Samira Abbassy: Hybrid Iconography

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Studio Portrait, 2016 at EFA Studios

Samira Abbassy’s paintings and drawings portray mysterious iconic figures, primarily female, who inhabit an ambiguous space. While her pictorial world resonates with archetypal imagery from eastern and western cultures, it equally pulsates with an urgent psychological core, creating an invigorating tension which prompts the viewer to search and discover rich layers for meaning.

You were born in Iran, grew up in the UK, and moved to the US. Tell me about these transitions and how do you think they have informed your artwork?

The transition from (Ahwaz) Iran to London UK was infinitely more difficult than that from London to NY. The first migration from Iran still has aftershocks. Looking different has always meant having to explain where I’m from, why and how long ago did I leave. NY 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 behavior 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. 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.

Using Mirror images as a compositional device in diptych formats are recurrent in your body of work, both resonating with duality. Lets take a look at your current painting in progress in juxtaposition to an earlier paintings such as Ghosts of her migration and Through Ingestion grow her wings.

One of the functions of the mirror is as a kind of Psycho-emotional X-ray, looking into the (Jungian) Self. The best pictorial device for this is the diptych. This devise creates a dualistic tension revealing apposing realities from a myriad of possibilities: real /reflection, inside/ outside, then / now, truth / self-dilution. The figures start as mirror images, facing each other, and as the painting progresses, they diverge, even though their differences are defined through the same motifs and patterns. For example, Ghosts of her migration poses questions like: Who would I have been if I had never emigrated, and are there any parts of myself that are still untouched by the two migrations of my life? I use this device as a way of posing questions about what we are without the externals that mold us from the outside.

This struggle also comes across in Through Ingestion grow her wings. The figure in the left panel wears a halo of heads. Taken from Hindu iconography, the goddess Kali, the heads which reappear in the form of protective totems affixed to a belt in the second panel, corresponds to the ancestors who are watching over her like spiritual doulas. Like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, she labors to birth a more evolved version of herself. The ancestors depicted can also be understood as alternative aspects of Self, after all we are made up of everyone who came before us. Butterfly wings sprout from the second figure, and at the time, alight on the first panel, becoming the pattern of her skirt.

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Ghosts of her Migration (Diptych), oil on panel, 24X36”, 2016
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Through Ingestion Grow Her Wings, oil on panel, 24X36”, 2016

All your work draws on a variety of art historical, mythological, and diverse religious references – including Byzantine icons, Iranian paintings, and perhaps Surrealism among many others – altogether adding rich cross-pollinating layers of meaning for the viewer. I would like to take a closer look at a couple of works in that context, starting with Ode to All my Mothers.

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.

Ode to All my Mothers is one of many paintings attributed to my life-long study of Qajar paintings, 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’.

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Ode to All my Mothers, oil on panel, 60X35”, 2012
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Ref: Portrait of Fath’ Ali Shah by Mihr Ali, 1813 (Qajar Dynasty 18th/19th century)

And Eternal War, the scrolls at the Metropolitan Museum – What was the genesis and process?

The Metropolitan Museum acquired the EWS #2 in 2013 and showed it in 2015 along side the manuscript pages to which it referred. 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) is written in the form of an epic poem, blending historical and mythological narratives. History itself can be retold or misrepresented by its presentations in our museums. Manuscripts pages are often presented alone and out of context, fragmenting and skewing their historical narratives. My Eternal War Series is as much about “History being retold by the victor” as mythologies around war and martyrdom. The battlefield viewed through a sepia lens, showing the carnage, detritus, and horror of war. 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 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 EWS 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. Influenced by the 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.


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EWS #6: On Message, oil on panel, 12X132”, 2015
Ref: Many Headed Angel, From the Manuscript: “The Miraculous Journey of Mohammad”, (Miraj Nameh) ,1436

And what about As She Swallows Their Fate in that context?

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 Through Ingestion Grow Her Wings.

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As She Swallows Their Fate, oil on panel, 24X18”, 2015

You seem to focus on the female figure through distinct iconographic imagery since early on. In my mind your figures are deeply mysterious. It is challenging to translate a visual mystery into words, but I would say that these figures are both peacefully iconic and painfully urgent – creating a cognitive dissonance – alien and familiar, timeless and timely. What is your take on that?

My figures remain a mystery to me too. They emerge, they’re not applied. Your description: peacefully iconic and painfully urgent – alien and familiar, timeless and timely” is possibly the best understanding of what I try to do when making a piece of work, whether it’s painting or sculpture. Timeless and timely are exactly the qualities that great works of art have – they suspend time, and that has been my aim, especially in reference to the Icon — not as a Holy relic, but an object which functions as a ‘heart opener’. The Icon’s dual function is to show and relieve suffering for the viewer. 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.

