Saba Innab: Explorations in Art & Architecture

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A Palestinian born in Kuwait and living between Amman and Beirut, Saba Innab focuses on the current condition of architecture and the central theme of displacement in her work. An artist and an architect, Saba uses her fine arts practice to explore the philosophical dimension in architecture, one in which continues to diminish in a field where priority is placed on efficiency and expansion. As an architect myself who was initially drawn to the field through fine arts, I immediately identified with Saba’s work. Further the beauty of the hand in architectural drawings and diagrams is now rarely seen and almost entirely replaced by computer aided drafting and 3d modeling. This idea of the human hand creating a human architecture is one in which I am very identified with. To underline this I paired the work with a raw-edged skirt by the exquisite Beirut based designer, Ashi Studio and a double layer chiffon top by artist and emerging designer I was thrilled to discover, Jasmin Shokrian. My conversation with Saba on her architecture based practice and her most recent works I came across at Agial Art Gallery within The Armory Show unfolds here.

PD: Who were your influences as a young artist?

SI: I have to say, although you can’t see a trace of him, I have been always fascinated by Gustav Klimt. Later on I was- and still- influenced by Russian constructivists, visionary architects such as Lebbeus Woods.

PD: You are both an architect and an artist. How do these disciplines inform each other? Do you think of them as distinct from each other, or as different facets of the same practice that allow you to explore certain themes from different perspectives?

SI: What I do as an artist is to explore the philosophical dimension in architecture that is normally missing in the everyday practice.

The problem in architecture is that it had abandoned its symbolic and allegorical potential and its ability to embrace human communication amongst them and with a bigger system, in favor of a constant pursuit of “Functional Efficiency”. This functional efficiency was soon consumed and abused by capital. This dilemma is not by any means exclusive to the region, it has become universal and becoming even existential, and rethinking building and dwelling is a constant from the last century.

However, another level to this dilemma appears here, when we talk about being landless, in refuge, in temporariness, And architecture in its current condition is not able to embrace any necessary evolution of thought.

The founder of Sociology, Ibn Khaldun opens urbanized societies with this idea: ”العمران أساسه العدل”

Which means “Justice is the foundation of Prosperity”, but the word “عمران” or “prosperity” has two roots, one means to flourish, but also means: to build, to construct, “العمارة” which is a derivative of the same word, means architecture, so justice is the foundation of architecture!

What do we do then? Could architecture perform as a form of rejection to all kinds of normalization, numbness, and subordination, only then emancipation of thought, and body and their extension to space, land, nation is possible. And being embraced by architecture is possible.

PD: You were born in Kuwait with Palestinian roots. In the 1990’s you moved to Amman, Jordan with your family, and now you live and work between Amman and Beirut. How does the experience of being fully immersed in different countries affect the way you think and how do these cultural experiences manifest themselves in your work?

SI: I would like to comment on the terminology used here first: I don’t like the word roots, because it references past tense. And when exiled and under occupation and in constant struggle, the territorial logic and notions of belongings are really different, so the word roots doesn’t quite fit in this context, I am Palestinian born in Kuwait.

My works are mainly concerned with architecture & the city, and reflect a process of reproducing a place in an analytical & critical context. This was clearly triggered by my architectural training, but I think in the beginning it was more of an urge to understand Amman, a city that was vague to me 15 years ago… So urban research was probably a tool for “belonging”…

I was approaching Amman slowly through phases. It was a transit point from Kuwait to Palestine or to Damascus in my family’s summers in the 70’s and the 80’s. Although it was the obvious and the only “refuge” after the Gulf War in 1990, still, it was not clear to me- the 10 year old- why Amman? Why Jordan!?

And as for Lebanon, I went there in 2009 to work as an architect in the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared Palestinian Refugee Camp in the north of Lebanon. The camp was completely demolished by the Lebanese army after an armed conflict with an Islamist fundamentalist group called Fath al Islam in 2007 that was hiding in the camp. The idea of camp reconstruction held such revolutionary dimension within, but it allowed for a redefinition of power relation by the Lebanese Government regarding Nahr el Bared and the Palestinian camps in Lebanon in general. My practice as an architect in this project was the trigger for “How to build without a Land”, however, the project tries to rethink building and dwelling in temporariness in a broader conceptual framework that gradually take us from the dilemma of rebuilding a camp into a further aggravated dilemma which is building, living and even dying in a state of suspension.

Rethinking building and dwelling in temporariness became a main dilemma I try to tackle in my work, and Amman is still a subject of research I am constantly feeding on in different aspects…

Through painting, mapping, sculpture & design, I try to explore the suspended states between temporariness and permanence and the variable notions of dwelling, building, & language in architecture.

PD: In your project How to build without land you consider the meaning of the word “to dwell” and how it relates to refugee camps and displaced people. You examine the word’s subtle shifts in meaning in different languages such as High German, Saxon, Old English, Arabic, where the translations range: to stay in peace, to be still, to be in peace, to reflect, to settle, to stop, his soul has stopped, pain had departed him. 1 In looking at these translations you point out the connection between dwelling/place and the body/ soul. In many ways dwelling and landlessness are incompatible ideas. How to build without land addresses the experience of human alienation, especially as it relates to Palestine. Is this project ongoing? What are you working on now?

SI: How to build without land is an ongoing project that considers the relationship of construction and land to time, to temporariness that gradually transforms- or deforms- into durability. Departing from being Palestinian, but also referencing human alienation in general, the work recognizes the impossibility of construction without land as self-evident. However, imagining such a possibility may be essential prerequisite to effecting long-due change in architecture and politics.

The work explores variable notions of “building”, whether by the physical construction of an object, or by building with “language”, through text based elements that move between the poetic, the scientific and the hallucinatory, constructing together a spatial narrative. This narrative draws a metaphoric picture around the question proposed, where everything has a connotation of failure whether in border lines, occupied lands, interruptions in movement, or in the incompleteness and suspension, as if it is something that is is set to “fail” before it even starts, but still, we are doomed by hope…

I keep producing elements that tackle the issue from different angle, the most recent elements were shown in Armory, as the two paintings Landscapes of Temporariness, and A map for a journey that is no longer possible.

But the linguistic exercise actually in arabic, which departs from the Arabic root “سكن”, which is one of the translations of “dwell”. A body of thought is constructed by” dwelling” enough on the root and its derivatives. The work departs from the direct meaning of the root. The word has two meanings; one is to “remain or stay in peace”, the other is “being still”. This linguistic complexity reveals an impossibility of dwelling, and hints at the fact that we can only dwell at the end of things or when we die. But in temporariness, even in death, dwelling is not possible.

PD: Do you feel your work has helped engage the public in a dialogue around the issues of landlessness and Palestinian refugees? What are some of the reactions you’ve experienced to your work?

SI: I hope so, but I really don’t know how to answer this…

Jasmin Shokrian double layer chiffon top, Ashi Studio couture skirt

Agial Art Gallery, Saba Innab

Hair by Cosma De Marinis, Makeup by Samantha Dametta, Photograph by Jason Gringler

1. Innab, Saba, How to build without land, Agial Art Gallery, www.agialart.com, text 2012. accessed 2015.

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