Choosing Abstraction: A Conversation with the Palestinian Painter Samia Halaby

Samia Halaby was born in Palestine in 1936, was forced out of her homeland, and has been based in New York City since 1951. She is an abstract painter, which is extremely unusual for a woman of her time and background, and prolific in what she has produced over 5 decades. Besides being one of my ultimate role models for her extreme intellectual, activist, and artistic sensibilities, she is also one of the most generous human beings I’ve met in the art world.

Ayyam Gallery in Al Quoz (Dubai) opened a comprehensive retrospective, Samia Halaby: Five Decades of Painting and Innovation in February (continuing through 30 April), which begins with her late student days in the 1960’s all the way up to her kinetic series in the present. Curated by whip smart art historian Maymanah Farhat, the exhibition presents each of Samia’s major series of work (my favorites being Autumn Leaves and City Blocks, and Dome of the Rock). An impressive monograph (i.e., a coffee table sized book) by the same name was launched simultaneously.

Installation shot at Ayyam

Installation shot at Ayyam

I was incredibly fortunate to get the chance to sit with Samia at the back of the gallery (while we spoke, she played with a piece of string which must have been left over from her knitting basket) and our conversation so influenced and intrigued me that rather than cut it down to a 500 word blog post, I have made the editorial decision to simply print a transcript of our discussion in its entirety. Being my own editor gives me that kind of open-skies-frolic-in-a-flowering-meadow-on-a-weekday kind of freedom here:

DL: Whom do you paint for?

SH: I paint for the people of the future. You’re not going to appeal to everyone and it’s hard to find people who fully appreciate what you are about during your lifetime. It’s not so much that people have been so critical of my work. It’s just that there was sometimes no reaction to what I was doing.

DL: In your Tribeca studio space you work, cook, and live with your art. Do you still hold arts salons there?

SH: Crowds of people would once come. We used to do poetry readings and I’d set up a slide projector for artists to show pictures of their work for discussion. There was even music. But I stopped doing it because it takes a lot of energy and preparation. I used to be much more politically active then too. Now I’m doing my utmost to spend time documenting my work.

Essence of Arab, 2007. Acrylic on  canvas

Essence of Arab, 2007. Acrylic on  canvas

DL: For someone with a difficult childhood and who had such deep political involvement, it is interesting that you would choose such bright, optimistic colors. Why do you choose abstraction?

SH: In the history of art, there is very little explicit connection made between painting and society. As I studied the 19th and 20th centuries, I noticed that movements towards abstraction occurred during times of revolutionary motion and regression occurred when revolutions seemed to regress. I see a wave motion in the development of art.

For example, if you go from the French Royal Academy to Impressionism, you are at a loss to explain the bursts of color, exactly as you noticed in my work. Suddenly there is optimism and joy in life— it’s like an explosion. Then The Paris Commune was happening and there was a groundswell of hope and belief in the future. My reasoning in choosing abstraction was because I want to add to history, not to slide backwards with it.

Samia Halaby in her Studio

Samia Halaby in her Studio

DL: Over the course of your life you have produced such a large body of work, seemingly continuously. Did you ever go through an uninspired period in which you struggled artistically?

SH: There were two such periods. The first was right at the end of my school days. I still heard my university professors' discourse in my head when I was in the studio. I needed to do something new. I had just begun teaching, and as a professor I could audit courses, so I took a lot of figure drawing courses.

DL: That is unusual because aside from one project, you really haven’t ever exhibited figurative work.

SH: I actually have loads of figure drawings in my studio and even taught on the subject, but I consider them to be sketches and studies, so it’s not what I would exhibit. I went to the museum and found a Petrus Christus painting that inspired me, went home and started building a still life and painting again in a hurry.

The second dry period was 1979, when I switched from the diagonal paintings, which had gotten so perfect and pristine, but after a while everything gets boring and I didn’t want to keep repeating it. To break from that and find something new, I spent about a year flopping around.

