Iranian born New York based Samira Abbassy’s solo exhibition Conflicting Narratives: Series of Eternal War at B2OA Gallery, New York, evokes a host of contrarian responses that best sum up her work. The four series of surreal but lyrical, understated yet pungent, paintings on small square panels retell stories of war in the Middle East from prior centuries to the present.
Using sepia toned oil paint on white gesso panels Abbassy recreates images of battlefields inspired by Persian and Arabic miniature painting. Beheadings, horseback fighting, shields, tanks, guns, underground tunnels, and helicopters recall war from time immemorial to current strife while pointing towards its futility, tragedy, and isolation.
Abbassy’s spare iconography of plain figures in combat is influenced by Goya’s etchings from the Disasters of War series (1810 – 1820), and the 11th century epic poem Shahnameh, by the Iranian poet Ferdowsi. Contained in separate groupings, the series progress from horses and riders, to shields, swords, and armors, and then to machine guns, tanks, and drone aircrafts. In the twelve panel series Endless War, 2008, minimal forms of a decapitated head on a vast lonely field, and a horse weighed down by its slain master conjure the devastation and turmoil of war. The power of these understated yet potent figurations also emerges from the silhouette of tankers visible behind a decomposed body, and a smoking helicopter about to crash in the eleven panel series Eternal War: Fourth Circle: Mujahedin, 2010, that re-imagine contemporary wars in the Middle East.
Abbassy creates opaque holes in the imagery in which the boundary between what is real, invented, or imagined is never clear. In one of the panels of Eternal War: Third Circle: The Taliban, 2009, large swaths of negative space around the smudged sepia toned figures of a prone body, a member of the Taliban, and smoke in the background generates a dreamlike image that suggests skullduggery, death, and depredation. Abbassy uses negative space in all her panels to buoy the action and create a surreal experience around the suspended forms. But most importantly, her deft combination of negative space with antiquated looking panels whether they are of horses galloping with headless riders, or phallic shaped bombs dropping on a city from a fighter jet effectively devises enough distance from the action that allows viewers to develop their own narratives.
A fragmented overview of history from “The Battle of Karballa,” which was the first great battle of Islam, to current violence and terror in the region also propels the tradition of inventive story telling. The timeless aspect of the work bound with Abbassy’s layered and deliberately unpolished imagery that recalls homemade rockets and beheadings make the paintings crucially relevant today.
Ultimately, each panel formulates a deconstructed tale. Its small scale combined with historically based images and overlay of personal mythologies coalesce in these intensely process based paintings. In keeping with her belief that “the story of history can be retold and mistold,” Abbassy had originally intended for the panels to be randomly rearranged by viewers. Yet regardless of the arrangement of the panels, a lyrical quality that seems at odds with the violent imagery withholds meaning as much as it reveals and further attests to the mystery and power of her work.
Conflicting Narratives: Series of Eternal War at B2OA Gallery
September 11 – October 4, 2014
515 west 26th street
new york, new york, 10001
Article by Bansie Vasvani
Photography provided by Andrew Blaize Bovasso, B2OA