Samia Halaby: An Artist at Once Palestinian and Universal
NEW YORK CITY—Palestinian-American artist Samia Halaby’s spacious loft-studio in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood is a sanctuary from the noise and bustle of New York City. The walls of the kitchen are painted in the same speckled style as many of her canvases and books and dictionaries in multiple languages line shelves that snake their way back to the studio. Traditional Palestinian embroidered throws accent some of the chairs, some sculptural pieces she calls “hanging gardens” are suspended from the ceiling, and some paintings on canvas are stacked neatly against the walls.
The studio’s tidiness announces to visitors that this is the workspace of an artist who is as precise in her work as she is in choosing her words.
Samia Halaby has been a practicing artist for six decades and has lived in New York since 1976. She left her native Jerusalem in 1948 when she was only twelve years old due to the forced expulsion of the Palestinians, and eventually settled with her family in the Midwest in the United States a few years later. She received her master’s degree in Fine Arts in painting from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1963. Her extensive career includes not only producing art—paintings, drawings, three-dimensional work and computer-generated art—but also scholarship and teaching. She has taught at the Kansas City Art Institute, Michigan State University and the Yale University School of Art, where she taught for a decade and was the first woman to hold the position of associate professor.
If most of her life has been spent in the United States, her Palestinian origins have trailed her entire career. Much of her scholarship has been focused on Palestinian art, for example, including a 2001 book on Palestinian liberation art in the second half of the twentieth century. She has journeyed back to the Arab world to exhibit and to stay connected to visual traditions such as Islamic art and architecture.
Her paintings today are mostly large in scale and full of brightly colored squares, dots, circles, triangles and organically-shaped brushstrokes which visually entice the viewer with deeply saturated plum, coral, turquoise and fuchsia shades. Her paintings have been described as joyful and optimistic. Sometimes her work has figurative allusions, but it is the visual symphony of her shapes and colors that demonstrate her technical skill as a painter and show why she has attained increasing recognition over the past two decades.
She has faced many challenges as a Palestinian woman. In the 1970s, she says New York galleries would not sign her. But that rejection, instead of making her quit, made her more determined to assert herself as an artist and an activist for the Palestinian cause.
“When I started teaching [at Yale University] in New Haven,” she says, “I had some art dealers professionally flirt with me and I would visit them and I tried very hard. I got the attention of a few and nothing ever panned out. No one bluntly said it, but a gallerist once gave me a very nice summer exhibition. She sold a lot of my work and at the end of the summer I asked her if she would take me on and she said, ‘Samia I did very well with you but you can count the collectors of New York on one hand and most of them are Jews.”
“I appreciated that she was honest about it,” she adds, “but there were many other occurrences when I could tell it was the Palestinian thing. Eventually it got too painful to keep trying so I gave up. I decided I would function as an artist regardless of whether I had a gallery or not which is good because [in the end] you have to be separate from them.”
She subsequently side-stepped the commercial scene by being involved with independent and nonprofit art spaces: She is now represented by a gallery with branches in Dubai and Beirut.
Despite her deep immersion in abstract art during the rise of the genre in New York, she and many other female artists were often on the margins of critical and commercial attention. Halaby’s recognition came after museums started to collect her works. Today her works can be found in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art (New York and Abu Dhabi); Yale University Art Gallery; the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C.; the British Museum and the Barjeel Art Foundation in the United Arab Emirates, among others.
Although her Palestinian identity is central to her, Halaby says she tries to strike a balance between that and a wider role as an artist who lives in the stream of international art history. “There’s a lot of dialogue and discourse on identity and much of it tries to separate us and put us in different cubby holes, and it serves the ideology of racism and hatred to some extent…and [to] whoever is more acceptable racially on top. If I identified only as Palestinian and limited myself to being Palestinian I would self-destruct. Basically, I would close my eyes and ears to the world.”
She believes political and social movements have driven many strong stylistic shifts and innovations in art, including the Russian Constructivists who came out of the Russian revolution, and the French impressionists who rebelled against the staid rules of the art establishment at the time. Her emphasis on abstract art stems from her belief that abstract art is, in a sense, the language of activism.
At times she has focused on making posters for demonstrations and figurative drawings as a type of historical documentation. She produced a book of drawings based on the Kafr Qasim massacre of 1956, in which Israeli border police killed Arab civilians returning home from work. The drawings were done after interviews with survivors and relatives of those killed. “I don’t consider them my explorative artwork,” she says, “but I consider them documentary work that I do with the skill that I have for drawing.
“It’s part of Palestinian history for as long as people are willing to read,” she adds.
Her experimentation is not limited to traditional mediums. She began working in computer-generated art in the late 1980s, teaching herself Basic and C Programming languages so she could generate art on an Amiga computer. (Some samples of her computer art and a video interview on the topic are on her website.)
“When I started painting I wanted to take a path and essentially keep growing,” she says. “Eventually this happened and the growth was one step at a time. There were times when I took a big leap, but change comes because you can’t keep doing the same thing unless you’re an idiot. Even if you’re successful it gets boring, it literally becomes deadly.”
Halaby is preparing works for a solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai in March of 2019. The support of galleries in the Middle East in more recent years has brought her a new community of Arab artists and aficionados to engage with. She has connected with others who believe, as she does, that abstract art is not just an expression of the painter’s mind but an advanced way to represent reality.