Interview with Samira Abbassy on January 24, 2006 in her studio at the Elizabeth Foundation, New York, NY by Ana-Maurine Lara
Samira Abbassy and I met in her studio at the Elizabeth Foundation on one unusually warm day in January. I first met Samira through another visual artist who introduced me to her and subsequently her work. After attending the Open Studios in October 2005, I requested an interview with Samira.
Samira was born in Ahwaz, south-western Iran in 1965 and identifies herself as being Arabic as well as Persian. In 1967, her family moved to Britain where she was educated from primary school onwards. She studied painting, first at Birmingham Polytechnic and then at Canterbury College of Art. Abbassy's career was centered on London for most of the 1980s and 1990s. She established a successful gallery career, showing with Mercury Gallery in Cork Street, the Royal Academy, where she won a painting award in 1997, and numerous other galleries in the UK and Europe. In 1998 she moved to New York where she now lives and works. She has had solo and group shows in New York and in London, where she exhibits with England & Co. Her work was acquired by the British Government Art Collection in 2002.
Samira's paintings are simultaneously ephemeral and visceral. They are embodiments of multiple mythologies and contemporary dilemmas; they are deeply feminine and humanistic. In addition to visiting her studio on several occasions, I also had the opportunity to see over 30 pieces, including sculptures, exhibited at Vernacular Press in October 2005. The sum total of her work at this time seems to counteract not only the shattering processes of globalization, but also the unnerving side effects of war, that above all are marked by the erasure of biblical and historical artifacts and artwork throughout Southwest and Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. She is, as she says in her own words, a bridge between history and time.
I'd like to begin by asking you to describe your work.
Lately I've been saying that they are small scale oil paintings. I also describe my work as being vaguely of Middle Eastern influence, and autobiographical as well as mythological. I don't consciously use mythological subject matter; it just seems to arrive in figures that I can't always explain. There is a strong element of self-portraiture in my work that illuminates how my life is unfolding in terms of psychological states rather than regarding actual events.
Can you give an example?
My work used to be more narrative based and as it's developed the narrative has given way to something that is more about the internal dynamics of the figure rather than the interactions between two or three figures. The states of the figures are sometimes depicted with the color that's used -- a specific red for example -- because of the way that color can carry emotion. More literally I've done a recent series of drawings where I focus on the anatomy -- where there's an x-ray look to the figure that enables you to see inside it. I want that to depict how the figure feels rather than what it's doing. That's become the aim of what the figures are now.
Tell me about the materials with which you work.
In the past 3-4 years I used collage as a basis for building up composition and then painting on top of it. Now I'd like to get rid of that because I've decided I don't like the edges of the paper. Now it's more to do with imagining the process and then approaching the work and then doing the work directly with color. For example, with "Hereditary Bonds", the blanket red is almost done like a collage. The large triangle of red is almost sticking down like a piece of paper, but I want the quality of paint to speak for itself. Another example is the recent triptych, "Inflammatory Speech" which was done with no collage but with gesso. Over the one and half years it took to make that piece, I discovered ways of dealing with the gesso by allowing its light to come through by scratching back into it. I've also noticed that every time I've discovered something works, I want to move onto the next thing. There's a sense of "I've discovered that - now what else can I do with my new obsession", whatever that might be.
What is your current obsession?
The gesso is one of them. But I'm also working on a series of drawings done via projection. This is again following the idea of collage, but instead of sticking collage directly onto a surface, I am projecting something I have made or photos of other references I've been using over the years, and allowing for changes in scale. I like that it can be moved and is infinitely adaptable.
How did you stumble on to collage?
The surrealists used it, like the exquisite corpses. When I first came to NYC and was going to bars and stuff, we used to play exquisite corpses. I would take some of them and they would be really interesting so I would photocopy them or scan them or sometimes use them directly. The collage came out of using a direct drawing. But throughout art history, people have used collage, either as a thing in itself to draw attention to the object, or as a structuring device. For example Max Ernst; I saw a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002 he took photos and re-collaged them into a piece which he then photographed so that the final piece was seamless. That was a direct feed in to my own use of collage though I saw that show after I started using collage in my own work. It consolidated my ideas.
Can you speak to that dynamic between the contemporary and timelessness of your work?
I've always seen myself as a medievalist because of the scale of the work, but also because I'm painting and using paint on canvas it's a very sort of archaic way of making anything. I draw a lot of my references from pre-Renaissance imagery. When I see a timeless thing, whether it's a Cycladic sculpture or an Egyptian painting or sculpture, there's something that happens where I recognize myself in it and I recognize that I feel like that body and that body was made so long ago. I have to wonder what it is about that that is still speaking to me. I find that recognition to be miraculous. I do identify with some contemporary work, sometimes through the use of material, but it's the older stuff that I feel has a mystical amazing-ness. You know it's been judged and kept, and that these things were made very well, and were made to last. Just to be able to do those kinds of things with those materials was very hard, whether it was marble or bronze, so the craftsmanship element is really important to me as well.
I'll go back to the first part about the timelessness and the images that speak to you, but can you address the contemporary aspects of your work?
I feel people consider me contemporary because I work across ethnic lines and ethnicity is one of my subjects. Moving from the third world into the first world at a very young age and still being judged as representing that world, I had to learn to explain myself - not really knowing an explanation but inventing one. That's a contemporary issue of people working in the West, but still being seen as coming from elsewhere. We're crossing cultural and historical boundaries. There are writers dealing with themes I'm choosing to paint about. Salman Rushdie addresses this theme of standing in two worlds at the same time. For example, when I've gone to contemporary art museums in the Middle East, there's a missing link in the sense that many artists are using western iconography which doesn't wholly belong there - yet. And, it's like we're on a bridge. They're coming over and I'm going back. I don't feel like I'm going back as in "I'm regressing" or trying to turn the clock back. I feel like I'm trying to distill or explain the gap in the bridge. I look at Babylonian imagery or early Syrian art and Persian paintings because I feel that there are nuggets there that have been left behind and I want to disseminate those. And I feel like I'm in the ideal position because I'm here, even though I was once from there. I've noticed that something is working out on that level in me. It's almost what my heart needs to see.
Let's turn more specifically to the archetypes and images that you use. Could you speak to that piece up there, "When We Were Birds"
Process wise it's re-using some elements from previous works in a more condensed fashion. I scanned some of the bird women figures and scaled them up and down. It was initially a collage piece and then it was painted and one or two elements were completely wiped out. It's about leaving the ground and not being able to, as well. Before that I did another one called "Waiting" which was a group of birds, a lot of them were grounded a few of them weren't. So I wanted to follow that theme [in order] to discover what it was about that set of problems. These figures are states of being, they're not actual representations. It's about waiting and being able to leave the ground and do as you please. I want a fantastic element in the work that speaks of spirit, but I also like playing with space and making space function as a metaphor. I want the painting/composition to have the unreality of looking into a mirror.
So in that sense that piece is a composite of different emotional states that you the painter are trying to capture in symbolic entities of the birds and the metaphorical space of the canvas. I love that piece because you capture the quality of light as it actually exists
Yes -- the golden iridescence. Even though that's not actually gold. It's a flat yellow. But you make those decisions about color. I wanted something that is almost unsavory. I wanted it to be acidic and luminous and void-like as well. It was also done as an angry elimination of what went underneath, which was too much brownness. There was way too much brown and coziness there. Sometimes you do things to dare yourself out of a habit.
Why the birds?
Well, I got asked this a lot. The bird is a symbol (and I hate that word symbol because it's too specific) of the flight of the imagination and the infinity of the soul. It's what we can't do but our minds can do. What I'm trying to describe in my work are mental and emotional processes and states. So the birds seem to be, at the moment, one of the most successful vehicles of trying to express that. Because it's not always about actual things. It's about how to make a painting work and it has to do with breaking the rules and being able to leave the ground. So there's that, too.
Another timeless archetype/image that you use quite frequently is the king. Speak to that a little bit.
The king is from the Qajar and 19th century court paintings from Iran. I've had a love affair with this king figure for a very long time, even before I attempted to paint him. What's exceptional about him, apart from his ravishing beauty, is that there's a hermaphroditic quality to him - he's beautiful both as a man and a woman. He has delicate shoes and a dress with a very pointy waistline and a full skirt and everything is embroidered to the t. It's just beautiful. I know who he is, he's Fath Ali-Shah [Qajar] (1771-1834) and he's been depicted many times. Each time he looks slightly different, but if I saw an actual photo of him, I would recognize him. These old paintings of him cross the line between actual person and mythological figure, and I want those qualities in my figures. What's also interesting to me about these paintings of him is the fact that this was the first time court painters went from miniatures to full blown portraits of a specific person. Before that the shahnamas, or historical illuminated manuscripts, were small scale and they were gouache or water color, but these were oil paintings on canvas and board. The kings commissioned them because they knew how kings and queens in the West were being depicted at the time and they were like, "we want that". So it was a way for this form of painting to be brought into modernism, into the new contemporary west. You can see in them that there's flattened space, there's not a total understanding of perspective or three-dimensionality. They were making western paintings and I'm, in a way, trying to imitate their imitation of Western art.
Ultimately, I'm painting because I haven't worked out yet what intrigues me. It's like I'm still looking to explain the process, the materials, and the world. I'm still looking to find out if there is another level here of explanation. There's something about the process that feeds me and my work.
Are you looking for another level to the images and materials, the excavation of these?
Yes -- the overall meaning. I'm still looking for why, what is it, what does it describe to me. I'm looking to describe things to myself in a new way. That's why I have to push back the boundaries of my own language. I can't keep describing things to myself in a familiar way. I have to find different devices or ways of doing it.