In the last two years, Sabina Sakoh has exhibited alongside international art luminaries Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, and Sigmar Polke. Sakoh’s debut outing at New York’s esteemed Armory Show resulted in the sale of her painting December 2014 to a California collector. Not too bad for a German painter who is a relative newcomer to this side of the Atlantic; only a scant six months before the Armory show, she had her North American debut at Miami’s legendary Art Basel.
Better known in Europe and in Asia, she has been featured not once but twice in the prestigious fine art magazine Art Investor, and her work has appeared in major solo and group shows in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Seoul, and Bejing. Guido Westerwelle, the highly respected former German Foreign Minister, was a major fan and placed her painting titled February 2012, over his desk. Her focus on democracy resonated with Westerwelle, and he had planned to place her works in German foreign offices worldwide when he suddenly passed away earlier this year.
Discovering new artists is always thrilling and on a recent trip to Germany, I couldn’t help but be seduced by Sakoh’s large scale, dramatic canvases, which I saw at her studio. Her style is rife with intriguing dualities: it is romantic yet naturalistic, contemporary but anchored by classical elements. Sakoh possesses formidable technical skills and marries high realism with dreamlike, almost abstract landscapes that her subjects occupy.
After meeting her socially, I was invited to come to her studio for a sneak peak of her new show, Democracy on Air, which goes up this September in Munich. Her studio is located in Kistlerhof Studios, a vast complex of buildings that provides space to some of Munich’s visual artists, animators and tech developers. The sheer scale of the complex makes it resemble a Hollywood lot, and is a reminder of the considerable support Germany gives its artists. After finally locating the correct building, I rode a freight elevator to the second floor and wandered past the studios of graphic designers and other artists. When I found Sabina in her studio, she was hard at work, putting the finishing touches on one of her 16 canvases for her upcoming exhibit, which opens September 9.
“I’ve been obsessed with the concepts of freedom and democracy for several years now,” she told me. “And I keep returning to this theme as the subject matter for my work.” She attributes this focus in part to having grown up in the Western half of a divided Germany, her childhood and adolescence marked by the fact that one half of the society was free and the other yearned to be. Another huge factor was the close relationship she had with her grandfather, Günther Strupp, also an artist. He had not only a profound influence on her artistic development but also on her worldview. “My grandfather suffered persecution at the hands of the Nazis. First he was interned at the Kemna Concentration camp and then a few years later, he was rounded up by the Gestapo and held at Stadelheim Prison because he was suspected of being part of an attempt on Hitler’s life. He was about to be executed when the Allied forces liberated the prison and saved his life. His experiences instilled in me not only a deep belief in the value of liberty but also a tremendous fear in the danger of tyranny.”
Sakoh’s new works feature individuals floating or isolated in a surreal space but all are unified by visual references from the French Revolution, images taken from the paintings of Delacroix and Gericault. “Freedom was fought for over the course of centuries, culminating in the French Revolution,” Sakoh said as we sat down in her studio sofa, surrounded by drying canvases. “But freedom is not just a historic accomplishment, an idea that exists only in books. It is something that we must fight for every day.” She pauses as if trying to find the exact words she wants in English. “Freedom is mankind’s major achievement. As artists we have a particular responsibility. Art requires freedom and freedom needs art.”
Michael Schultz, Sakoh’s dealer, underscored the uniqueness of her perspective. “What first attracted me to Sabina’s work was the political background of her artworks,” he told me in an email. “In every single painting she transforms current political tragedies into the time of revolution in the 18th century. These leaps in time are for me both exciting and stimulating. For me, Sabina Sakoh is one of the most authentic artists I have ever met.”
Although she mixes classical imagery with more contemporary visual allusions, she sometimes, as in the case of The Raft Number 8, places herself in the frame. Other times she uses her friends or their children as models. This mix of past and present is critical for her. “Today many of us forget what freedom actually means. We allow our feelings to be dulled by a need to conform, or by the relentless demands from a consumer society which focuses our attention on the need to acquire, making it a ‘virtue’ above all others.”
There can be no doubt about the urgency of Sakoh’s commitment to her themes. As I was leaving, by way of goodbye she gazed at me intensely and warned. “We must engage in a dialogue with history. We cannot allow our hard-won humanitarian values to be eradicated or our freedom will be destroyed”.
Democracy on Air opens September 9 at Galerie Filser Gräf, Munich and can be seen until October 14. Michael Schultz is also bringing her new work to this year’s Armory Show in NYC, and also to Art Basel Miami and other international art fairs. Additionally, he has plans for an exhibit in Los Angeles in 2018.