Finally I started the Dome of the Rock series, which was inspired by Islamic architecture. I allowed the rectangle to give birth to everything inside it. In Arabic art, there is a lot of inlay, and instead of my flat strokes I started using texture and then yearning to make the brush strokes freer.

When I first started with the still life I promised myself, “I’m not going to shift around. I’m going to slowly conjugate from one form to the other.” It’s like the way you do in grammar when you conjugate a verb and put it through its paces. I wanted to do the same. I started with the Cylinders and the Cubes, and then I plotted Helixes. But then I didn’t know where else to go.

Third Spiral with Dark Center. 1970. Oil on canvas.

Third Spiral with Dark Center. 1970. Oil on canvas.

DL: The curator of your retrospective, Maymanah Farhat chose to hang your paintings in chronological order according to the time and series in which they were produced. Is that a decision you are happy with?

SH: Yes, because if they aren’t hung chronologically, they look like many disparate things. The other day the Syrian artist Safwan Daoul was asking me what percentage of my paintings are shown here, and I told him these are maybe 10% of what I’ve done. To put everything together would take five years.

World Wide Intifadah, 1989. Acrylic on Canvas and Paper

World Wide Intifadah, 1989. Acrylic on Canvas and Paper

DL: As a writer, when I look at things I published 15 years ago, sometimes I cringe. Other times, I am envious of the childlike part of me that was uninhibited and took risks and didn’t care what anyone else thought. How do you feel when you see some of your earliest work here?

SH: I understand what you’re saying. There are times when I look at old paintings and wonder where my mind must have been. I was much more relaxed than I am now. There was an open-heartedness or a lack of fear that might be typical of youth. Then there are others, like The Green Sphere, and I remember exactly what I was thinking at the time. It was very intellectual. It’s like meeting ‘me’ all over again.

DL: Do you recognize that person?

SH: I am still that person but now much more. Even though I appreciate this earlier work and I am not critical of them, these were much more one-dimensional. The Helix Series was the most popular. A helical curve is very beautiful and I didn’t make many of them, so they are all gone and in museums.

Installation Shot at Ayyam

Installation Shot at Ayyam

Good Ideas:

If you plan a visit to Ayyam Gallery in Al Quoz to see the retrospective, set aside an hour to really study what is in front of you, which includes more than 50 paintings. Details and timings can be found here.

If you live outside Dubai, Samia Halaby: Five Decades of Innovation (the hardcover book), can be purchased on Amazon here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Samia Halaby and Ayyam Gallery

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Uncommon Dubai: This City Has a Soul

Does Dubai have a soul? This has got to be the most frequently asked question about my adopted city. It’s true—Dubai does take a lot of selfies. But I’m still not sure how the city picked up the international reputation of being the gorgeous, shallow girl who everyone criticizes but secretly wants to be. Uncommon Dubai is an unusual guidebook, written for travelers who want to experience the city like residents, and for residents who want to be travelers in their own town.

Cover photography by Lamya Gargash

Cover photography by Lamya Gargash

The hardback was recently published by Uncommon Guide Books and edited by Dubai-based Hind Shoufani, a wildly talented poet and filmmaker with rouge-colored curls and a penchant for belly dancing skirts. You will not find glossy maps featuring tourist hangouts or shopping mall reviews here. You will find poetry, nostalgia, and street photography. Mostly, it is about and by the very people that settled, built, and transiently pass through Dubai.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

It is the kind of book you will want to keep on your coffee table to inspire lazy Saturday afternoon wanderings to Leisureland, Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan North Korean Restaurant, or a hidden Hindu temple—off road adventures to Dubai institutions. Austyn Allison marks time by levels that are built on the Burj Khalifa and then by the deconstruction of the Hard Rock Café. Fiona Patterson finds the city’s culture through the thought provoking one-liners sprayed on construction site walls by graffiti artist Arcadia Blank. Frank Dullaghan discovers Dubai International Financial Centre to have a secret poetic meter that far surpasses the rhythm of cash being counted. The next time someone accuses me of loving a soulless city I plan to wordlessly hand him or her a copy of Uncommon Dubai.

