Ola Abdallah was born in Aleppo (Syria) in 1978, she spent her childhood in Paris and then moved back to Syria where she began in 1996 her artistic studies in the Fine Arts Faculty of Damascus completed in 2000.
In 1998 she visited and worked in the ateliers of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts of Paris.
Finishing her studies in Syria, she moved back to Paris in 2001 and went to the Arts Plastiques department of the University of Paris 8 where she studied theory of art and earned a PhD on her thesis about the French artist Aurélie Nemours in 2008.
Ola Abdallah carries on her painting work in parallel to her theoretical study; her work is a continuity of her Syrian beginnings. It is the Syrian light seen as landscape that helped her realize her desire of becoming a painter but also the observation of the meticulous and beautiful work of craftsmen.
In Europe, the museums, the shows and the meetings with other artists coming from all around the world broaden her horizon. Proposing now an abstract painting style focused on color and space, Ola Abdallah lives and works in Paris.
Interview by Guyonne De Montjou
You are a painter and syrian…
Yes, I was born in Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, 31 years ago. A few months after I was born, my father received a scholarship to do his PHD in Paris, and so we moved to France and lived there for 7 years. While my father was studying the ancient languages of Mesopotamia, my mother decided to study psychoanalysis and I was storing impressions of Paris in my mind. It was during this period that my brother was born. When I was 8 we moved back to Syria, to Damascus…and there, I remember, it was very disturbing for me… the lifestyle was completely different from Paris.
You felt at this time that you were exiled in your own country?
At 8 years old, I understood that I had jumped back in time. I remember, a few days after we arrived we went to the souks of Damascus and I was “pushed over” by a donkey! From this point on, I began to reject the oriental way of living, until I became a teenager, that is when I began to understand the culture and the environment that I lived in and I found myself finally embracing the culture.
Where did your “oriental birth” begin?
When I discovered the history and the beauty of the archeological sites of the country. I realized the extraordinary origins of people of the Middle East, so brilliant, so intimately connected to the human soul. Then there is the light, I was very sensitive to the atmosphere that creates these particular lights.
How was your life at home?
Our home was very much open to the world and to other cultures, everyone was welcome, at any time, cousins, friends, students, artists from all horizons…they were all attracted by the freedom of mind that my parents provided: my mother was the first woman psychoanalyst of the country. She ran an office in the back of our apartment. It was her desire to aid in the development of her country by helping to change the minds and souls of its people.
When did you start painting?
I was introduced to painting, drawing, material, and everything that is in fact creating, from sewing to embroidery from my mother who was very inventive: she was always doing something with her hands, whether it was knitting or peeling carrots! So when I was young, I took to pencils and brushes! It seemed natural and both my parents encouraged my artistic development.
What are you looking for when you paint?
The right color and balance of space. I think that the Syrian light had an influence on my color work. You can find all types of light . Sometimes very somber and sometimes very intense and bright, it depends on the time of day, but my favorite time is around 6 in the afternoon. The time of the mysterious veil!
What are the major colors of this Middle East?
The main colors are ocre, brown, and gold. The material is either desert sand or water. The Mediterranean coast in northern Syria is flamboyant with fields of wheat and cotton and florescent green in spring, the houses of terracotta brown and the sky and the sea are blue. The landscape is very pure and then suddenly a woman farmer appears wearing shimmering tones; fuchsia, red, yellow and pink and then there is a new landscape to take in.
Your painting is abstract, but we can guess some women farmer’s dresses in it…
I draw the lines by hand and then add the shimmering colors inside them, which is what you are seeing. I started painting in oil, ink, watercolor, acrylic, and pastels then gradually, as the smell of the turpentine and oils were too strong to live with (I was using my room as a studio) I chose materials mixed only with water, I now work exclusively with inks and pigments mixed with an odorless adhesive.
You work a lot with pigments and inks, why did you do this choice?
Because it is one that fits best with my preferred paper. Rice paper mounted on wood. It gives depth to the rhythm of the brush and lines that I draw freehand, controlling my movements. This technique allows me to work on transparency and space. In contrast, when it comes to the colors, I have mastered nothing. First I create a primary form with pigments and glues which gives me an opaque surface then with a similar ink color I draw around this form, the inks and pigments react in a chemical way that is unpredictable and creates some new mixes, it is always a fascinating moment for me during my work. It is only after this moment that I begun to work with lines and transparency that colored inks offer. What I search for most during my work is the unity of the painting.
Which artists most inspired you?
Everyone must have someone they admire… I was really inspired by Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, and Delaunay. These are the artists that I became familiar with through the books I had in Syria. At 20, I came to Paris during my second year at the Damascus Fine Arts Academy. It was a chance for me to visit the museums and discover a new range of artists as well as to see the original works of my greatest influence. After visiting the museums in Paris, I realized that I had to go to New York and explore as well. It was important for me to see the original works, rather than in books and replicas, to help me to develop my own opinions and insights about what I saw.
At the moment you live in Paris, do you plan to settle there for good?
I can’t say it is forever, but I’ve lived in Paris since 2001 and last year I married a Frenchman. But the world is vast and we’re both flexible, we can move anywhere. I’ve just finished my PhD about the French artist Aurélie Nemours whom I discovered during my theoretical studies on art: the main focus of my study was how a simple form like a square can support an unlimited variation of colors as well as many different abstract art creations.
Do you think that your work could be interpreted as political?
I’m completely apolitical; there aren’t any political messages in my painting. I show them where I’m invited; it’s only my affective relations that guide my choices. In my work there is a certain form of spirituality, lots of meditation. A lot of thinking before I even begin to touch my canvas, because I know, using this material: inks, I can’t erase, but I accept mistakes because I know that I can indefinitely start again with a new painting, you know in the end It’s only a white surface! Painting for me is an act of joy.