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"The city considered a bridge between heaven and earth may be absent in Sabella's photographs, but everything in these frames indicates the manner by which this native photographer has rebuilt his own Jerusalem. And yet, it is in Sabella's conscious avoidance of photographing Jerusalem that the visual artist has managed to recreate the universality of a place with which he identifies. In that respect, his search for his true self may be likened to those monks who, drawn by Jerusalem, came from distant lands only to spend the rest of their lives in bare and desolate landscapes. Only there could Sabella find a Jerusalem where he might breathe fresh air".
"Jerusalem in the Heart Two Urban Artists in Exile" By Kamal Boullata, Jerusalem Quarterly File, 20, 2004.



Jerusalem in Exile is a key project in the oeuvre of artworks of Steve Sabella. In it he found an answer to why he felt out of place in his city of birth, Jerusalem. Since its conception in 2006, the project's initial theory that Jerusalem is in exile developed and extended to theorize that Jerusalem has been transformed into an image and that we now live in an era of the Colonization of the Imagination. Below is the original text that described the first intentions of the project. This is followed by a selection of some of the mental images sent by Palestinians (as requested in the initial stage of the project), and finally, a description by Sabella about the essence of the collaboration as he sees it today.

The impetus of Sabella's 2004 project Till the End now becomes clear. Back then, he printed photographic images of Jerusalem on stones he collected from the city. The project was an early indication that Jerusalem exists as a floating and disappearing image. Jerusalem in Exile also gave birth to THREE projects, Exit, Cecile Elise Sabella & In Exile. Furthermore, Sabella's 2013 artwork 38 Days of Recollection continues Sabella's exploration of Jerusalem as he lived for 38 days in a Palestinian 'home' that was occupied by Israel (and inhabited by Israelis) in 1948.

Jerusalem in exile


Jerusalem in Exile – Tangible Memories is a project that searches for the visual images of Jerusalem in the minds of Palestinians around the world. The project is based on the assumption that Jerusalem currently exists as a city in 'exile', where Palestinians are forbidden to enter. The project also seeks to create a new perception of Jerusalem; liberating it from clichés and slogans, and reconstructing a relationship that is more alive, real and intimate. Through artistic means, the new images of Jerusalem will be replenished and charged in ways that transcend the forced reality on the ground.

Jerusalem in Exile - Tangible Memories has been initiated by the Palestinian artist Steve Sabella, and he executes it with poet Najwan Darwish. In this project, Palestinians can share and explore different views on Jerusalem, identity and exile; in effect, enticing people to share their experiences. The project will photographically ‘materialize’ the various mental images of Jerusalem that exist within the minds and imaginations of Palestinians.

are invited, regardless of location, to participate in this project by sending descriptions of their personal mental images of Jerusalem. A selection of these mental images will be photographically materialized and then printed along side the texts that inspired them in a book to be released in both the Arabic and English language. Among the participants will be a number of distinguished Palestinian artists, writers and scholars. In conclusion, the work will also be inaugurated in Jerusalem in the form of an exhibition that will tour to many cities around the world.

As submissions are received, they will be uploaded to the project web site (that exists in five languages) and its country of origin will be lit up on the map. Hopefully, in time, Palestinians will enlighten the whole Map of the World.

For a Selection of Some of the Mental Images Sent by Palestinians Globally click here.

world map


In the beginning of the millennium, the Jerusalemite artist Kamal Boullata (an artist who lives in exile), wrote in an article about my work that he considered me an “artist in exile” even though I lived in Jerusalem. This was indeed a ‘reality’ I lived in, however, it was one I was unaware of. It took me some time to become conscious of the essence of his words. I realized that I was not physically in exile, but rather, I was going through a process of mental alienation leading to a unique form of mental exile. I felt I was exiled in my own city of birth, a city I started to see as a foreign land. Yet, this did not successfully explain the state of fragmentation, dislocation, and confusion that ‘true’ exile ignites. The ‘reality’ on the ground triggered my state of mind; I was no longer living in Jerusalem. I was not physically in exile; it was rather Jerusalem that was exiled. Consequently, all those who live in Jerusalem feel out of place and alienated. Ironically, when people are forced to live in exile, there is usually another country that accepts their ‘temporary’ residence. The question is where do cities reside when they are in exile? No other country has accepted Jerusalem to become a new city in its borders. It seems that Jerusalem has either found refuge in the minds of the people who remember it, who imagine it, or Jerusalem has returned to the Hands of the Divine.