Majlis, Lamya Gargash

Majlis, Lamya Gargash

I was asked to write the chapter (Uncommon calls it a Reroute) on Al Quoz and Hind’s instructions were to make it “poetic and slightly mischievous but with meat to it.” I would argue that it is absolutely impossible to visit Al Quoz, the city’s main arts district, without getting hopelessly lost at least once. Getting lost in Al Quoz is actually when wonderfully unexpected things tend to happen and for this reason I’ve learned to enjoy it. The essay is all about my misgivings with the pretentiousness of the local art world in tandem with my attraction to its complexity.

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

Here is an excerpt from my contribution, Lost in Al Quoz:

…“If you begin to hug your elbows and cross your legs, anxiously wondering if the driver is kidnapping you and taking you to an abandoned area of town where you will be tied up and frozen in a meat locker to be found, rescued, and defrosted by no one ever, then you are in the right place. The first time I took my husband here we were still newlyweds and he turned to me as though I were a masked stranger to ask, “Are you taking me here to have me whacked by the mob?” Actually I was taking him to an art night at Alserkal Avenue where we binged on a photograph by a Syrian artist the way other people binge on couture. The photograph was not mass-produced in a sweatshop in China and I did not have to be tall, svelte, and skinny to own it.

Alserkal Avenue is poorly marked. When you find it at last you feel as though you have unearthed a secret. The building is the color of the Atlantic Ocean on a melancholy winter’s morning. It once housed a marble factory owned by the Alserkal family, an Emirati family known for its patronage of the arts. A few galleries opened spaces here five years ago and the place grew organically until more than 20 warehouses were renovated and turned into galleries. Step into a white cube and suddenly you’re in Iran, Pakistan, or France. I can hear the purr of cranes beyond, the bird song of Dubai—Alserkal is doubling in size by next year. I step through the gates and admire the street art on the wall. Graffiti is still officially illegal in Dubai, but in the last year it has started to appear on private buildings.

Lost in Al Quoz, Uncommon Dubai

Lost in Al Quoz, Uncommon Dubai

I turn right and pass through a steel door into Salsali Private Museum. The wall in front of me blinks with a neon sign that reads alternately, “THIS IS A MUSEUM! THIS IS NOT A MUSEUM!” The floor is polished concrete. The air is blindingly cool. It is so quiet inside that for a split second I feel as though I shouldn’t be here. I used to feel that way every moment when I first came to Dubai two years ago. Like I didn’t belong. Like everyone could tell that my clothes were cheap, my cuticles were ragged, and I wasn’t Arab. I was surrounded by women in silk cocktail dresses everywhere I went, all of them in stilettos with potent smiles and colossal diamond rings, asking me what I do and who I know, then smiling right through me. Until I came here. Slipped through this door into a place that could not be labeled. “THIS IS A MUSEUM! THIS IS NOT A MUSEUM!”…

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

You can download the rest of the piece here: Danna_Al_Quoz_low

Good Idea: Uncommon Dubai is one title in a brilliant series published by Uncommon Guide Books. You can order a copy online or if you are based in Dubai you can purchase the book at Kinokuniya in Dubai Mall.

Images: Courtesy of Uncommon Guide Books

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Getting My Geek On at Mid East Film & Comic Con

Middle East Film and Comic Con (MEFCC) promised to be the Middle East's largest pop culture festival. From 3-5 April, a gigantic exhibition hall in Dubai's World Trade Centre was overrun with thousands and thousands of geeks in costume. The MEFCC hashtag is even #GETYOURGEEKON. This was my very first Comic Con and I dressed up as The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland (Thanks to Dark Horse for loaning me the glam handmade costume for the occasion).

My husband drove me over because there was no way I was going to take a cab in costume. Ironically, there was a bridal show right next door and he almost dropped me off there by accident. Imagine if I'd walked through a giant room filled with brides, wearing my huge sequined crown!

Me (The Queen of Hearts) getting down with some of my subjects. Off with their heads! just kidding...

