A report by Mark Jenkins for The Washington Post.
Jamilah Sabur keeps her feet planted in the Caribbean basin, while her eyes drift toward the heavens. The Miami-based multidisciplinary artist spent her first five years in Jamaica, a heritage that roots her work. Yet the six videos in her online show contemplate Venus, Mars, Saturn and various moons, including Neptune’s Triton. Organized by the University of Maryland Art Gallery, “Observations: Selected Works by Jamilah Sabur” explores Earthly, cosmic and interior landscapes.Follow the latest on Election 2020
The videos, which range in length from two to 12 minutes, were made at such moist, green Florida locations as the north shore of Lake Apopka, one of the generally flat state’s highest points. Yet Sabur began making such pieces 10 years ago while living in bone-dry Southern California. (She also has a local connection, having earned a BFA from Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art in 2009.)
“I spent a lot of time in the desert thinking about how a body navigates space in a philosophical sense,” she wrote in an email. “I made ephemeral gestures in the land that later transformed into sculptures and sets to perform in.”
These movements evolved into stylized performances that employ personal talismans but invoke the wider universe. Sabur always wears a mask or other covering to restrict her sense of sight. This “allows me to be more present in the gesture, fully sinking into a ritual state where I rely on my haptic perception,” she explains, referring to the sense of touch.
The earlier videos are black-and-white and straightforward in cinematic style, seemingly made purely as documentations of performances. In 2011’s “Bridge Dance,” Sabur crosses, and then covers in fabric, what appears to be a wooden board suspended in space. In 2012’s “Playing Possum,” she flutters around a stiff, unflapping flag that suggests the one U.S. astronauts planted on the moon.AD
“I love how the work shows that Earth can be just as foreign as outer space,” says Taras W. Matla, the gallery’s associate director and the show’s curator.
The style of the older videos may seem artless but is in fact carefully considered. Sabur was influenced by the austere aesthetic of French director Robert Bresson, who made such classic films as “Pickpocket” in black-and-white. That format, Sabur writes, “really is about the interior space of an individual.”
In the later works, the editing is more complex and the ingredients more wide-ranging. “Moon Tendon” (2015) includes open-source NASA footage of a hurricane on Saturn; “Tidal Locking” (2019) inserts a ghostly dancer into a vertically oriented collage of oceanic and planetary imagery. (The latter piece, the most visually sophisticated, would benefit from being seen in a format larger than a home computer screen.)
A still image from Jamilah Sabur’s video work “Rhombus: Cradling Mars West of the Sargasso Sea,” part of the University of Maryland Art Gallery’s online exhibition “Observations.”
In the other two videos, Sabur uses a wooden rhombus to frame objects on the ground (a cast full-face mask) or in the sky (the planet Mars). The diamond-shaped form might seem purely geometric, but actually has an autobiographical connection: It’s derived from the latticework above the front door of her mother’s house in Jamaica. Common in the Caribbean region, such an opening serves as a vent for air and light in tropical climes.
“In my work the shape functions as a threshold space where the inside and the outside merge. It is a portal and an anchor that allows me to access multiple sites,” Sabur notes.
By employing an elemental shape that also has personal meaning, Sabur links the two poles of her art. “I’m always oscillating from the personal to the universal,” she writes. At one apogee of the orbit, she’s swinging toward her family home; at the other, she’s propelled to Mars.
Observations: Selected Works by Jamilah Sabur
University of Maryland Art Gallery, artgallery.umd.edu/exhibition/observations.
Dates: Through Dec. 11.