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Tiles for Smiles


 Looking for unique gifts to take home, art for your walls, or would you like try your hand at an ancient art passed on by a master! Drop by Al Saadah Art Gallery and do all that in one go!

“Al Saadah means happiness in Arabic, and happiness is what my tiles have always been about,” Ohan Balian broadly smiles. He truly means that when he says it.

Nestled in the dimly lit Arabesque alcove on the second floor of the Souk Qaryat Al Beri, a visit to Al Saadah is a colourful window into a eminent artistic past. Or, perhaps it is an art history vortex where you can’t help but succumb to listening to owner Ohan Balian’s family’s lengthy history making tiles and his own personal intoxicating story. You may see visions of these beautiful tiles all around your homes and then make plans to design your own. This may sound surreal, but it’s a very normal experience in Al Saadah Art gallery.

The economist turned artist’s enthusiasm for his work is literally written all over the walls. Ohan guides visitors to his shop around each and every tile and explains the history and meaning of each design. Most have a personal story attached.

Ancient Designs Rooted in Ancient Practices

Ohan points to a particularly colourful tile design, “This one, you see its rich cobalt blue colour? It took our family so many attempts to get this to beautiful blue. I had to play with the chemistry to get this colour.”

“And, this one,” Ohan smiles. “This was my mother’s first design, when she veered away from traditional patterns and began painting animals and flowers—this became our signature designs, though we do still paint the geometric patterns too. In a way, each tile on the walls and shelves tells a story about the Balian family.” And the tiles have a long history to tell.

Ohan’s tile studio still abides by the same techniques used by his family for hundreds of years. He adds, “we still use the same organic compounds to achieve these rich colours as well as the same glazes that have been available since the time of the Egyptians—it’s quite amazing how little has changed with the materials.”

What has changed, of course, is the firing process. “My family used a wood-fired kiln until the 1950s. You can only imagine how modern diesel and now gas-fueled kilns changed this aspect of tile-making. We no longer had to tend to the fire to achieve an even temperature, which left us with more time to experiment with our designs and hone our craft.”

An Artful Expansion

When asked what’s next for the Balian family tiles and the Al Saadah Tile Gallery, Ohan nods quickly as if he’s been waiting for this question. My dream is have a gallery on Happiness Island (aka Saadiyat Island), the new hub of art and creativity. Watch this space. If he’s anywhere near as good at predicting smiles as he is economies, Ohan’s artistic star is sure to rise.

Anyone can visit Ohan’s studio to try their hand at this ancient practice. It’s not as easy as it looks, so you will be grateful that there is an attendant at hand to guide you through the process. Ohan’s workshsop’s also make great birthday parties if you have a crafty kid.

 

The Balian Ceramic Story

The Balian family of Jerusalem has been producing exclusive hand-painted ceramic tiles and pottery since 1922; the business is one of the oldest—if not the oldest—business in Jerusalem. The family’s grandfather, Neshan Balian, came to Jerusalem in 1917 from Kutahya, Turkey. Prior to the arrival of Neshan Balian to Palestine, the production of decorative ceramic tiles and pottery in this region did not exist at all. The Balian ceramic story made the cover of National Geographic in December 1927, and the tiles and pottery of Balian Armenian Ceramics have been exhibited all over the world in various museums and institutions. The zenith being the solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of Washington DC in 1992 and at ALMA (The Armenian Library and Museum of America in Boston).

 

Meet Ohan Balian

Though Ohan Balian is an author, has a PhD in Economics, muses about how he helped conceived the famed Burj Khalifa fountains in a morning meeting, and has worked with the who’s who in the UAE’s royal families, ceramics and tiles run in his blood!

“It’s always been my dream to carry out my family’s legacy and to bring our tilework to Abu Dhabi,” he explains. “This is my moment. This is my dream realised.”

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CONTACT INFO

056 203 0596
Al Saadah Art Gallery, Qaryat Al Beri

 
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