How artist Saba Innab is using collective memories to remap a broken city

The Palestinian architect and artist's work is not only political but also intentionally confrontational

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In 2009, Saba Innab joined the reconstruction team of the Nahr Al Bared refugee camp. Home to more than 27,000 displaced Palestinians in northern Lebanon, 95 per cent of the settlement was destroyed during fierce fighting between the Lebanese army and militants two years prior.

While the results were to win the design team a place on the shortlist of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013, the project left Innab plagued with doubts. What did it mean to rebuild a camp? How can you design a city that was originally created through ad-hoc construction? She and her colleagues had proposed a series of radical plans that attempted to map the new city through the memories of its former inhabitants. They were partially successful, but the Lebanese state intervened, forcing a number of concessions to the design in the name of security.

Nahr Al Bared had a profound effect on her career. At the time, Innab, who was born in Kuwait, was only five years out of her architectural engineering studies in Jordan, the country her Palestinian family had moved to after the Gulf War. She had previously been involved in the reconstruction of Aita Al Shaab, a village in south Lebanon that had been destroyed in Lebanon's war with Israel in 2006, but the refugee camp project was on a far larger scale and carried with it a lot of political baggage.

"This notion of permanent 'temporariness' became crucial in my work," Innab says. "I became interested in the definition of the temporary and its spatial manifestation."

Since then, how architecture and planning can become a site of conflict – and what it means to build on contested land – has become the subject of a series of gallery-based and public art projects.

"I believe in design and I have built and wish to build more buildings, but I think it's crucial to expand on the theoretical practice of architecture beyond just designing," she says. "There needs to be an interrogation of commercial nature of architecture and its abuse by power and capital."

Her latest work, Ephemeral Matter, Inscribed on Sight, is on show at Art Basel in Switzerland.

Palestinian artist Saba Innab. Courtesy Biennale d’Architecture d’Orleans 2017-2018, Frac Centre-Val de Loire

Two fragments of concrete tunnel, together stretching over three metres, sit on the booth of Beirut's Marfa Gallery. The work, Innab says, was inspired by a photograph she came across depicting an exposed tunnel on the Gaza Strip uncovered by the Israeli forces.

Since 1983, the Palestinians have built a network of tunnels through which people and goods can circumnavigate the restriction of movement placed on them by the Israeli government.

That these sculptures are reminiscent of ruins is telling. "The image documents the tunnel just before its destruction because to see the tunnel strips it of its use, destroys it," she says. "[The sculpture] not only freezes the image, it invites one to imagine the source of this 'excavated' body."

Innab's sculpture is made from claustra concrete blocks, the lattice-like building material often used to provide shade on balconies and in gardens. The use of residential-building material is a pointed one in this context. Innab says homes, and the question of a homeland, lie at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This new work for Basel builds on a project produced for the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh last year. Occupying the institution's historic architecture galleries, What Is Unseen Cannot Be Broken also featured reconstructed fragments of Palestinian tunnels, their form likewise derived from found photographs.

'Home is Past, (2018)'. Courtesy Saba Innab; Marfa Gallery

The aesthetic of this earlier work, with its raw industrial concrete held up by a metal frame, feels more aggressive against the ornate plaster casts of ancient architectural facades that surround it.

Given how site-specific that project was – the precarious nature of Palestinian existence, as represented in Innab's work, in stark contrast to the careful preservation of western culture – what does it mean to exhibit in the context of an art fair?

“Because the work is political, it has to be everywhere, and no venue should be excluded. There is subtle discomfort to seeing the work I hope. I have never changed my work for a particular audience or context. My process is quite consistent: it’s about interrogating, about asking difficult questions, and repeatedly [taking the viewer out of their] comfort zone. The gallery, the museum, the fair are not innocent places.”

Yet not all Innab's work is so confrontational. A public art work installed in Bourges, France, features precast concrete slabs bought locally. These the artist stacked up with no prior plan as to how they were to be used. It is a reversal, she says of the old modernist maxim "form follows function". Instead, in keeping with Innab's subversive nature, the public are invited to make use of the broad, low platform however they please. Whether they choose to picnic on it or use it as a skate ramp, the user, not the designer, decides the purpose of the work.

My process is quite consistent: it's about interrogating, about asking difficult questions, and repeatedly [taking the viewer out of their] comfort zone. The gallery, the museum, the fair are not innocent places.

Innab does not only work with sculpture. A series of paintings, digital renderings and manipulated photographs from 2011, On-longing, developed the research into Amman's urban environment that she conducted while at university.

Yet these were no empirical architectural plans. Taking the line-drawn appearance of fingerprints or veins, mapping for the artist instead became a tool to trace the Jordanian capital’s identity over time. She cites Le Corbusier, the French-Swiss pioneer of modern architecture, and Constant Nieuwenhuys, the Dutch polymath, as inspiration. The influence of Constant’s New Babylon, an anti-capitalist city perceived and designed between 1959 and 1974, but never realised, particularly resonates in the artist’s work.

Drawing over photographs she had taken in abandoned areas of the city, Innab also sought to offer an alternative, utopian, vision of the city.

“The map becomes a tool to create a parallel narrative of the city, a way of constructing another reality,” she says. “What we build is an accumulation of knowledge – a city is coded with oppression. Through design and research I aim to construct alternative readings and a body of knowledge that is critical, imaginative and accessible.”

Art Basel runs until June 16