Studio Visit with SAMIRA ABBASSY

Studio view. © Samira Abbassy.

An incredible fact - despite the success, exemplified by impressive exhibiting history and demand, it was not until last year when my encounter with Samira Abbassy's work took place. While looking through the Metropolitan's collection during the first weeks of the lockdown, I came across Abbassy's Eternal War series (2011). Struck by veracity, unique artistic expression, and a sense of intrigue, I took my time to learn about and engage with this artist's unmatched work and vision. This is how our collaboration began.

In the art world, Samira Abbassy has built up her own artistic stronghold: a genuine act of unveiling complex narratives relies upon masterful execution that, in turn, builds upon years of learning. Her European art education was followed by studying Indian and Persian miniatures, traditional Iranian art, Hindu iconography and Qajar paintings, history and philosophy; this strong blend served as foundation for authentic artistic language and vision.

At first glance, Abbassy achieves the highest degree of expressiveness in the works that combine genuine religious and historical references, submerged by what appears to be a deeply personal element. Such works are profoundly philosophical and even prophetic. Her iconic large-scale Ode to All My Mothers (2012), Love And Ammunition #1 (2014) and As She Swallows Their Fate (2015), among others, bring together the national and the universal, the individual and the canonic, the sacral and the visceral. Illuminated against background, and hemmed in by the edges of the canvas, her figures emanate dignified energy and godlike stature indicative of their martyrdom: "It’s not just about inspiring faith but about helping to instill compassion for others as well as oneself. My figures rest peacefully in their suffering in the belief that their difficult human dilemmas are not personal but universal. And ironically, the more personal the focus, the broader and deeper the impact." Another foundational pictorial device is the artist's use of flattened, similar to Byzantine icons' approach to space opposed to perspectival space, with figures present in our psychic space rather than within the painting, which also implies the suspension of time; "now and always", Abbassy explains.

Despite all-encompassing complexity, Abbassy's art remains painfully timely and inclusive due to its intrinsic focus on humane, with the artist cradled within a space she created for her own personal mythologies. Samira's artist bio on the British Museum's website states: "As a result of her complex heritage, Abbassy tries to figure out her own specific history through her paintings. Within much of the artist’s work, there’s a face of a woman that resembles a self-portrait (what the artist terms 'the archetypal self). The palette is usually dark and the rendering of figures simple and often with neutral expressions. This is initially deceptive, as many of the faces contain other smaller likenesses of the artist, emerging Janus-like in different directions. Sometimes those faces belong to one person, but occasionally there are also just heads disconnected from the body. In a way, the individuality of the 'she' depicted also becomes a plural 'they'." The artist explains: "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 (...) 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 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."

Samira Abbassy was born in Ahwaz, Iran and moved to London, UK as a child. After graduating from Canterbury College of Art, she showed her work in London for ten years before moving to New York in 1998 to establish and co-found the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts and EFA Studios. During her thirty year career, Abbassy's work has been shown internationally in the UK, Europe, the US and the Middle East. In 2013, Abbassy was nominated for the Jameel Prize at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. She has been awarded grants and fellowships by: Yaddo, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Saltonstall Foundation, (x2)NYFA, and an artist in residence fellowship at the University of Virginia. in 2018 she was nominated for the ‘Anonymous Was a Woman’ Award. In the last few years Abbassy’s work has been the subject of six solo shows in NY, London and Dubai: 2014 “Conflicting Narratives” at B2OA Gallery, NY, in 2015 “Narratives: Hearts, Minds & Mythologies ” at the Bernstein Gallery, Princeton University, NJ. Also in 2015 “Love & Ammunition" at Rossi & Rossi Gallery, London. She has had 3 solo shows with XVA Gallery in Dubai: in 2015 “An Autobiography & Other Confessions” and in 2017 “Redemptive Narratives, Migrating Patterns” and in 2019 “A Night Sea Journey”. In 2019, her work was showcased at the Venice Biennale in the show: “She Persists”, presented by the London based Heist Gallery. Her shows have been reviewed by numerous publications including: Benjamin Genocchio’s review in the New York Times, Ariella Budek’s interview in Newsday, and Nisa Qasi for the Financial Times, and the Boston Globe. Her work has been acquired for private and public collections, including: the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, the British Government Art Collection, the Burger Collection, the Donald Rubin collection (Rubin Museum, NY), the Farjam Collection -Dubai, the Devi Foundation- India, the Omid foundation - Iran, and NYU’s Grey Art Gallery Collection. In 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired: ‘The Eternal War Series #2’ for their Permanent Collection, and in 2015, the 12 panel painting was shown alongside pages from the Shah-Nameh manuscripts to which it refers, in the Kevorkian Room of the Islamic Department. The drawing acquired by the British Museum was shown in 2016 at an International Touring Exhibition: ‘The Human Image - Masterpieces of Figurative Art From The British Museum.’

Samira Abbassy's solo exhibition at Zephyr and Maize opens on March 4th, 2021.

Written and curated by: Varia Serova

Featured work: © Courtesy of Samira Abbassy.

Studio View © Samira Abbassy.

Star Crossed Lovers , 2015. Oil on gesso panel. 24 × 17 9/10 ins.

© Samira Abbassy.

Beast of the Plague, 2020. Acrylic on art board. 11 x 14 ins.

© Samira Abbassy.

Dismembered Jinn, 2020. Acrylic on art board. 11 x 14 ins.

© Samira Abbassy.

Studio view. © Samira Abbassy.