Samira Abbassy has made two big moves in her life: the first at the age of two, when her parents emigrated from Iran to Britain; the second, three decades later, when she moved to New York City. An Arab-Iranian artist with a British passport and twin half-American children, Abbassy knows the term “expatriate” doesn’t quite capture the complexity of her situation or how she came to be living in Manhattan’s Theater District and exhibiting her work around the world.
Abbassy has lived in New York City since 1998, when she moved there with her then-husband to create the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, a non-profit organisation that provides artists with resources and space to work. “I met my husband in 1989,” she says. “I’d only just left art school, and I was literally living in my studio and bathing in a bucket. My plight informed his dream of the foundation.”
Having acquired the space needed, a 12-storey former garment factory a stone’s throw from Times Square, the two began the long process of gutting and converting it into artists’ studios. Now the studios’ artist services manager and a member of the board, Abbassy looks back at the path that brought her here. And it’s a long one.
Abbassy’s father was the second of 17 sons born to the family patriarch in Ahwaz, Iran, resulting in filial pressures, she says, of “Biblical” proportions. He moved his wife and two young daughters to Tonbridge, Kent, where he established his own business as a mechanic. As ethnic Arabs in predominantly Persian Iran, the family knew what it was to not quite belong. But, Abbassy says, nothing was as isolating as growing up in Tonbridge. “I think we were the only other non-white family apart from the owners of the Chinese restaurant.”
Constantly exploring themes of displacement and what she calls “duelling cultures” in her paintings, drawings and sculptures, Abbassy has mined her childhood, her imagination, and her parents’ experiences as immigrants in the 1960s to understand her roots. Armed with the knowledge of her parents’ struggle, adapting to life in the US has been relatively easy. “They don’t have decent tea here but that’s a minor problem,” she says. “And today, with Skype or phone or email, there isn’t that huge gulf between my family in England and me. My parents’ transition was much harder. I was instantly plugged in with a reason to be in New York, unlike, for example, my mother. I feel privileged. I feel lucky every day.”
Abbassy has much to be thankful for. In a city notorious for its punishingly high cost of living and relentless competition, particularly in the arts, Abbassy has a studio to work in, an ever-expanding stream of professional opportunities, and a home in an increasingly fashionable – and pricey – neighbourhood. She and her twin son and daughter live in a two-bedroom railroad apartment on the ground floor of a five storey walk-up in Clinton, also known as Hell’s Kitchen, a 10-minute walk from Central Park. The area, which Abbassy refers to as “the new Chelsea,” is perennially flocked by tourists drawn to its wide array of cultural diversions, and boasts world-renowned bars and restaurants, theatre and dance venues, and museums. “I don’t know why it was inexpensive to begin with,” she says, noting that local buildings have been dramatically renovated, one by one, over the past few years.
Perhaps because her days as a struggling young artist are still fresh in her memory, Abbassy remains attuned to the cost of being a working artist in New York City. Though her paintings have sold for as much as $20,000 and the British Museum houses one of the charcoal drawings from her “Chemical Hysterical” series, Abbassy has a pragmatic way of viewing her line of work. “You can’t pay a mortgage with what you make from art because it’s not regular,” she says, “but I’m beginning to have people write to ask me what I have available. It’s like any business – you’re selling shares. Every time one of your pieces is put in a museum collection, your stock goes up.”
So do the perks that accompany rising prominence in the art world: since 2006, Abbassy has earned a Yaddo fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, a Joan Mitchell Painting and Sculpture Award, and a stint as artist-in-residence at the University of Virginia. She recently spent the summer at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild where she is afforded the ultimate luxury for an artist: time and space to work uninterrupted in picturesque surroundings. “I’m being paid to be me,” she says, “which is great.”
In spite of her hard-won success, day-to-day life in Manhattan has not been without its challenges. A big sigh of relief escapes Abbassy when she talks about her children, now 12, no longer being babies. “Imagine getting a double stroller on a bus, or down flights of stairs to the subway, or in the local bodega, since I don’t have any real supermarkets nearby. There’s a lot of hauling and lugging if you don’t have a car.” And though she misses certain things about England, Abbassy has no intention of returning to live there. “Going home to England is like visiting a soggy old aunt, familiar and cantankerous,” she says. “New York teaches you to think on your feet constantly. Just living here, let alone making art, is a battle. But it’s where I feel most at home.”
● Space is condensed, so everything is close and accessible
● Access to some of the greatest art collections in the world
● Lots of excellent restaurants serving every sort of ethnic food
● You feel a bit paralysed by how many choices there are of places to go and things to do, a downside of the city’s density
● Extremely high standards in the art world can make you feel as though you’ll never be up there with the great artists who surround you
● There are few decent supermarkets
What you can buy for ...
$100,000 A recently renovated studio apartment in a co-op in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, a 30-minute walk from the nearest subway stop
$1m A two-bedroom apartment in a prewar co-op on the Upper East Side, with skyline views and a 24-hour concierge