Nada Awar, Canvas Magazine, November/December 2006
Samer Tabbaa remembers the deserts of Riyadh where he spent the first six years of his life. It was serene and beautiful. He says. Empty of sound and never-ending. These are the qualities that most accurately describe the Jordanian artist’s work. Like the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia. His pieces are unassuming yet possess a striking presence and an abstract quality that is breathtakingly real.
Every sculpture created by Samer Tabbaa possesses a form all of its own yet one that is uniformly pristine. Whether in marble, wood, limestone, sandstone, iron tar, graphite, and aluminium, among other materials, they seem untouched by human hand. However, take a closer look at the grain, the natural texture and the visual landscape of each work, and you will uncover Tabbaa’s spirit; for he is definitely present not so much in the background but as an essential part of the object itself.
He tells me the story of a piece he made as a student in the US during the late 1970s. It began life as a slab of West Virginian coal that a friend gave him and which he admired in its natural form for some time before understanding exactly what he could do with it. ‘One day I saw someone running a plough through a field. I realized then that the empty lanes left behind by the plough were just as important as the lanes in which they planted the seeds. This idea inspired me to work.’ The result was a sculpture that was alternately smooth and rough in texture, unevenly lined yet harmonious, and in which the most outstanding feature was the coal itself-shimmering, hard, black and beautiful.
The same is true of another piece executed in dark grey marble entitled ‘Rain Pockets’. Tabbaa says he noticed the piece of marble in an art studio at university. Later, he saw the finished sculpture in a dream-a vision that when he awoke he knew he must make real. ‘I am inspired by nature.’ He explains. ‘In fact, it is my main source of inspiration and it takes me a long time to digest it. I look at nature. I walk in it and contemplate it. After a while it goes deep inside me and comes out through the work I do.’
A professor of philosophy who saw Tabbaa’s work on show at Kent State University in Ohio eloquently described the artist’s humility when confronted with materials that clearly had their own story to tell. ‘Here was an artist who not only had sacrificed or undermined, but had positively dismissed figurative expression and formal articulation and visible values for the sake of the elemental power and primordial association of stone’, wrote Dr Nineos Georgopoulos. ‘He seemed to thrive not on his ideas but on the stone’s resistance to them. His marks and carvings recorded his struggle with a material more telling and more potent than he.’
Tabbaa believes that a sculptor’s approach must be that of one who is willing to conduct a dialogue with the marble: to listen carefully and to carry on creatively from there. ‘A lot of my work is a reaction to what is already there in the material.’ He says. ‘I try to impose as little as I can on it because a block of stone, for example, has infinite knowledge inside it. I respect the material but I also want to inject my own ideas in it. I don’t like to smooth the nature texture of the material down because then it’s as if you’re erasing away everything it stands for and simply creating a blank page.’
More recently, the artist has been working with less resistant materials such as pigments, graphite, lead and wood. He is also interested in paintings, or what he refers to as ‘two-dimensional sculptures’ in which he carves indentations, for example, or places pieces of wood onto sheets of rusted iron. He laughs and says he is not sure if this new approach is because, as he gets older, working with the larger, more challenging pieces has become too difficult, or because this is the direction his art is naturally going. In either case, Tabbaa believes his work has become more ‘conceptual’ as he looks for new ways in which to be artistically stimulated by the material he encounters.
Essential thing, he believes, is to always push beyond the boundaries put up by convection ‘it is important to be daring.’ He insists ‘If you are not prepared to rock the boat as an artist, then you might as well be dead.’
It is a convection that puts Tabbaa and his work somewhat out of sync in a part of the world where decorative tends to be the operative word for many collectors where a great deal of the art produced is weighed down by symbolism and where making a living exclusively from one’s work is almost impossible for many artists. He lives in Amman with his wife Dodi, an established artist, who understand his frustration when it comes to getting favorable responses to sculptures that are profoundly minimal and free from pretension ‘As far as I am concerned, the better my work is, the less of response I get.’ says Tabbaa ‘When I simplify a lot, people here tend to think that anyone can do it.’
At a recent solo show in Amman, the one piece that Tabbaa had initially hesitated in including because he felt it was too ornamental and not truly representative of his work was the piece that proved the most popular with the public. ‘If there are no hidden corners in the piece.’ he says, shaking his head. ‘If it’s easy to look at 4 become too confrontational.’ The Arab public in general Tabbaa continues like to think that they have understood a work rather than simply appreciate it for what it is. They want to tell a story. Tabbaa says. But stories can only be told with words.
It is difficult to believe that Tabbaa discovered art as late as he did. At 27 while studying for a degree in Sociology and Anthropology at Youngstown State university in Ohio. Up until then, he explains art had played no conscious part in his life. Like the work he will later produce, Tabbaa the artist appeared without warning when the young student decided to take an art class for the sake of doing something a little different. After the first art session, Tabbaa’s teacher told him he should take it up full time. That is exactly what he did eventually going a BA in fine arts and a masters degree in sculpture ‘When I first started it was like an explosion for me.’ He recalls. ‘I had no fear at all and was prepared to go wherever my art took me’ Tabbaa remained in US for 14 years. It was a period during which he completely immersed himself in art waking up in the morning to begin work and not stopping until late in the night. It also confirmed his convection in himself as an artist and in his drive to continue no matter what obstacles stood in his way.
On his return to Jordan in 1980. Tabbaa was appointed director of the newly-created Jordan National Gallery a post he remained in only for one year simply because he wanted to devote more time to his own work. After a chance meeting with the Spanish sculptor Feliciano Hemandez, Tabbaa decided to go to Madrid. He remained in Spain for three years sharing a studio with Hemandez learning Spanish and producing some of his finest works. When he finally returned to Jordan, Tabbaa promised himself that he would never leave the Arab world again. He felt that he should ‘physically’ belong somewhere years later he still considers himself neither exclusively from the East or the West. ‘I am from the both cultures I am Arab on the inside and I am Western on the outside but I would never attempt to depict my culture in an obvious way.’
On the day we meet, Tabbaa tells me he will be traveling to Malaysia soon to conduct a workshop at a university in Kuala Lampur where he will also be holding an exhibition. He cannot say exactly what will happen after that. He only knows that he will continue to devote himself entirely to his art. “I have never known where I was going with my art. In any case, I never thought I should be going in a particular direction. When you know the road you are traveling, it starts to get boring.”