This has led to the birth of the art project, Jerusalem in Exile. The project, which I executed with poet Najwan Darwish, explores and searches for the visual images of Jerusalem in the minds of Palestinians globally. The project is based on the assumption that Jerusalem currently exists as a city in 'exile', which Palestinians are forbidden from accessing. Once in exile, it is inevitable and natural that Palestinians form a mental image of the city. A brief understanding of mental images is necessary as we often describe events wit images already stored in our minds. When we remember things, we tend to remember them in the form of an image. Mental images are agents of memory which undergo stages of editing in which some details are dropped or changed by time. Our reality becomes entrapped or defined by images. It is natural that we tend to forget the presence of mental images because of their quantity, but when we are confronted with a need to remember something, memories flash back and stored images are resurrected with their details transmitted.  We live in a world of images, and often, factual images (which we see in ‘real’ time) interact with mental images because of similarities, in effect, triggering the process of memory. A journey to unravel one of the images (when we decide to remember something) will make this particular image stronger than other ones. We will place it in a different brain compartment and it will become a thought suspended. In essence, Jerusalem in Exile is interested in these suspended thoughts and the meanings they create.

For years, the project dwelled on these transmitted mental images and sought to transform and liberate them to photographic images. The artistic effort intended to construct a renewed perception of Jerusalem. The project also sought to liberate Jerusalem from clichés and slogans, and to reconstruct a relationship to it that is more alive, real and intimate. Through artistic means, the new created images of Jerusalem will be replenished and charged in ways that transcend the forced reality on the ground.  In this project, Palestinians can share and explore through text the many different views of Jerusalem, identity and exile. In effect, this will further entice people to share their original experiences. Eventually the project will photographically ‘materialize’ the various mental images of Jerusalem that live within the minds and memories of Palestinians. Jerusalem has been photographed more than any other city in the world. There is hardly anything new a photographer can add. Yet, we have reached a stage where Jerusalem needs visual liberation. In order to try to achieve that, a new dimension must be added to the photographs and to the concept of Jerusalem. This dimension exists in us, deep in the imagination. Reaching that dimension requires a deep look, a journey into the minds of many people; where they will all unite to ‘rebuild’ and ‘reconstruct’ a different form of Jerusalem.


Four Years after the project was initiated.

In Jerusalem in Exile, we learned that the image of Jerusalem is constructed and may not necessarily reflect the truth. What do we consider to be real? The mental image could have been passed from one generation to another, from grandfather to father to son, the last of whom most likely has never set foot in Jerusalem. As a child, one of the participants thought that Jerusalem existed on a seashore! The mental image is inevitably mutated by time. It reflects a truth, which only is true to the person who keeps that image. Often, the mental image had been developed through an image based reference and triggered by devices such as television, books, and postcards.

In its initial stages, the two main intentions of Jerusalem in Exile were to question the visual pollution in Jerusalem and to visually liberate the city. Because human bodies can be stopped, the idea that thoughts and mental images can penetrate concrete and physical walls is liberating. Yet, through time the project enabled us to see the bigger picture. Not only human beings are forced to live in exile, but cities also can live in exile, and accordingly the idea that we all belong to a certain space is shattered. To compensate for the loss of the original, and because of survival instincts, human beings construct a new virtual ‘home’ that is often coated with numerous nostalgic layers. This has led me to the thought that human beings live in imagined cities and that the condition of Jerusalem as an exiled city is not in itself unique. Rather, it is similar to many other cities in the world that have been transformed into an images with lost points of reference. Yet, there is one major difference. The transformation of other cities is mainly due to the ‘natural’ fictional archive that acts as a substitution system, while the transformation of Jerusalem is mainly due to a colonial Israeli ideology that sought for decades to eradicate the plurality of the city. This ideology also worked to mutate Jerusalem’s image and create constructed and forced images.

The term ideology is widely used in both Marxist tradition and in the social sciences to describe a distorted or illusory form of thought which departs from a criterion of objectivity. Intriguingly, the German ideology describes ideology as a camera obscura in which social relations are perceived in an inverted form.  It has also been described as an imaginary relationship with reality. Jerusalem has become a scene where its image is infected with toxic amounts of ideology. Hence, the debate is actually about the Ideology of the Jerusalem Image in the minds of people globally and the meaning it generates. It seems that one side has taken control of this fictional archive and constructs the Arab image as a defeated one. I believe that Palestinians or Arabs need to understand image formation and the mechanisms that manage to change global perception. At a time where conquering the world physically is no more considered a viable option, it seems that conquering the image of the world is becoming or has become the New World Order. In other words what we are witnessing is the conquering and or the Colonization of the Imagination.




Steve Sabella, “My Art Is Not About Palestine! It’s About My Life.”
By Khelil Bouarrouj
Palestine Square - The Blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies

Palestine Sqaure

His visual research as part of the project Jerusalem in Exile (2006) on the mental images of the city, led him to realize how people’s imaginations have been colonized by a system that influences their perception of the actual ground they live on, which he further explored in his essay titled “The Colonization of the Imagination” (2012). It is this idea of internal exile and the image-making surrounding Jerusalem that has inspired much of his work.

Read on the Palestine Square Blog


The Colonization of the Imagination
By Steve Sabella
Contemporary Practices Journal, Volume X, 2012

Contemporary Practices