In Conversation with SAMIRA ABBASSY

In preparation for the upcoming solo exhibition (On view: 4 March - 17 June 2021), curator Varia Serova has engaged in the all-encompassing conversation with Samira Abbassy, during which they have talked about work, art history, cross-pollination, Jungian ideas, studio time and current projects.

Featured work: © Samira Abbassy.

Samira Abbassy in her studio © Courtesy of the Artist.

Varia Serova: Being born in Iran, brought up in the UK, and later on moving to the US – your artistic and personal life have involved significant moments of transition and assimilation. What were some of the challenges you have faced along the way, and how have those informed your work and narrative?

Samira Abbassy: The transition from Ahwaz (Iran) to London (UK) was infinitely more difficult than that from London to New York. The first migration from Iran still has its aftershocks. Looking different has always meant having to explain where I’m from, why and how long ago did I leave. New York is a place that expects you to come from elsewhere, but in a small town in Kent, we were the only non-whites, apart from the Chinese restaurant owners. Assimilation was near impossible, as my parents expected me to behave as though I was an Arab-Iranian with all the restrictions on female behaviour and sexuality. Dating was out of question. Going out with friends was restricted. There was one culture at home, and another - at school.

There was no option but to study — “We came here so that you could have an education” was so often said, that it became instilled. I became obsessed with drawing at the age of 12, but my art-making wasn’t encouraged or understood. It was a world, along with writing poetry, in which I could escape.

As an immigrant in predominantly white Britain, I was forced to ask myself who I am and where I am from. I felt burdened to interpret the culture of my parents without wholly understanding it. I questioned many aspects of my dueling cultures as I tried to integrate, belong, and bridge gaps. So, I became a “fictional historian,” reinterpreting stories about a homeland that I barely knew.

Due to my circumstances, I needed a mirror to see myself; and, not finding that mirror, I created my own through art. The canvas became for me a mirror of inclusion, a place to contextualize myself and establish my identity. Yet, in attempting to explain my relationship to my Arab-Iranian culture, I found I knew little of what this culture really was. This made me uneasy on both sides of the cultural divide. My work became a kind of 'fictional history’, stemming from a non-understanding of something I was supposed to understand just by osmosis.

Reincarnated Fears, 2016, oil on gesso panel, 48 X 36 ins.

VS: You have mentioned that you believe in cross-pollination in the art tradition. Could you describe your personal perspective on this phenomenon, and how cross-pollination affects your personal artistic style and iconography.

SA: I think that all along I intended to broaden the ‘Western Canon’ to find a place within it for myself and my heritage. This led me to examine the historiographies of western art history and question the geo-political origins of the Renaissance, for example. How was the Renaissance linked to its parallel, the Islamic Enlightenment? And how can these two strands be reintegrated in our contemporary global reality? We all are product of the cultural cross-pollination. Maybe in my life it’s more obvious and recent, but the very idea of culture is that it’s a growing, living thing that feeds on cross-pollination. After a European art education, I decided to focus on art outside the Western Cannon, starting with Indian and Persian miniatures. I was then led to Hindu iconography, and viewed it in parallel to that of Christian and Muslim to find common motifs. I also took Jung’s theory of ‘the collective unconscious’ as a premise to uncover common and divergent ideas instilled in the human psyche.

Free appropriation is now made so much easier due to the internet. The museums I visit the most are those with global collections.

VS: When I look at some of the recent works from the exhibition: Serpent (2020), Mama Matrix (2020), The Accusing Mirror (2019), as well as at some of your earlier paintings: Carrying Herself as a Corpse series (2014), Bound by Her Fate (2015), I see the duality and juxtaposition making themselves known, resonating with Jungian ideas which, as you have mentioned, have a certain influence on your work.

SA: I use Jungian ideas of duality and juxtaposition to reveal the idea that opposites make up the whole. According to Jung, incorporating desperate apposing elements of the Self is a life’s work which he calls ‘Individuation’. This also addresses Jung’s idea of the Shadow which says that everything contains its opposite. Jung's ideas are partly based on the laws and philosophy of Alchemy, which I also use as reference images in my work. For example, in alchemical iconography, the Peacock is used as a symbol of the essential opposites, because it swallows poison which then gives rise to the iridescence of its tail.

Bound By Her Fate, 2015, oil on gesso panel, 24 X 18 ins.

Serpent, 2020, acrylic, ink on paper, 14 X 11 ins.

VS: There is a presence of distinct art historical references in your paintings and works on paper from the previous years, such as Ode to All my Mothers (2010) and Eternal War Series. What themes within the course of art history do you consider to be most inspiring?

SA: I see art history as the ocean of ideas, just as writers mine mythology for the story, artists mine art history to find their subjects.

Ode to All my Mothers (2010) is one of many paintings attributed to my life-long study of Qajar* painting a dynasty of kings in 19th Century Iran. These secular, court paintings were exceptional because they marked the first contact with European Royal Portrait painting. Before this period, Persian court painting and portraits were in the format of the manuscript; water-based paint on paper, bound in books. The European influence meant an enlargement of these once miniaturized images in oil and onto panels on a human scale. It also meant an extraordinary paradigm shift from looking down onto the page, to standing in front of a life size portrait/ figures. Classic perspective was attempted, but these paintings still had the heavy accent of a flattened space defined by layers of patterning. I saw these as the perfect metaphor of the untranslatability of culture. These Iranian painters were attempting to make Western paintings and I was trained as a western painter, trying to describe what it is to be ‘the other’.

The Eternal War Series is comprised of 6 sets of multi-paneled, monochromatic paintings, made to be displayed closely together to reveal a fragmented overview of a deconstructed story. In theory, the panels can be rearranged in any order to allow multiple interpretations. This format suggests pages torn out of a book: The Shahnameh (Book of Kings, from the 15th century) is an illustrated epic poem written in Farsi, blending historical and mythological narratives about the invasions of the Persian Empire. I examine the mythologies around “Holy Wars,” including the Crusades, and I draw specifically on ideas around the Cult of Martyrdom in Shia Islam.

History itself can be retold or misrepresented by its presentations in our museums. Manuscript pages are often presented alone and out of context, fragmenting and skewing their historical contexts and narratives. My Eternal War Series is as much about “History being retold by the victor” as mythologies around war and martyrdom. The battlefield is viewed through a sepia lens, showing the carnage, detritus, and horror of war in muted monochrome. My choice of materials — brown oil paint on gesso panels — deliberately places this work in the “Western Cannon,” bringing to mind Goya’s Disasters of War, as well as photography of the First and Second World Wars. It exudes both timelessness and repetition: war, genocide, ethnic cleansing, occupation and exile. Older empires are obliterated and overlaid by new empires with their own cultures, histories, and mythologies. ‘Progress’ is marked by the weapons used, from swords through tanks, guns, and helicopters, to drones.

In the last (6th) iteration of the The Eternal War Series, On Message (2015), I applied the visual language of the Shahnameh to current invasions of the American empire in the Middle-East. I was influenced by media images, and in particular, the iconic photographs taken by US soldiers of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Both immediate and medieval, these images open the door to the atrocities of our contemporary wars. On Message is a collection of fragmented images of key events such as Saddam’s hanging, Osama Bin Laden watching himself on a TV, the US president appearing at the podium in the guise of the ‘many headed angel’ (from an omnipotent angel depicted in the manuscript Mohammad’s Night Journey), military aircraft delivering soldiers to the battlefields which have already been strewn with destroyed buildings, twisted metal, body parts and toppled monuments of dictators. An Imam addresses his congregation, while Al-Qaeda’s ‘Jihadi John’ carries out a decapitation on camera. Global media empires set up banks of TV cameras on opposing sides, mounted on machine gun tripods, reporting their alternative realities.

Ode To All my Mothers, 2010, oil on gesso panel, 60 X 34 ins.

VS: The act of swallowing own hair, appearing in As She Swallows Their Fate (2015) – does it carry a personal significance and if so, could you share with me the meaning of the act that you are depicting?

SA: In As She Swallows Their Fate, the phrase: “I can’t swallow this” came to me after an emotionally difficult incident where I was made to accept an unacceptable dictum from a family member, with whom I have a tumultuous relationship.

The painting translates this dilemma into a literal and physical impossibility, making the viewer experience the swallowing of hair on a visceral level. This became a trope in the paintings, covering many situations where the difficult, or the impossible, need to be ingested in order to make sense. It also alludes to an alchemical idea of what Jung calls ‘the process of individuation’ whereby difficulties have to be internalized and incorporated into the Self and overcome in order to become a whole human being. In alchemical iconography, the Peacock is used to symbolize the swallowing of poison which gives rise to the iridescence of its tail. This idea was also part of the thinking behind another diptych: Through Ingestion Grow Her Wings.

VS: Do you view your protagonists as archetypes, or more so translations of self? You have mentioned the confessional quality of your work, as well as the act of evoking archetypes from various cultures. Could this be a way to draw the line between the personal and the depicted?

SA: My work is confessional in that I retell about emotional states that came up through situations of my life’s experiences. Our experiences are not to be seen as merely singular, they may be felt that way at times, but then we know there’s a grand universality to all our so called personal fictions.

Carrying Herself as a Corpse (Blue), 2014, oil on gesso panel, 12 X 12 ins.

The Accusing Mirror, 2019, oil on paper on canvas, 27 X 24 ins.

VS: Your vision of time, space and Self translates into your approach to composition.

SA: Looking at Sacred art, from many denominations, gave me the idea of psychological/ mythological reality and sense of time and timelessness, allowing glimpses into eternal psycho/emotional realms.

Time and space in the icon is not of this world. The icon is made to contain eternity and the sense of ‘the eternal now’. The use of (anti) perspective of the icon is designed to place the figure on the same plane as the viewer. Time in the Mythological realm is similar in that it’s about the now and the always.

How it’s done, is something Im still exploring, and probably will be for the rest of my life. My compositional choices include a flattened and condensed perspective, luminosity of surface, and bringing all to the skin of the painting. The choice of mythological subject matter gives the viewer an uncanny familiarity with the figures and their narratives, just as it does in icon. We already know the stories and characters depicted and so enter with a familiarity.

VS: Let’s talk about your objects and three-dimensional works.

SA: In my found object Sculpture, the object is animate, not inanimate. The objects already have a life and meaning of their own. I then assemble these objects and fragments to make a 3D collage, in a similar way that I compile my drawings/ paintings from fragmented images. The creature/ characters that emerge are almost self-made and familiar, as though the figures in the paintings are coming to life. Sometimes the sculptural figures are portrayed in the paintings; as in “Love and Ammunition 2”.

VS: Is there a certain philosophy behind your drawing and painting methods?

SA: By using a flattened perspective, the immediacy of the surface is brought front and center. I make layers of patterned areas to describe form and space, so that all is brought to the surface and to an immediacy of the present. I avoid traditional perspective because it tends to give a sense of labored and specific time, tying us ordinary temporality.

I have a library of images for collage & overhead projector transparencies which i use repeatedly. Most of them are fragments that i use to make new assemblages and compositions. The repetition of images and motifs creates my distinct visual language and sense of my own world.

Having set the parameters with the use of my catalogue of OHP (transparency overhead projector) images, amongst other references, I can let go of the formalities of process and allow the work to flow. Each new work is a continuation, or/ and a distillation of the last. The act of excavation— sanding the top layers of paint to uncover earlier iterations of the image beneath the surface, is an important part of keeping the work fresh.