The motifs taken from sacred iconography of many denominations, have helped me to build a language. The language of the sacred art, such as Icons, is better at conveying the metaphorical and metaphysical aspects of being human because figures are more readily identifiable as archetypes rather than individuals. The figures in my work are not me, but rather “the archetypal self”, which combines autobiographical, cultural, psychological, and biochemical aspects in which events and narratives become incorporated into the body or fragment it.

Another foundational pictorial device is the use of shallow or flattened space, rather than employing perspectival space, the figure is in our ‘psychic space’ rather than inside the painting, which also implies the suspension of time; now and always.

In Dante’s Inferno figures are ‘contorted according to their sin.’ This implies that figures embody their psychological states; physical states mirror psychological dilemmas. This is the key to my approach to the figure. My discovery of pre-Renaissance art fostered a love of the religious art of that period, which led me to the sacred art of all the major religions. Religious imagery gave me visual clues for a way into the spiritual state. The main figures are often represented as many selves, or many aspects of one self. This idea came through 14th century hagiographies, where the figure of the saint appears many times, charting his journey in the landscape or on a pilgrimage. I have used this idea of multiples of ‘the Self’ to express psychodynamic realities of the human figure.

Do you see your iconographic vocabulary as a tool for discovering an unknown or uncovering the hidden?

I use my vocabulary to both discover the unknown and uncover the hidden. I try on different motifs, image fragments, colors, compositional devices until I find the truth of my current state. It’s as though I have a million puzzle pieces in my vocabulary box, any number of combinations will hit the mark to tell me the truth of that figure. I’m not inventing the wheel. If the wheel were the whole of art history, I’m jumping on and off to borrow and make new combinations.

You started as a painter and then sculpture entered. How do you see the relationship between your two and three-dimensional work, for example in your London exhibition Love and Ammunition at Rossi & Rossi?

I have always made sculpture. Starting in my first year at art school, shrunken head, my first piece was made of a carved avocado stone and some hair. I now see it as a response to my first sighting of an Ecuadorian shrunken head at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. I didn’t really consider my 3d works as ‘Sculpture’ at this time and it took many years before I took them seriously enough to call them that. It feels like the sculptures come from a deeper place than the paintings, as though they were excavated from historical places. I often say that I make sculpture because I don’t know how to, but I do know how to make paintings, where I can lie and cover up what I don’t want to be seen. Objects are more uncompromising. Over the years I have come up with ways of presenting the sculptures in pairs or groups to create narratives.

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”Archetypes and their Specters” Sculpture Cabinet of various characters, Wave Hill show 2017, “Outcasts: Women in the Wilderness”

That exhibition at Rossi & Rossi also included drawings. Tell me a bit about your drawing process and how they relate to your paintings.

The drawings came about through playing around with an overhead projector — the old-fashioned kind, which uses transparency sheets. I would photocopy sketchbook drawings, borrowed images and textile designs from my collection of art books onto transparent paper. The OHP lends itself to the mirror image, as by flipping the transparency, you get its perfect opposite, as well as allowing easy enlargement of small fragments. This process started with drawings and then I used it to make larger paintings. The drawings informed the paintings and vice versa. I also incorporated images of my sculpture through this method. Images of the sculptures make appearances as mythological creatures interacting with the figures in the paintings/ drawings.

You evidently dont shy away in your art from subjects like suffering and pain. What would you like to share on Weeping Wall, Dept of Nuclear Medicine?

My work can be described as autobiographical, perhaps even confessional. I make appearances as avatars that evoke archetypes from various traditions, and the titles of my paintings hint at their struggles. Through the archetypal central figure, I try to depict myself from the inside out, starting with how it feels to be me — how it feels to be human. By fusing together disparate languages, conventions and myths, I am seeking an iconography of hybridism, where the underlying common threads can be found.

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Sculpture Installation: Weeping Wall (How Do I Look?)”, Death Mask with eyes, Wood, metal, plastic, cotton, rubber  12X34X2”, 2017, Wave Hill 
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Dept of Nuclear medicine: Surgery, charcoal on paper, 44X30”, 2014

Overall, you have been developing a visual vocabulary which gives your work a distinct sense. We can see in your work recurrent fixed compositional parameters which can read as rules of sorts. It seems to me that throughout your artwork you have been exploring the space within these boundaries, going deeper and deeper and finding what appears to be endless possibilities within a seemingly limited domain. What is your take on that observation and where do you see your work going in that context?

“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.

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. 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. In time, the meaning of the work starts to emerge like a dream, which seems obvious and familiar, yet still defies prescribed definitions.

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Love And Ammunition #1, oil on Gesso Panel, 48X36”, 2014

All photo courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise indicated

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: