Khaled Sabsabi is a product of war. His family was chased out of Lebanon by the Christian Phalangist militia during the civil war of the 1970s, eventually settling in Western Sydney where he now lives and works.

Arriving in western Sydney in 1978 at the age of 12, Sabsabi was drawn to the defiant voices of the black Civil Rights movement in the United States and began to create his own brand of hip-hop. It was his first trip back to Lebanon a quarter of a century after he had left, however, that set-in train a remarkable spiritual journey that culminated in finding Islamic wisdom on his Western Sydney doorstep.

Since the late 1980s Sabsabi has worked with communities, particularly Western Sydney communities, to create and develop arts programs and projects that explore the complexities of place, displacement, identity and ideological differences associated with migrant experiences and marginalisation. As an artist, he continues to work across borders of discipline, nationality and culture to create artworks that challenge the passive consumption of media spectacle.

As it turned out, the medium of art – whether it be visual art or hip hop – is of no consequence to Sabsabi. Gentle, philosophical and spiritual, he is driven by an innate urge to express himself that transcends the medium. He craves connection above all else, pouring his lived experience and his finely tuned empathetic compass into not only his art practice, but various community projects both in Sydney and abroad. He is a true champion for social change.


ou started out your creative career as a hip-hop artist. What was the catalyst for making the move across to visual art? 

It wasn’t a conscious choice as such; I feel it was an organic or natural progression. Personally speaking, Hip-hop was about a platform for demonstration and offering an alternative voice, this is how it was in the mid-eighties, inspired by and leading on from the activist movements and the awakenings of the seventies. So moving into what is defined as visual arts is only an extension and a continuous evolvement of that voice for me. I’m not a purest to form or medium. I see expression of thought, lifestyle and opinion, utilising whatever means and media you have should be the social norm.


After immigrating to Western Sydney from Lebanon in 1978, you went back to Lebanon for the first time in 2003. What was that experience like and how did it influence your art practice? 

2003 was so long ago and I’ve been back and forth many times since then, but to answer the question, one of the first things that visually struck me on my return in 2003, once cleared Beirut airport’s customs and got into a cab, was while driving on the main highway heading to Tripoli in the north, I recall the never ending billboard size posters plastered everywhere of both current and past leaders that represent the different factional and militia groups that exist in Lebanon and broader region. These images brought back traumatised childhood memories and I found myself asking question like; Why haven’t these things changed here? Why are the people still glorifying these butchers and this dreadful episode of history? Couldn’t they see that this was the cause that dragged the country into an 18 year civil war? Haven’t they learnt that sectarianism doesn’t work? This was then and continues today to be a disappointing and disheartening reality I reencounter ever time I return back.

“…moving into what is defined as visual arts is only an extension and a continuous evolvement of that [artistic] voice for me. I’m not a purest to form or medium. I see expression of thought, lifestyle and opinion, utilising whatever means and media you have should be the social norm.”

Khaled Sabsabi, Syria, 2012, still, dual channel HD video colour, sound, 20 minutes. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.


our work draws on Islamic Sufi teachings. Could you please explain the basis of these teachings and how you engage with them in your work? 

I believe the entry point that drew me into Sufism and its practices was one that is connected to my lineage. Post this engagement or reengagement, I got more and more interested in these ideas and possibilities and today continue along this thinking that is about finding another way, an alternative while being inclusive of all, accepting and forgiving, which is easy said and challenging to action. On another level, Sufism offers much intellectual beauty in its philosophies and poetry that are deeply and fundamentally intertwined within their practices, which I feel allows an individual to be both the thinker and the feeler, inspired by notions and actions initiated and driven by the heart.


Your art practice is dedicated to interrogating racial stereotypes and exploring the multiplicity of personal stories and histories of marginalised groups in society. Is there a particular moment in your career that stands out really making an impact in terms of shifting perceptions and encouraging more empathy? If so, could you please explain why?

It’s difficult to define one particular moment that stands out for me in terms of shifting perceptions or encouraging empathy. I think responsibility is an ongoing collective notion embodied within us all. This responsibility is what enables us to demonstrate and highlight something important, something we strongly feel and stand for, whatever the context. Finding commonalty is an acknowledgement, a conversation with the other and I prefer the ability to work towards social commonalty, instead of trying to shift people’s perceptions. This is the only way to rethink our future and reflect upon and learn from the very obscure moments of our history.

“Finding commonalty is an acknowledgement, a conversation with the other and I prefer the ability to work towards social commonalty, instead of trying to shift people’s perceptions.”

Khaled Sabasi, Wonderland, 2014, dual channel HD video colour, sound, 25 minutes 30 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.


iven your heritage, do you feel a responsibility to make socially responsible work?

Responsibility towards social awareness? Now that’s a workable alternative for all, don’t you think so? It is the snowball effect that is required NOW. Having said this, I truly believe it has nothing to do with people’s heritage, race or culture, I am not a conformist and can only draw upon my experiences, creative skills, emotions and intellect to hopefully do my share of social lifting.


The past ten years are often remarked upon as a difficult time to be Muslim-Australian – worsened by events such as the Cronulla riots andSeptember 11. Do you feel that things are changing for the better in times of acceptance and tolerance in the community? How does a society go about building empathy and tolerance effectively?

Look, I’m not a community spokesperson and am a little suspect of those who proclaim community leadership. I can speak as Australian of Muslim faith living now (as if we should be categorising people by the belief anyway), that some days can be extremely frustrating, challenging and depressing.

Having said this and government policy aside, the media as we all know, has a serious hand in how perceptions about various Australian communities are shaped, administrated and pushed to the general population. For the reason that these messages are usually sensationalised and generalised views and opinions, built on blame / finger pointing, isolation and fear. This must change, as it only affirms segregation and further validates discrimination. But, unfortunately – this strategy is the winning norm that keeps recreating its ugly self. In regards to building empathy and tolerance; again; I’m an Australian whatever that means, I have lived here for over 80% of my life and now other Australians need to be tolerant of me? What an ill minded conclusion. Tolerance is such a loaded word which I strongly dislike, to tolerate means you are willing to stomach the pain like a root canal done on your teeth. I think good leadership, education, strong grassroots community NGOs, activism, acknowledgement of place and country and positive role models contribute towards a healthier and more just society.


What five people (dead or alive) would you invite to your fantasy dinner party and why? 

Why stop at five, it’s a fantasy dinner, how about we invite all 23.78 million Australians to the party, bring a plate each and see how we go.

Khaled Sabsabi, 70,000 Veils, 2014, 100 x channel video, 3D glasses, installation view, 190 x 1240cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.



Favourite film? Not applicable really, I watch TV when I want to fall asleep. I choose movies to sleep to.

Favourite book? Memory for Forgetfulness by Mahmoud Darwich.

Favourite musician / band? I love sound and music and have a wide hearing range, But in the end there is the enlightened one that was known as Prince.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? Remain an artist.

If you could change one thing about the world what would it be? Abolish capitalism.