It makes sense that painter Soraya Abu Naba’a is interested in a colorful and curious form of anthropological abstraction: her father is Palestinian, her mother is Lebanese, and she herself was born in Melbourne, FL.
That she’s interested in art is also crystal clear when you realize it’s the family business – her grandmother (who grew up in Haiti) was an art dealer in the Dominican Republic, and her grandfather owned a gallery in the building where she lived.
And all of this exposure to art has paid off: Abu Naba’a is only 29, yet she’s exhibited her work at places such as Harvard, the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, and in places throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Caribbean.
Her career in painting is practically embedded into her DNA. “It was almost natural, the way I got into art,” she tells me. We’re sitting in the Gary Nader Art Center in Wynwood, surrounded by a number of Botero’s plump physiques, Stella’s sculptures, and a Kippenberger or two—and it turns out, this is her uncle’s impressive collection.
“It was a part of every event that I went to, except it wasn’t so much like an art event as it was like a family event. Every day when I got home from school, I had to go through the gallery to get up to the apartment.”
Abu Naba’a also studied art in those metro melting pots New York and Paris, and is now working between Miami and Santo Domingo. This pastiche of influence creeps into her paintings as biomorphic patterns, Caribbean hues, and semi-photorealistic figures, who themselves become patterns throughout her oeuvre.
Part of the allure of her work is how these cultural strands flow throughout her work without constraint. It’s not dialed into a single focus, and the disparate customs and aesthetics are allowed to combine and coagulate. As Abu Naba’a says, even though there is no calligraphy in her work, “People would say that they saw traces of my Arab descent because it seemed calligraphic. But that was unconscious. It was only after people started looking at the work and making their own interpretations, that I started making those connections”.
This is an artist consumed by process. Whereas others would more explicitly evoke their own cultural heritage, Abu Naba’a is preoccupied with method–so the result is an aesthetic of globalization, a reflection of a world that treads between abstraction and realism, and which conjoint histories and breaks down barriers between individual and collective memories.
She volleys to-and-from the poles of process and content, and the result is an unsettling as these post-everything global times. Yet, the work is elegant. Her interest in color, pattern and temporality is well developed, her skills in executing them to scale reflecting the skills of an artist with serious design chops and demanding eye. In other words, she’s making paintings that look good.
Of course, her every-day life abounds in the work. Her art has gone through periods like any committed artist experiences: first, the chemical patterns with a biological feel, which she got into because of her youthful habit of drawing circles over and over, then the introduction of figures, then back to the patterns, and now to a combination of the two. She’s had time to reflect on her worldliness, and the struggle between pure aesthetic and representation is being synthesized into a whole.
“When you see an abstract work, it’s up to your own interpretation. But when you see a figure, it forces you to think of something: to figure out that person… it helps you relate more. I had done only one painting with a figure when I was young, when I was 19, the I stopped. I came back to it 7 years after, and I realized that the figures were always in the back of my mind when I was doing the abstract work.”
The figures in Abu Naba’a’s paintings come from a range of backgrounds, and all are from her own life/lives in Santo Domingo, Miami, and elsewhere. She documents the humans she encounters with a mix of cultural analysis and classical painting: she invites them into her home, or goes into theirs, and takes photos.
She then uses the images to paint large-scale still lifes: Dominican women crossing the border into Haiti carrying everything they own, or a family sitting in the living room, a banal and beautiful moment. These freeze-frames of life are interposed onto abstract worlds, where cultures fuse and memory is collective.
However, no matter the attention paid to the research of her own life, and the methods of making selections, Abu Naba’a is ultimately interested in the way a painting looks. “It’s about the subject of the painting, but always, it’s more about attracting the eye. There are always combinations of both cold and warm colors together to make it pop.”