Me (The Queen of Hearts) getting down with some of my subjects. Off with their heads! just kidding...

Comic Con itself is hands down one of the best events I've ever attended in Dubai for its wonderful feel good vibe that brought out the best in people from all walks of life who are drawn together for their love of comics. Because of modesty, religion, and superstition it's not really culturally appropriate to take photographs of strangers in the Middle East, but at Comic Con everyone snapped away unabashedly. If you're going to go to Comic Con, the thing to do is to dress up like your favorite comic book or cartoon character. It's a pretty big deal. People spend months making their costumes and then when they put them on they literally assume the role of the character. It's called Cos Play because it's more like acting than just dressing up.

A lady in traditional abaya posing as Darth Vader, complete with light saber.  Love it!

A lady in traditional abaya posing as Darth Vader, complete with light saber. Love it!

This is the best shirt e-v-e-r. It is  official MEFCC merchandise and says, "Luke, Habibi, I am your brother." Arabized Star Wars!

This is the best shirt e-v-e-r. It is official MEFCC merchandise and says, "Luke, Habibi, I am your brother." Arabized Star Wars!

I loved seeing such a huge turnout of locals, many of them in traditional dress that had been transformed into a costume. Abaya's topped with Darth Vader masks, a dish dash embellished with a Game of Thrones cloak. Anything was possible! Here are some of the wacky things that happened:

Super loud house music, dance offs, and a break dancing Minion

Super loud house music, dance offs, and a break dancing Minion

A fierce mini Beetlejuice mugging for the paparazzi

A fierce mini Beetlejuice posing for the paparazzi

Some people take their cos play extremely seriously. This girl was carrying a notebook titled "Death Notes" and was definitely in full character.

Some people take their cos play extremely seriously. This girl was carrying a notebook titled "Death Notes" and was definitely in full character.

All of the major gaming companies had interactive stations. These guys looked like they were in geek heaven playing away.

All of the major gaming companies had interactive stations. These guys looked like they were in geek heaven playing away.

Outside Nissan was sponsoring a street artist to deck out a car in Manga-themed graffiti. It's definitely become "the" trend to have a street artist working live at Dubai events. I just wish the artist were mentioned and highlighted more.

Outside Nissan was sponsoring a street artist to deck out a car in Manga-themed graffiti. It's definitely become "the" trend to have a street artist working live at Dubai events. I just wish the artist were mentioned and highlighted more.

This guy made his own Game of Thrones costume from a green, velvet curtain. He was gleefully posing like this in the middle of the walkway.

This guy made his own costume from a green, velvet curtain. He was unabashedly posing like this in the middle of the walkway.

Manga girls in a cute little huddle

Manga girls in a cute little huddle

I was excited to run into my friend Mandy from Dubai Moving Image Museum. Visit the Museum to check out and play with the precursors to comics and cartoons.

I was excited to run into my friend Mandy from Dubai Moving Image Museum. Visit the Museum to check out and play with the precursors to comics and cartoons.

There was a great section of local illustrators and designers at MEFCC. I fell in love with "Hijab Girl," a comic created by Sarah Alhazmi

There was a great section of local illustrators and designers at MEFCC. I fell in love with "Hijab Girl," a comic created by Sarah Alhazmi

These ladies went all out. I even met my twin Queen of Hearts. Her makeup was over the top artsy.

These ladies went all out. I even met my twin Queen of Hearts. Her makeup was over the top artsy.

Next I met a kinda creepy horse

Next I met a kinda creepy horse

My first selfie stick! These are (annoyingly) in here in Dubai. It's a stick that you attach to your phone for optimal selfies. It looks like this bride feels the same way I do about the selfie stick

My first selfie stick! These are (annoyingly) in here in Dubai. It's a stick that you attach to your phone for optimal selfies. It looks like this bride feels the same way I do about the selfie stick

What a ridiculously fun day! I really loved wandering around, making new friends, and especially seeing how this Comic Con embodied some real elements of Middle Eastern pop culture. At the end of the event I couldn't find a cab, so I boldly walked home to DIFC dressed as the Queen of Hearts, relishing the quizzical looks I got from people I passed on the road.

Good Ideas: MEFCC takes place annually in Dubai. You can learn all about it here.

My glam costume was handmade and provided by the lovely Dark Horse.

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Playing Dress up in a Magical Costume Closet

Last week I had the most amazing time playing dress up in the magical costume closet at Dark Horse in Dubai. The company was wonderful enough to let my blogging friend Sara Japanwalla and I choose any costume we wanted to borrow and wear to Mid East Film & Comic Con. What self-respecting grownup wouldn't secretly jump at the chance to try on all sorts of crazy costumes and play make believe?

Dark Horse is an events and entertainment company and they are about to launch a new costume shop too. I loved that all of their costumes are completely handmade. They have an in-house designer whose job it is to research and create all these looks. They even have some costumes that are best worn on stilts (although I wasn't brave enough to wobble around in those). I so rarely publish pics of myself (the truth is, I'm a writer so I like to paint pictures with words. Plus, I'm a little bit camera shy!), so this was a real adventure for me. Here's what happened at the closet:

First we went retro sweet with Alice in Wonderland costumes. Off with her head, I say!

First we went retro sweet with Alice in Wonderland costumes. Off with her head, I say!

Then things started to get a little crazy. I think we look like 16th century editions of the Olsen Twins here

Then things started to get a little crazy. I think we look like 16th century editions of the Olsen Twins here

"We're all mad here." The costume I'm in was listed as "sexy zebra." The name made me laugh. Here I am frightening The Mad Hatter with my zebra moves.

"We're all mad here." The costume I'm in was listed as "sexy zebra." The name made me laugh. Here I am frightening The Mad Hatter with my zebra moves.

"Can I wear this to the grocery store to buy some tomatoes?" Sara asked. The  level of handmade detail on this cheetah headdress were impressive

"Can I wear this to the grocery store to buy some tomatoes?" Sara asked. The level of handmade detail on this cheetah headdress was impressive

Here I am as the genie of the lamp. Perhaps you'd like to request three wishes? This hat was surprisingly comfortable.

Here I am as the genie of the lamp. Perhaps you'd like to request three wishes? This hat was surprisingly comfortable.

I hope you liked my slightly out of character post and it inspired you to kick your pretenses out the door and play dress up sometime soon. My next post will reveal which look I chose for Comic Con and the crazy adventures that ensued at the region's biggest pop culture shindig.

Good Ideas: Big Thanks to Dark Horse for the dress up fun and for loaning me a costume for Comic Con. If you want to rent a costume or plan an event you can check out the company here.

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Where The Heroes At? Pop Artist Mubarik Jafery Says They're Right Here Among Us

Mubarik Jaffery swears that comic books saved his life as a kid. Enter his solo show, Where The Heroes At at FN Designs in Dubai and it feels like you’ve accidentally discovered a comic book character’s top-secret lair. The Bat Phone will probably ring any minute and there has got to be a sleek purple sports car parked in the alley. Shields featuring each of the Arab country’s flags have been perfectly mounted on a large gray stand that adds a realistic effect. It feels like the absent heroes we’ve been waiting for will burst through the plaster and paint to claim their shields and unify as a team at any moment.

I snapped an installation shot of Mubarik's pop art alongside Arcadia Blank's rad tag at FN Designs

I snapped an installation shot of Mubarik's pop art alongside Arcadia Blank's rad tag at FN Designs

On the walls, Batman-like fighting words like BOOM! and BAM! in the style of pop forefather Roy Licthenstein have been reclaimed and regionalized using Arabic typography set in acrylic. Mubarik is a designer at heart and this is his first public foray into art. Perfectly timed for Middle East Comic Con (which runs concurrently this month from 3-5 April), Where The Heroes At gregariously asks us to consciously seek out the bionic, the kind, and the courageous among us. This is pop art with meaning.

