumer society, or the Congolese Sapeurs, dandies in Technicolor strongly believing in the accuracy of appearing as a silent, yet loud proclamation of their being. It’s a way to show that a dress code is meaningful only to the extent that it becomes self-code… and that codes, in general, are useful only if you consciously take advantage of them.

Similarly, my use of unconventional elements on the bodies I portray proofs that everything is subject to a reconversion, a change of intended use starting from a creative act – which is indeed an act of extreme freedom; in my photography, nothing can be dogmatic because it is my investigation tool on the most versatile of the matters: the individual.

Sabin BorsCross-dressing and cross-references tend to become the norm, in fashion and the majority of media. Do you think this holds the power to create cross-identities, or does it simply allow one to discover and get in touch with feelings, attitudes and acts that would otherwise remain unexperienced?

Mustafa Sabbagh: I do not like the prefix ‘cross’ associated with the word ‘identity’: each identity has its own dignity, and its own value is equal and not relatable to the others; furthermore, at the cost of sounding argumentative, the very idea that something irreducible like identity could be normed, or that a normative character may contribute to the creation of new prefabricated identities, really creeps me out.

Identity becomes aware of itself thanks to its own, purely individual and absolutely unrepeatable, path. At most, as I told you before, it could be in my view reinforced by the context. Thus, to answer, I’m thinking about Leigh Bowery, about his wonderful way of being “modern art on legs[5], muse of many artists including a giant the likes of Lucian Freud, and I think that his experience acquires even more value with reference to the context in which he was to turn his imperfect body into a gorgeous manifesto: the Thatcher England, fresh harbinger of the infamous Clause 28… Going back to photography, I keep on thinking about the strong identitarian presence of Lisetta Carmi’s Transvestites in the ‘60s Italy, or – on the other side of the world – about the beautiful portraits of Candy Darling by Robert Mapplethorpe… and I doubt that, to express themselves, they needed a norm spread by the media.

Two roads diverged in a wood and I | I took the one less traveled by, | and that has made all the difference[6]. To discover, explore and get in touch with one’s own identity, there’s no need for a shooting in the magazines, you just have to get in the way. And, in order to find yourself, rather than following already taken roads, it’s much more useful, sometimes, to get lost…

Mustafa Sabbagh, whitelight whiteheat _ Untitled, 2012 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, whitelight whiteheat _ Untitled, 2012 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsHow would you interpret gender and identity in your work? Does your work reflect a certain conceptual position in relation to debates over gender and identity? Is there a clear divide?

Mustafa Sabbagh: My work investigates identity as its favourite subject – primarily mine, my visions, my obsessions – and, within a perfect contemporary society, I perceive the forcing of a gender attribution to identity an archaic act that, to make it short, simply has no sense.

There is a documentary by Werner Herzog – Wodaabe, die Hirten der Sonne. Nomaden am Südrand der Sahara – which is a wonderful portrait about the South-Saharan tribe of the Wodaabe, Herdsmen of the Sun, described as “the most beautiful people on Earth.” The documentary focuses around one of their tribal rituals, in which men undergo long and painful sessions of makeup and dressing, after which the women of the tribe, carefully examining them, choose according to their beauty the man with whom they will unite. The soundtrack chosen by Herzog to accompany women’s selection is an Ave Maria recording dating from 1901, performed by the last castrato of the Vatican. A touching demonstration – poetical and artistic, before being anthropological – of the mortifying relativism around the concept of ‘gender.’

Sabin BorsSkin always bears political, racial, social, cultural and aesthetic stigmata, but in your photographs it is hidden beneath textures and materials. Do you think this holds the power to subvert the social, political and cultural codings imposed throughout society?

Mustafa Sabbagh: Skin, by virtue of its own vulnerability and of its immediate visibility, is the victim and scapegoat of each type of stigmatization, which ill disguises more and more despicable, as well as less and less confessable purposes, both at micro and macro-levels. But skin is our link with the world, a diary incapable of lying, and it is my own fetish – the skin, the blue of the veins, blood flowing into the veins, which is life… you see, I am a fetishist of life.

For this reason, I could never hide it; it would be the least honest crime I could perpetrate against myself. Rather, I protect and distress it, painting and enveloping it, sanctifying and magnifying it like you do with the most precious things you have; like a director who, from his own Muse, expects the best in order to make her the protagonist of those who, ultimately, are nothing else than my honours to herself.

Mustafa Sabbagh, ArtLemma_Untitled, 2013 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, ArtLemma_Untitled, 2013 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin BorsYou were recently selected in a show on erotica in contemporary design, fashion and art at MUDAC, titled “Nirvana. Strange Forms of Pleasure”. What did you present in the show and how do you think your work can challenge one’s views of erotic and fetishist practices? How did the show reflect on the idea and perception of pleasure?

Mustafa Sabbagh: At Nirvana I brought three lambda prints, 100 x 90 cm, in which I featured three of my black portraits, sharing the space with a work by Nobuyoshi Araki, a video by Erwin Olaf and a gigantic, striking sculpture by Milena Altini. Curators Marco Costantini and Susanne Hilpert Stuber were excellent in knowing how to expertly handle such a potentially deflagrating material as sexual practices and eroticism are, being perfectly able to make it an extremely refined and elegant path. They graced perversion to definitely exculpate it, thanks to an irrefutable motive: their deep culture, from the history of erotic literature to the iconography of pleasure.

As for myself and the question you ask me, how could I challenge something that gives me pleasure? I am a fetishist, not a masochist…

Sabin BorsWhy do you think it is important to still reflect a principle of pleasure in art today?

Mustafa Sabbagh: All in all, for an act of gratitude towards its main purpose.

Mustafa Sabbagh, ArtLemma_Untitled, 2012 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Mustafa Sabbagh, ArtLemma_Untitled, 2012 © Mustafa Sabbagh. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
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