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Syrian-Filipina Ceramist Tamara Al-Issa on Her Journey of Experimentation

Guided by nostalgia and tradition, Syrian-Filipina ceramist Tamara Al-Issa embarks on a journey of experimentation.

Photo: Mattea Marrese

Tamara “Solem” Al-Issa chooses to not allow oppression to define her work. She draws instead upon her childhood memories and nostalgia. “It is a conscious decision,” says the multidisciplinary Syrian-Filipina artist. “I do express my identity struggles and my diaspora in certain ways, but I lean more on imagery and creative reimagining of Syria,” she adds, working out of her airy, light-filled home studio in Toronto. January saw her solo show come to fruition – Deep Blue envisioned for the DesignTO design and art festival found a home at Cry Baby Gallery and featured a soundscape by sound designer Patrick Perez. Ahead of her immersive exhibition, she made a series of undulated vessels; and colored them ultramarine blue. The audioscape involved pouring water and speaking into the vases to create deep resonances. Today the ceramist is represented by Galerie Philia with her works now available on 1stDibs.

Comfort is a leitmotif in Al-Issa’s conversations. Sanctuary too. Born in Jeddah, she considers herself fortunate to have lived near the Red Sea. “I must have been five or six when I started free diving. My sanctuary, the sea, was a big part of my upbringing.” Syria, and her childhood, are fundamental to her creative process, providing a delightfully fantastical source of inspiration. The architecture of the Middle East and the south-west Asian and north African regions also inform her work. Rich colors, warm and earthy tones, and blue hues predominantly seen across Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, and Greece – all layer various subtexts of her craft.

Photo: Emily Trajkovski

Al-Issa, now 25, first delved into sculpting during a drop-in pottery class seven years ago. She taught herself the basics, while studying at the University of Toronto. When Covid hit, the science graduate chose to put aside her university degree. “With pottery being my comfort throughout my education, I decided to open my own studio,” says the founder of Solem Ceramics. Although devoid of formal training, which she admits brought its own challenges, she learned from a community of creatives. “I was able to choose my mentors, which helped me a lot,” she says. Last December, she participated at the Barro-Clay and Dialogues in Mexico City, curated by Sarah Len, founder and creative director of Materia Studio. “I was excited to be included in a group show with over 30 international artists,” says Al-Issa. She has always loved the pottery scene in Mexico and wanted to learn from the masters in Oaxaca and Guadalajara. Her exhibit, an amphora, served as a modern version of traditional pottery.

Clay, for Al-Issa, is a material that’s intuitive, communicative, and multidimensional; something she picked up the very first time she touched it. “Clay has a mind of its own. And that’s what I love most about working with materials that you have to respect.” Her approach is very free form. “I learned the traditional techniques of my ancestors, and before I even played with shapes or experimented with the material, I practiced a great deal,” says Al-Issa, who is moved by the works of American painter Cy Twombly and Spanish painter, sculptor, and ceramist Joan Miró.

Al-Issa’s range of wares is extensive, from small jars, tableware, and vases, to vessels, light sculptures, and three-meter-tall pieces

There is dynamism in her pottery. Al-Issa’s range of wares runs from small jars, tableware, and vases, to vessels, light sculptures, and three-meter-tall pieces: she uses techniques such as wheel throwing, hand and slab building to shape amorphous and organic pieces, while relying on coil building to create the larger sculptures. A distinct sense of rawness in her works sets her apart, as she continually explores the relationship between anatomy and material. Wanting to work with sculptures larger than herself, Al-Issa decided to try her hand at building with gypsum, which she knew is used to build natural houses in the Middle East and Mediterranean. “It is extremely different from clay even though it still comes from the earth.” This new body of work – observes Rachel Elliott, founder of Lio Projects – remains aligned with Al-Issa’s aesthetic, while simultaneously expanding on her style and process. “It requires a completely different type of gentleness than clay,” says the ceramic sculptor.

When not making pottery or firing products in the kiln, Al-Issa finds refuge in music. “I play the guitar and piano, and I write music but I’m not ready to let that be heard by people just yet. It’s a secret, a comfort that I return to.” Her studio companion and new feline friend Abbou gingerly walks around the objects. “Surprisingly, he has been quite respectful,” she says, chuckling. “He understands that if he breaks it, he has to buy it.”

Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

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