ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Karmel Sabri as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Karmel Sabri (b. 1995 in Minneapolis, MN) is a socially engaged artist and organizer working primarily with installation, printmaking, public interventions, and parties. She is a current candidate of the Disarming Design master’s program at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. She creates environments which foster meaningful discussion and encourage community healing of collective colonial traumas.
Sabri explores the concept of celebration as a method of resistance through her organization, Dear Gaza 501(c)(3), which from 2015-2019 curated programing, most notably through an annual block party, that provided a platform for artists to engage in a public celebration of Palestinian culture in a context that was never imagined before. Her programming has been supported by The Walker Art Center, The Minnesota state Arts Board, and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council. Sabri was selected for the Jerome Early Career Printmakers Residency at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis from 2019-2020.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Karmel Sabri: I’m interested in the social and psychological aspects of collective trauma. I approach my practice with the question: How do situations of oppression breed cultures of abundant generosity and celebration? A recent example of this is the worldwide celebration, collective pride, and funny memes created in response to the 6 Palestinian prisoners who managed to escape from a high security Israeli prison.
While I focus on joy and celebration, there is no way I can ignore the other side of the coin, which in the case of Palestine is the darkness and pain stemming from decades of injustice. In a way I find myself trying to balance between the two to understand how darkness affects the light and vice versa.
By combining installation with events, I create environments which become a catalyst for healing, celebration, and relationships. The theme of celebration as a method of resistance is what feels most essential to my practice.
AE: You recently moved to Amsterdam from your base in the Midwest of the United States (living between Minneapolis and Chicago) to participate in the Disarming Design master’s program at the Sandberg Institute. What prompted this choice and in your experience, how does the art world climate of these two regions differ and what are some of the challenges you have faced in Amsterdam?
KS: My experience as a Palestinian who is quite literally unable to visit Palestine has led me to see and seek Palestine everywhere. Along this journey I encountered the Disarming Design program which found its start between Palestine and Amsterdam. Ultimately I chose the program because of its ties to Palestine.
One major difference I notice is that in previous educational experience in the U.S. the political foundation had already been laid, whereas in the Netherlands we feel mostly responsible for pouring the foundation for a dialogue around situations of contemporary colonialism and apartheid in Palestine.
I can’t speak about my experience in Amsterdam without mentioning the major challenges Covid posed on my education. For my first year in Amsterdam I didn’t have access to a typical artist studio and had limited access to school facilities. The social aspects of my practice suffered for obvious reasons. I found myself constantly in the kitchen cooking and hosting dinner parties and becoming obsessed with food, which in retrospect has informed my ideas of generosity and celebration.
I feel the most nourishing part of the program has been the opportunity to develop relationships with my classmates, and in a way struggle together to create homes for ourselves and to understand the culture of Amsterdam.
AE: From 2019-2020 you participated in the Jerome Residency program at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis. Can you tell us more about this program? In what ways has this experience enriched you and your practice?
KS: The residency gives 3 emerging printmakers 9 months of full access to state of the art printmaking facilities with a group exhibition at the end.
The first day I was granted access to Highpoint 2019 I was spread out on the floor printing on 10’ long strips of canvas. These would become a part of an outdoor installation sharing intimate messages from individuals in Gaza with the attendees at the 5th annual Dear Gaza block party. This moment felt very true to my practice because I knew the work would be activated in a public environment in a meaningful way.
After this event I felt extremely challenged to start a body of work and the moment I found myself gaining traction, Highpoint facilities and the world shut down for the start of the pandemic. I taught myself Palestinian embroidery since it was something I could do anywhere. Once the facilities opened back up I was in the studio nearly every day experimenting with collage, embroidering on paper, color, and gesture, to eventually make a series of collages which focused on the question of Palestine in relation to my own family traumas.
In the end, the works feel far less important than the therapeutic relief I found in the creative process.
AE: Throughout your youth and years studying, you have actively participated in anti-war groups and movements to liberate Palestine. You also began organizing events that brought to light these social and political concerns through celebratory resistance. What does your participation in the Palestinian resistance movement look like today? How does your activism fit within your art practice?
KS: My experience as a Palestinian can never be divorced from politics.
I used to be a part of anti-war initiatives hosting protests, educational events, and fundraisers until I started to shift my energy towards more celebratory art centered events. The first event I led was an art show/concert/fundraiser for political prisoner Rasmea Odeh.
I felt extremely liberated the moment I realized I didn’t have to make every work explicitly point fingers at injustice. I realized that confronting the realities of the occupation is extremely draining, however giving people a space to feel celebrated in a community setting was in itself an act of resistance. From 2015 to 2019 I hosted the Dear Gaza block party in Minneapolis. Creating something which gave opportunities to so many other artists to shine and feel validated while welcoming strangers off the street to learn and eat and dance was the most rewarding thing I could imagine.
Since moving out of the U.S. I have retired Dear Gaza with hopes to bring the same essence in a more concentrated format to Europe. That being said, community events take trust and time so as to build meaningful relationships with the community itself. For this reason, I’m not in a rush and will start planning the next iteration when I feel it’s right.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
KS: Michael Rakowitz because of his ability to create thoughtful and impactful community projects which continue on for years, and for his incredible work with food. Ann Hamilton because of the beautiful and poetic way she activates space and creates large scale installations. Alfredo Jaar, for his thoughts on the aesthetic of resistance and ability to bring light to injustices in such a poignant way.
AE: What projects are you currently working on? Do you have any upcoming projects or shows in 2021-2022?
KS: At this moment I am most interested in food and the Palestinian kitchen. I’m cooking up (literally and figuratively) some food related events in Amsterdam. Aside from that I am working on my graduate thesis about Celebration as Resistance.
KARMEL SABRI ONLINE: