Saba Innab, Then We Realized, Time Is Stone, 2016, concrete, metal, terrazzo, dimensions variable.

Saba Innab, Then We Realized, Time Is Stone, 2016, concrete, metal, terrazzo, dimensions variable.

Saba Innab


Saba Innab, Then We Realized, Time Is Stone, 2016, concrete, metal, terrazzo, dimensions variable.

Seven terrazzo columns run diagonally across a narrow room, each one standing slightly taller than the one that came before. Behind them stands a large piece of a perforated concrete wall (the kind used in Mediterranean buildings to shade exposed stairwells and balconies), its pattern of circles-in-squares hinged on a metal structure and cut like the head of an arrow, pointing inward. Together, the columns and wall—discarded objects of demolition, altered by the artist—form a single installation, Then We Realized, Time Is Stone, 2016, which makes up roughly half of Saba Innab’s most accomplished solo exhibition to date, “Al Rahhalah” (The Traveler). The rest of the show features seven smaller sculptures—six of them arranged in a line like architectural maquettes on a long white table—and a group of ink, pencil, and mixed-media drawings. The sculptures are made of wood, cast concrete, black marble tiles, and chunks of travertine.

That an artist who is also an architect would create such work is unsurprising, except that until just last year, Innab was primarily making paintings and works on paper—moody, textured, watery compositions that played with flattened space and the colors of the Levantine landscape while adopting the strict vanishing-point perspective of architectural drawings (Untitled 5, 2016, is similar but looser and freer, having lost the elements of a blueprint or a grid). Born in Kuwait to a Palestinian family that later moved to Jordan, Innab has been dividing her time between Beirut and Amman since 2009, the year she got involved in the reconstruction of Aita al-Shaab, a village in South Lebanon that was destroyed in the war with Israel in 2006. Soon after, she joined the team that was rebuilding (and at the same time reconceptualizing) the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp outside of Tripoli, which had been destroyed in fierce fighting between the Lebanese army and the militant group Fatah al-Islam. Previously, Innab’s architectural work entered her paintings through maps and plans. The coolness and clinical rigor of those diagrams didn’t always jell with the white-hot chaos of the conflicts all around her, or with the softer, more sentimental subjects she claimed to be exploring in her paintings—the loss of land, the absence of home, the violence done to memory by migration and exile. By actually building structures and making sculptures, Innab seems to have pulled her concerns together in “Al-Rahhalah” while also turning her work in promising new directions.

One direction leads to a thoughtful rumination on modernist architecture in the Middle East. Le Corbusier built very little in the region—a master plan for Algiers was never realized, a gymnasium in Baghdad was built (but heavily modified) well after the architect’s death—but his influence was extensive. Innab evokes the breeziness of his columns in several of her drawings and sculptures. A second new direction points toward Hauran, the ambiguous terrain between northern Jordan and southeastern Syria, a volcanic plateau once famous for its wheat and grapes. It appears in Innab’s work as a landscape, but also as a place through which migrant workers pass—the builders, for example, who constructed modernist edifices that were part of the nationalist projects of host countries that relied on their labor but never really accepted them, even as guests.A third new direction is the turn toward the curious typology of the guardhouses annexed onto apartment buildings in Kuwait. Once inhabited by small families of migrants, these structures appear subtly, almost hidden, in the angular folds and corners of Innab’s sculptures, where they open up a discourse on class in relation to the region’s many political and economic conflicts. But perhaps the most important addition to Innab’s oeuvre here is the elusive figure of the traveler, who appears in a story printed in the small book that accompanies the show. All of Innab’s objects appear as props awaiting his arrival or carrying the traces of his departure. Who he is remains a mystery, but one that Innab’s work seems able to sustain.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie