The word transcendence implies the overcoming of physical limitations to reach a higher plane of existence. The act of moving beyond something. The gradual process of ascension, catharsis, purification. To me, the word holds hints of spirituality in it, to artist Yasmeen Sabri, it also means reclaiming the right of inclusion.

Sabri focuses on creating unorthodox art with which the audience can engage. Her solo exhibition, Transcendence, opened to the public on the 1st of March in Jabal Amman’s Wadi Finan Art Gallery.

Sabri, Canvas Stretchers, multiple dimensions, 2019 (image courtesy of Wadi Finan Art Gallery)

At the entrance of the gallery is an assembly of canvas stretchers. They are propped up at different heights, each one haphazardly covered, as if blind-folded, by a white, grey or black cloth. Next to them, the wall tells the visitors:

The ignored, the avoided, the unseen are put on display. The by-product is the product, the discarded is the work.
It is an ode to those who use such materials to build the world only to be immediately excluded from it, and to non-conformists, those cast aside after rejecting social constructs.

Sabri says she has always been wistful of the fact that the wood and the canvas cloth are never considered art, but are only used as tools to create or display art. This also extends to the individuals and builders who are discarded from the architecture they build after the work is over. In essence, the exhibition aims to draw attention to the underbelly of the built environment. Materials we would normally dismiss or overlook are put under the spotlight in an attempt to celebrate the workers who use them. In a way, those blind-folded figures at the entrance symbolize the marginalized, as if they are standing at the door to welcome visitors in and say, “This is who we are. This is our story.”

Sabri, Transcendence, 2019, details (image courtesy of Sima Qunsol)

The inner rooms are a mix of polished, framed artwork and chaotic, lively installations. The central room is well-lit and minimalist. On one wall, four rectangular pieces hang, each resembling a slice of the natural world: the ocean, the layers of the earth, etc. Sabri uses any and every material available on these canvases. She mixes the materials, both oil and water-based, together, and lets them interact and form their own paths and shapes.

All the materials, all the paintings, they’re not really planned. It’s very spiritual for me when I’m creating art. I have all the material and then I just kind of respond to it. The fabrics absorb some materials and refuse others. So the work creates itself. As an artist, I’m one of my tools. I want that to be extended to the audience where you walk in and you complete the work with your own experiences. The work is transcending its original purpose. The plastic that’s usually lying on the floor of my studio, instead of being thrown in the garbage, is now the artwork.

This is why the exhibition lacks descriptions beyond the artist’s statement. Sabri hopes that the visitors can immerse themselves in the art and transcend their role as visitors, instead becoming an active participant in the creation of meaning. She maintains a level of confidentiality between her and the artwork so that each person can engage in speculations.

Sabri, Transcendence, 2019, details (image courtesy of Wadi Finan)

From the central room, visitors can go left or right through paint-splattered plastic sheets hanging from the door frames, as if they are stepping inside studios where the creation process takes place. These rooms are dim-lit and cluttered. In the room on the right, an installation of plastic sheets, glass panels and wooden pallets stands. It almost resembles a construction site. An array of vibrant colours is splattered around in such a way that the energy with which the pieces were created is preserved – they embody their own life. Several spot lights scattered around the corners of the room bath the pieces in fiery red, electric blue and warm violet, changing the hues of the paint so that every few seconds the art transforms. An upbeat, repetitive tune plays in the background, the very same music Sabri listens to when she is working in her studio.

Sabri, Transcendence, 2019, details (image courtesy of Sima Qunsol)
Sabri, Transcendence, 2019, details (image courtesy of Sima Qunsol)

Sabri is very involved in the regional art scene. Apart from both curatorial and administrative experiences in the market, she is also no stranger to exhibiting as an artist. Her previous work includes the Network of Swings series from 2017-2018, which was featured in Amman Design Week. Her vision, especially in the latest exhibition, is reminiscent of 20th century modernists who wanted to challenge the meaning of art. Perhaps inspired by the spirit of late modernists, some of her canvases challenge the flatness of the picture plane which early modernists held on to so dearly: adjunct pieces of canvas protrude forward from the surface. Her other installations, which combine paint and sculpture through commonplace objects, remind me of artists like Marcel Duchamp with his found-object art and readymades or Robert Rauschenberg with his flattened cardboard boxes.

The main takeaway is this: it is easy to find art and beauty in tradition. But it is always refreshing and exciting to see how far the boundaries of art can stretch, and to try and search for beauty in the unexpected, the ugly, the forgotten.

Read more from Sima Qunsol

Image courtesy indicated in captions.