A West Coast artist with Pittsburgh roots has returned home for a familial show. “Elusive Ground” features paintings of relatives and city skyscapes by former Shadyside resident Abira Ali.
The Jewish artist’s works, which are on display at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, represent years dedicated to depicting individuals Ali both knew and didn’t know.
“It's a quick glimpse of different little windows into different times,” she said.
Hanging on the gallery’s white walls are paintings of grandparents, friends, neighbors and relatives in places that many Pittsburghers will recognize: familiar row houses and intersections, views from Shadyside porches.
“This show is so personal,” Ali said.
Given its intimacy, it made perfect sense to assemble the works and exhibit them at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination. Located in Friendship, the center is run by Sheila Ali — Abira’s sister — and named after their grandmother, a German-born artist who created hundreds of paintings ranging from realistic portraits to post-impressionist landscapes.
Freeman’s husband, Louis, was an amateur photographer who printed his own images. Irma Freeman often painted them in color, Sheila Ali said.
A few of the paintings in “Elusive Ground” are inspired by that method, Abira Ali said.
Many of the images have a dreamlike quality. Faces are depicted in a haze. Earthy tones are used throughout.
“It's not an intellectual choice. It's an intuitive choice,” Abira Ali said of her approach to painting.
“I tend to not go with a lot of bright bold color. I like to work with shadows and light.”
Even without a menorah, Star of David, yarmulke, candlesticks or other typical iconographies, the paintings will resonate with Jewish viewers, the Los Angeles-based artist said.
Several of the images are from an era when BL Sour Cream was located on College Avenue in Shadyside.
Abira Ali said she remembers those days well: “My grandfather would be like, ‘Go down to B and L and pick up some smoked fish, some whitefish and gefilte fish,’ and I would go and I'd be scared because it's a warehouse with guys on forklifts. And this little kid comes in with a little bit of money. They don't sell retail, but [my grandfather] just expects them to sell him retail, and we would go and get it directly.”
The Ali sisters credit their grandparents, Louis and Irma Freeman, and exposure to the arts with helping them “survive” difficult early days in Pittsburgh.
“Our childhood was not easy,” Abira Ali said. “Our father's from Bangladesh, and we were the only Muslim Jews on the block, and it was just really ragtag. We both survived that with, I think, flying colors because of our love for being creative and the opportunities we had through school and being surrounded by art.”
“We had a richness, which is art and painting,” Sheila Ali said, “but our grandparents struggled a lot. He was a peddler. My grandmother’s father was a rabbi and cantor.”
“Elusive Ground” touches on many aspects of family, but don’t mistake that for nepotism, Abira Ali said with a laugh.
Despite the show taking place in a venue named for their grandmother, “I had a lot of trouble getting into this gallery. I kind of had to strongarm her,” Abira Ali said of her sister.
Along with using its walls to feature local and national artists — a concurrent exhibit showcases photographs by Dennis Childers — the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination hosts yoga sessions, camps, concerts and movie screenings.
“We’ve had so many different things,” Sheila Ali said. “The other day we had a film premiere, and the place was packed with skateboarders wall to wall.”
Each activity preserves the memory of the center’s namesake.
“My grandmother was extremely prolific, and that's why we named the place after her,” Sheila Ali said. “I just wanted to inspire other people. And we have over the years.”
“Elusive Ground” can be viewed on Saturdays from 2- 5 p.m. or by appointment through the end of February at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, 5006 Penn Ave. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.