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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