San Francisco

Artist Mark Sabb examines historical, cultural concepts through 3-D self-portraits

A new exhibit at the Swim Gallery in the Tenderloin weaves together historic concepts, urban fashion, and philosophy to blur cultural boundaries. 

The artist, San Francisco resident Mark Sabb, is the creator of digital arts zine and internet art platform FELT, and the senior director of innovation and engagement for the Museum of the African Diaspora.

His new exhibit, The Cave: The Beginningdepicts the vulnerability that emerges when someone questions the historic concepts that created many of today's cultural boundaries. 

The exhibit’s title is a reference to Plato’s "Allegory of the Cave,” in which uneducated prisoners within a cave are unable to differentiate between reality and shadows cast on cave walls.

“I interpret it as trying to enlighten others that aren’t ready to be enlightened,” Sabb told us. Those efforts can lead to bad consequences, and people being misunderstood despite their good intentions, he said.

Sabb's work portrays urban fashion and aims to raise questions about historical and cultural norms.

Sabb's show at Swim Gallery was initially intended to open on his birthday in September 2018. He worked with Swim Gallery co-creator Yarrow Slaps to develop concepts, but as the year went on, Sabb wasn’t thrilled with the material he had developed to date. It was all digital, and in the mediums he typically worked through. “I wasn’t inspired by my own works at that point,” he said. 

So instead of launching the exhibit, he and his partner traveled to Japan. While on vacation, his thinking for the exhibit began to shift. An artist in Japan, Lasse Kusk, had leveraged the network of digital artists Sabb built through FELT to connect with him. The pair decided to collaborate on some work for the digital zine. 

Kusk and Sabb scanned about 10 different people into 3-D digital models on Sabb’s birthday, September 6th. The technology uses more than 100 cameras to create very accurate reconstructions of a person, Sabb said. The models it creates are rarely created just for artistic works, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time, with the right connections, he added. 

“That was a major shift in my plans for the exhibition… especially thinking about self portraits,” Sabb said. 

Self portraiture was a late addition to Sabb's plans for his Swim Gallery exhibit | Image: FELT

Unlike most of Sabb’s work to date, the Swim Gallery exhibit is made up of self-portraits in the form of large-scale giclee prints created from 3-D models of himself. All aspects of the exhibit — the self-portraiture, works on paper, and producing art for sale — are new to Sabb, the artist told us. 

“These pieces are influenced by history, urban fashion, and things that directly relate to black culture,” Sabb said.

But just as he started working on his new concepts, his maternal grandmother, a Haitian immigrant, was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. Between October 2018 and January 2019, Sabb flew several times between San Francisco and his grandmother's home in Queens, New York.

“She was a very strong woman who was very proud of where she came from,” Sabb told us. “On her deathbed, she told me to always remember that I’m Haitian.” He said the loss and the pain of seeing her suffering has informed his work.

“For a long time in my life, whenever I was in public, I felt like I couldn’t be myself,” he told us. The works in The Cave: The Beginning, examine racism as a construct, and the feeling of launching oneself into the public gaze after questioning a concept that is broadly accepted. 

The constructs Sabb aims to question through The Cave include slavery, racism, and societal concepts that were first discussed in Greek tragedies.

Sabb hopes people walk away from the exhibit feeling uplifted and able to identify with some of the works within the exhibit. 

“Although they are largely portraits of me… I made myself very vulnerable for this show, and I hope that vulnerability comes across on a human scale,” he added.

Sabb’s work will be on display at the Swim Gallery through March 23rd. He’s also working on re-launching a monthly collaboration with Superchief Gallery in New York and Los Angeles that merges 3-D animation and video projections to create “really dope art parties,” Sabb said. He also plans more merging of music, art, and fashion, such as the shirt currently on display at the Swim Gallery.

“You will see [much] more of this type of work from me going forward,” Sabb said. 

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