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Through the Eye of the Hurricane

Jacky Sawalha
October 2023

The Gallery staff were keen to get their hands on the packages lined up against the wall to unveil their mystery that took three years in the making.  However, preparing for an art exhibition is never a pleasant experience, especially for Samer Tabbaa.  We would call him a sculptor but he likes to think of himself as a three-dimensional artist and it’s easy to see why.  “Art is a private experience,” he says as we gently unwrap the first exhibit, a wooden carving, untitled, and Samer relaxes again.  His quiet, calm and gentle demeanour conveys a sense of inner peace at work.  But that’s deceptive.  Describing his love of traveling by plane, he will always sit next to the window to absorb the spectacular views, despite the protestations of his daughters.  “I love craters and the way they break the smooth surface of the earth – an explosion surrounded by serenity; maybe it reflects me,” he muses, “I am not serene, despite what people may think.”


On the opening night of the exhibition at the 4 Walls Gallery, someone wrote in the guestbook, “Good to see art that pushes beyond the boundaries, especially Jordanian.”  And that is exactly what he has been doing since his romance with wood, stone and metal began in 1972. His avant-garde approach since then has produced tantalizing and important works of abstract art that have received international acclaim, and are gradually appealing to a skeptical Arab public.


Born in Taif in 1945, his memories of a simple childhood spent in a mud brick house passing the time admiring the sand dunes at sunset remain a lingering image.  “I didn’t realize at the time but the serenity and beauty of the desert seeps into the soul and is very peaceful.”  Leaving Saudi Arabia for Syria where his father continued his medical practice, he was captivated by the culture of Damascus that he believes was one of the world’s most beautiful cities of the sixties.  His nascent artistic intuition was thus taking shape and would burst onto the stage almost by accident.


Switching from business administration to sociology and anthropology he graduated from Youngstown State University of Ohio in 1973 and found himself taking an art course while working as a social worker.  Within time he had enrolled at the Kent State University where a professor of art philosophy, Ira Matteson, would nurture his untapped talent.  It was only then that he began to discover himself.  Art took over his life and that good old cliché of ‘weird artist’ drove a wedge between him and his family and friends, much like the wooden dowel used by the Ancient Egyptians to crack granite.  Graduating with a master of fine arts, majoring in sculpture, his work began to fuse the best of East and West taking inspiration directly from nature and his rich cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years, when sculpture was an art form revered by the civilizations of the Ancient World.  “Something completely unrelated can trigger my imagination, like a walk in the desert or a Babylonian ziggurat,”


It takes an artist’s eye and perseverance to scour the landscape at home and abroad for that inspiring piece of driftwood or discarded chunk of green marble that will eventually become works of art that will elicit much excitement.  These missions of discovery whether trekking to Thailand for that elusive gold leaf, befriending monks in saffron robes along the way, or seeking out colour pigments in the souks of Aleppo to create his own special hues of blue, all add to the mystery of his sculptures that, to his daughter Nahla, are her pride and joy.


His studio in the basement of his home retains the image of creative genius at work amongst the chaotic clouds of dust, scrap metal, industrial machinery and often-dangerous toxic materials.  But whether it’s molten lead or heavy industrial tools such as electric saws, axes, hammers or chisels, he wields his tools of the trade as easy as an artist coaxes paint onto canvas.  “Textures created by machine have a mystery and a calligraphy uniquely their own” Samer believes and therein, perhaps, lies the essence of what Samer’s sculpture is all about:  art in its raw yet uniquely beautiful form and an extension of mother nature.   Take for example his work on the second circle of Jebel Amman.  Commissioned in 1987 on the occasion of the late King Hussein’s 50th birthday, these monuments represent the wheel of progress combined with an elegant waterfall that represents the power of water to run industry, a uniquely Jordanian identity.  This labour of love has been neglected by the Municipality of Amman ever since.  The small slate bricks of the fountain were carefully chiseled by hand from 5am every morning on site.  Its neglect is symbolic of the systematic destruction of downtown Amman.  “We are loosing our national heritage!” he says with a heavy heart.  “How else do you want your children to relate to you as a person if it’s not there anymore?”


His recent work has taken a new turn, working in corrugated alluminium that was tenderly created in a sandblasting factory on the outskirts of Qweismeh.  Samer enjoyed the contrast of creating art in the middle of curious industrial workers who thought he was making doormats for cleaning muddy shoes!  And another contrast is that a private collector purchased a similar piece that will be hung at the engineering department of the prestigious Brown University of America.


Yet his work has stimulated a cultural dialogue from America to Sweden and on to Spain where he spent three years working alongside Feliciano Hernandez, almost in silence, as neither of them spoke their respective languages and yet he produced some of his most striking work. “I want the viewer to look at a piece, not at the title, as this leaves me free to experiment.  I love accidents in my work,” which is why the majority of his work remains untitled, free to stimulate thought.  That freedom may be confusing to some Arab viewers who seek meaning to creativity, and walk away wanting; Samer believes art is in the eye of the beholder, simply because “I haven’t figured them out yet, so how can they!”.


Note:  Exhibition of Samer Tabbaa’s works of sculptures reliefs and etchings continues through 16 October 2003.