Arcadia Blank (the mysterious street artist who is the object of my #artcrush), asked H.H. Sheikha Wafa Hasher Al Maktoum, Director and Curator of FN, if he could tag the gallery. She gamely left the door unlocked and provided a can of black spray paint and Arcadia snuck in and wrote, “Reality Wasn’t Built 4 Everyone.” The phrase couldn’t be more appropriate for Mubarik Jafery’s super power themed show. FN is quickly emerging as the go-to space in Dubai for outside the box, street and pop art.

Mubarik Jafery's shields mounted in the FN Designs gallery

Mubarik Jafery's shields mounted in the FN Designs gallery

I had a blast (ZAM! WHAM!) interviewing Mubarik about his show:

DL: If you could be any super hero, real or imaginary, who would you be? What superpowers would you have?

MJ: Aaaaah yes what super hero would you be… many a night my brethren and I have sat in front of the glow of a TV screen talking in depth on this topic. Setting grounds rules is important: Not more then one power, cross over is allowed from different universes, DC or Marvel. Omnipotence is not allowed. 

No easy answer, I will go with Wolverine for his awesomeness. No! Thor for his honor. No! No! Captain America for his sense of right. Wait! Hulk for his rage and invincibility from everything. Last one! Forge, who is mutant and can build anything. Just Kidding! I am going to go with Phoenix for telekinetic powers.
In the end I believe that the power you choose is a reflection of what is inside you.

Mubarik Jafery's chosen superhero, Phoenix

Mubarik Jafery's chosen superhero, Phoenix

DL: Why are superheroes important to Arab society right now? Are there heroes among us? 
 
MJ: I have heard of people who were exposed to a situation that they could never walk away from and it changed their lives. They took on the challenge, did what was right and kept doing it regardless of the consequences. These people who dedicate their life to making a change are heroes to me. And they truly exist.
 
DL: Your work is pop art and we need more of that in the Middle East. Are there messages that can only be communicated in pop art? 

MJ: In my opinion (which is wrong most of the time anyway!) pop art has a sense of humor. It is fun and a kind of social commentary of the times. It can be casual and approachable. It laughs at itself. Pop art is not considered high art and maybe that’s one of the reasons it has not picked up a lot of momentum, but things are changing fast.

Captain America saving the day

Captain America saving the day

DL: All your super heroes have shields. Is there an element of physical battle involved? Or is this about protecting what is good and true about Arab culture? 
 
MJ: The shields are definitely a metaphor for protection but to me they have always been a call to arms, to bring out the heroes. The idea was all around me- this is such a critical time for our evolution. We need to bring out the heroes.

The forefather of pop art, Roy Lichtenstein, has influenced Mubarik's work. Here is Lichtenstein's famous "Sweet Dreams Baby!"

The forefather of pop art, Roy Lichtenstein, has influenced Mubarik's work. Here is Lichtenstein's famous "Sweet Dreams Baby!"

BOOM! (in Arabic) by Mubarik Jafery. See the Lichtenstein influence?

BOOM! (in Arabic) by Mubarik Jafery. See the Lichtenstein influence?

DL: When you were a kid were you into comic books or cartoon super heroes. Do you think that today's kids have superheroes to look up to right here in the Middle East or do they look to the West for that?

MJ: Comic books saved my life. I was a very geeky kid and the super hero world was my outlet. Spiderman was an unpopular kid. Hulk has anger issues that he needs to deal with. Thor has daddy issues. I mean these are life lessons!
I think these characters are universal. What we need to focus on is the messages that these heroes stand for. We need heroes to step up and be relatable.

The artist in a Superman t-shirt he designed for his own clothing line BRAVE. The tees came before the show and it's easy to see how "Where The Heroes At" is a continuation of this first project. More tees please, Mubarik!

The artist in a Superman t-shirt he designed for his own clothing line BRAVE. The tees came before the show and it's easy to see how "Where The Heroes At" is a continuation of this first project. More tees please, Mubarik!

Good Ideas: 'Where The Heroes At' will run at FN Designs on Alserkal Avenue through 30 April. For timings and deets go here.

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