Peter Lewis explores the different styles of two contemporary ceramists in Jordan, Hazem Al Zubi and Mahmud Taha.
During a recent visit to Jordan funded by Welsh Arts International I had the opportunity to visit and talk to two of Jordan’s leading ceramists, both living and working in Amman. I noted some similar aspects to their work in terms of format and content, but these were fleeting observations. After spending some time in conversation with them it was clear that their starting points were quite different.
Taha alluded to the fact that he was born in Jaffa, this explained images in his work that related to the Palestinian/Israeli issue. Through displacement, forced or otherwise this topic was touched on in several pieces of his work. Conversely Al Zubi was born in Jordan in a small village (Harima), about 50 miles from the capital. Growing up in this small village Al Zubi’s senses would have been subject to the colours, aromas, and decoration that permeates Arab life.
In each case personal experience has manifested itself in the ceramic art produced.
Hazem Al Zubi
Al Zubi has a workshop and studio separated by a piece of open ground. The workshop employs about three people, throwing, carving and preparing greenware for bisque firing. His studio is more a display come ideas area where Al Zubi spends time planning his next piece. Completed pieces exist next to work in progress.
Here there is a sense of the artisan producing “one off” individual items. Nearby one hears the bustling workshop where employees make sure orders get off on time.
Al Zubi has set a balance that allows him time to carry on with his sculptural relief panels, whilst his workshop ticks along with items of a more domestic nature. The decorative relief panels, he acknowledges, is the work he is most recognised for. Large in scale and richly treated on the surface they do attract attention from the viewer. There are many visual elements working together, on further investigation there is a suggestion of Arabic script, but fragmented and unreadable. Other images are embroidered into the design, traditional symbols drawn from Bedouin decoration.
Some surfaces evoke a sense of primitive cave markings; others define shapes through the use of a mosaic treatment alluding to biblical times. This early narrative can be found in many parts of Jordan, especially in Madaba to the north where mosaic floors dating back to the early part of the 1st Century can be found. They depict animals, figures and record maps of the Holy Land.
Al Zubi combines glass, stoneware and earthenware glazes on the surface of his panels. The imagery is divided up further by inventive use of format, intersecting lines and edges are created on most pieces suggesting thoughtful pre-planning.
He considers himself to be an artist ready to explore other areas and introduce any materials that may be appropriate. It was interesting to see this range of ongoing sculptural work in his studio. The more I looked the more I became fascinated with the different materials and processes he used. It was refreshing to see someone moving effortlessly, between commercial product and sculptural concern.
Al Zubi is also a lecturer in Jordan University’s Faculty of Art & Design. To view a comprehensive range of his work visit, www.alzubi.com
For more than thirty years Taha has used clay as a means of expression. He believes that artists have a role especially in the Arabic world to portray difficulties and concerns, especially at a time when events in that region have taken centre stage.
Resident in Jordan but originally from Jaffa his relationship with that town is still tangible in his mind, although he is physically separated from it.
Taha’s work reflects a certain melancholy, particularly those pieces made during and subsequent to the first “Intifada”. Anonymous figures emerge in groups from the surface, mysterious and unknown. They are framed by torn edged relief that continues to the extremities of the piece.
Some of these works can be grouped together. They reflect a theme of mystified figures (and expressionless faces) that have become statistical information somehow forgotten people. The etched, coarse surfaces reinforce this sense of a destroyed environment that surrounds the figures. Light relief comes from the contrasting Arabic script, calligraphic embellishment being a potent art form in the Middle East. The letterforms lend themselves naturally to decorative treatment.
Taha returns to the figure, two often being seen in close proximity. I enquire “Is it important that the viewer should understand your intention or meaning behind any piece?”
Taha responds “some people will draw there own conclusions, the two figures represent a mother and son, there are not many Palestinian mothers who have not lost a son or know of others that have, in these years of conflict.”
These emotions are often revisited in his work without need for overt political rhetoric. Not all of his work reflects these concerns however and some are purely decorative explorations of surface, combining Arabic text and geometric pattern.
Taha’s workshop and studio occupy the ground floor of his house, it is open plan and spacious. This allows him to use part of the area for exhibition purposes. To the rear of the building he has built himself a gas kiln. Remarkably he has used locally sourced materials adapting them for his needs.
Most of his ceramics are fired to stoneware temperatures; the clay is heavily grogged with additives to prevent warping. He is a keen observer of ceramics worldwide and recognised as one of Jordan’s leading practitioners.
Peter Lewis is a senior lecturer in Ceramics at Bolton Institute, his research practice has led him to travel widely in the Middle East. More information can be found at www.peterlewis-ceramics.com