However the process of making my work is still quite mysterious to me. “I no more write than I read the book of my life ”… - In other words, I don’t think that I am fully responsible for the work. It constantly surprises me, and that’s why I keep coming back to it. It’s a place where I can lose myself, without knowing where it will lead me. But the point is, I allow it to lead me. It is wordless and materials-lead. It’s a practice in intuition, allowing a loss of self, and a deliberate attempt to side step the conscious/knowing part of the brain. When it's going well, I remove myself and allow a greater instinctive/subconscious force to lead me through the process. Unless my work surprises me, it has no reason to exist, and if it doesn’t intrigue me, it also won’t be of interest to the viewer. To be alive, the work needs to have a certain amount of unpredictability, without which it couldn’t show me new things. I make work in order to find ‘a new thing,’ a manifestation of thought or vision, fused with material. If I successfully lose myself, it leads to that new thing, something I hadn’t predicted and have difficulty articulating. Over time, its meaning starts to emerge like a dream which seems obvious and familiar, yet still defies description.

VS: That's a beautiful way of describing it. I can feel that the energy you put in your work remains encapsulated within, and continues to speak to the viewer when the process is complete. Does your studio time have certain rituals, and the process - stages?

SA: The process unravels me, at least that’s what I hope will happen. I first sit with my tea/coffee, and look at what happened the day before. Then, I usually have to read and write emails. I look at reference images until I see a way of re-entering the works in progress, and, if it's going well, I get lost in it, and it takes over.

'The process unravels me, at least that’s what I hope will happen. I first sit with my tea/coffee, and look at what happened the day before. Then, I usually have to read and write emails. I look at reference images until I see a way of re-entering the works in progress, and, if it's going well, I get lost in it, and it takes over.' © Courtesy of the Artist.

VS: You have moved and changed studio spaces multiple times during your artistic career. Did you have a favourite among them all, one you have felt most inspired to work at?

SA: My current studio is my favorite. I have changed studios 4 times at the EFA, before which I was in Camberwell, London, in an unheated studio. I am one of the founders of EFA studios and came to NY from London in 1998 in order to set it up. I have lifetime tenure and have served on the board. It's one of my proudest achievements. EFA studios has been my community over 23 years, and all the artists that have come through over the years, have benefited from mutual encouragement.

VS: Finding your space within the thriving community of artists is the great achievement. What about some of the other personal highlights of recent years: exhibitions, events, and encounters?

SA: The Metropolitan Museum acquired the Eternal War Series (EWS #2) in 2013. It was shown at the Met’s Islamic departments Kevorkian rooms in 2015 along side pages of the The Shahnameh manuscript to which it referred. The Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is written in the form of an epic poem, blending historical and mythological narratives.

VS: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with me, Samira. Last but not least, what are you working on right now?

SA: Many things… There are some large panels in oil which take much longer, so in the meantime, I’m also working on a series of smaller works on paper. There have been quite a number of written interviews recently, to which I've been writing responses: Artspiel, Cultural Politics. Writing about my work is both excruciating and revelatory, but it’s no substitute for making the work.

* The Qajar Era (1785–1925) Its beginning roughly coincided with the French Revolution and the drafting of the American Constitution, and its end, after a period of foreign occupation and political turmoil, with World War I. The Qajar dynasty brought a long period of political instability to a conclusion. During this Qajar regime Iran escaped from Europe’s colonial domination but was influenced by its diplomacy, intimidated by its armies, and affected by its commercial, cultural, and ideological lure. It began as a tribal society ruled by warlords and evolved into a traditional Persian monarchy with an elaborate court. Like the neighboring Ottoman Empire, Qajar Iran tried to accommodate its political and economic institutions to Western modes.

Serpent’s Devouring Mother, 2020, acrylic, ink, glitter on art board, 11 X 14 ins.

Mama Matrix, 2020, acrylic on art board, 11 X 14 ins.