Meet Dr Ohan Balian, a Ceramic Artist.
Dr Ohan Balian at work in his studio.

Have you guys heard of the striking “Dome of the Rock” Mosque in Jerusalem? What about hand-decorated ceramic tiles? There is a very interesting relationship between art and science which will be explored further so make sure you check out the interview below!

I had the opportunity to meet an iconic Economist turned artist while designing one of his studios – Al Saadah Art Gallery located in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. He was more than happy to explain all the knowledge behind his work to me and was incredibly pleasant to work with. He explained that he has been designing spaces with hand-decorated ceramic tiles since he was a boy. Today, he vows to take the same path of his late mother, who was also an artist and had a famous exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute of Arts in Washington.

Ohan-balian-ceramic Artist-happiness
Serving Tray, Known to be popular among tourists.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr Ohan Balian:

1. Why don’t you start by telling me the history of Al Saadah?

“Saadah” means happiness in Arabic and that’s exactly what my tiles signify. Al Saadah Art Gallery is an offshoot of our original business which is based in Jerusalem. It’s called the “Palestinian Pottery”, established by my grandparents in 1922 when they were brought from Turkey to renovate the towers of the Dome of the Rock Mosque. My grandparent’s contribution is the sole reason our arts have originated from Jerusalem. 

2. What inspires your art?

My mother. She was of French origin and she worked right until her late 80s. At first, she was focused more on traditional designs such as geometric Islamic designs and traditional Armenian works. After she arrived here (U.A.E) in the 70s, she decided to incorporate more flowers and different animals in her paintings. She had a very famous exhibition in 1994 called “Flowers of Paradise” in Washington at the Smithsonian Institute. The flowers she introduced inspired me and her influence can still be seen in my artworks. 

3. Is there any specific artwork you’re most proud of?

In art, certain colours can’t easily be mixed because they have different temperatures. So, you have to mix one first and then wait a day or two before mixing the other one. That’s a very long, tedious process for an artist. I am particularly proud of an artwork I did many years ago, where I successfully mixed two colours of different temperatures and applied it onto my ceramics. You need years of experience to be able to do that without cracking the glaze and many artists have tried to copy what I did but have never succeeded.

4. What’s an average workday at the studio like?

Well, it depends on my mood, what I have seen, or dreamt about. I bring in workers based on specific designs on the ground and I train and explain to them the significance of the design we are working on, how I came up with it, and why it has to be in specific colours. I have to prepare a new glaze every day but I don’t have any set formula because I like to eyeball it and measure it with my hand. At a certain point during production, we allow the design work to get dried which is also known as glazing. It usually takes us up to 4 days to finish and start on a new project.

5. What do you like the most about being an artist? 

It is the freedom and meditation I put into my artistic work. It allows me to attach some significance, historical significance, in the designs from my own experience. The Goldfinch, a word I used often when I was a young boy, is a popular design that represents my freedom and history.  

6. Can you describe the style of your art?

The style of my art is unique because it goes beyond the arts. I have always been fascinated and intrigued by the relationship between science and art. I even gave a lecture about this at the University of California, which was well received by the audience and the professors. As an artist, I have always been incorporating this unique relationship between the arts and the sciences into my design works. Measuring the right amount and texture of colours, including colour labelling, all come from science.  There is also some economics (because I have my Bachelor of Arts in economics) in my designs which is not very obvious.

7. What are the most important tools you use for your painting?

The most important tools I use are brushes and colours. I try to make my brushes, and they have to be made from natural animal hairs. The best type of hair for brushes are from donkeys because it’s stiff and fine. Horse’s hair will not do.

These days, you have different types of brushes. Since some are not good enough for painting, I like to customize my brushes for personal use.

8. What is the best advice you can give to the next generation?

The best advice I would give is to be patient in business. Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. There will be a lot of failures and that’s when you learn. In all, never give up in business because eventually, people will come around and appreciate your hard work.

Al Saadah Art gallery- U.A.E- Ceramic Artist- DrOhan
Over view of the Art studio.
Al Saadah Art gallery- U.A.E- Ceramic Artist- DrOhan
Hand painted Tile panels.
Al Saadah Art gallery- U.A.E- Ceramic Artist- DrOhan
Single panel tiles and custom designs are popular as souvenirs.

Dr Ohan and his family have been practising this unique art for over three generations. To continue their legacy, he frequently conducts workshops, exhibitions and seminars in the city. Make sure to visit his website here to purchase his extraordinary artistic tiles and souvenirs.

Images courtesy of  The Souk at Qaryat Al Beri 

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