Third World Artists: Featuring Samia Halaby
A painter, writer, and an educater, Samia Halaby was born on December 12, 1936, in the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. She was raised there until her family immigrated to Lebanon after the occupation of Palestine in 1948. About her childhood she says:
“In my memory there is a shape like a candle flame, luminescent but cooler in color and warm to the touch. This is the very shape, which visually forms in my mind as the aggregate of my memories of Jerusalem. It is made up of grandmothers, visiting relatives, wonderment at fountains in gardens of fruits and blossoms, the turn of a narrow street, the old city walls and shops, the calm and peace of its people, the stone arches and domes of an old bakery, the grand uncle in his shoe repair shop, the vegetable seller on his donkey, and the modern burgeoning new neighborhoods with beeping cars and bustling shops. I remember the persuasion that we lived here in our Jerusalem at the wellsprings of culture. And truthfully, even though a lot of people these days do not like to hear it, next to this lovely shape is another one which is made up of lead gray blotchy burnt small shapes buzzing about like nasty bees. This is the aggregate of my memories of the Israelis.”
In 1951 she moved to the US where she eventually attended graduate school at Michigan State University and studied with Abstract Expressionist painters who visited the school from New York. As a result, like many other art students during the 1960’s, she began to think of moving to New York. She decided first to develop her work as she accepted teaching positions. Teaching was then the only way to earn a living with an art education. It was not till 1976 that she finally moved to New York. During this 16-year detour she continued to paint actively while teaching. Her painting activity includes several media such as oil painting, encaustic, acrylics as well as computer paintings. And her professorial career ascended from lesser-known art schools to culminate in a position at Yale. Eventually after ten years of teaching, Yale denied her tenure. By then she had moved to New York and had been living there for six years. Thus without relocation, she found that her teaching career had fulfilled her wishes and left her a practicing artist, free from full-time teaching, and in a city considered to be the world’s center of painting.
Although this shift had not entailed relocation, it did involve a serious mental and intellectual strain as Samia Halaby decided to accept the advice of friends and fight the University’s unethical termination and treatment. This resulted in an interesting exhibition at the 22 Wooster gallery titled “ON TRIAL: The Yale School Of Art.” The show included posters made by workers at the University in the struggle to win a union. Connected to the show was a series of performance events. The show received substantial critical attention and was the beginning of division between Samia Halaby and some of the other members of the 22 Wooster Gallery. Halaby wanted the gallery to be totally independent of establishment critics and curators while others wanted the gallery to be a showcase stepping-stone to success. (unfortunately I couldn’t find any images of that exhibition, but came across this newspaper copy)
Her Kinetic computer paintings are very interesting especially when you find out they were created using a computer program she wrote. The program “converts the computer keyboard in such a way that pressing the keys creates the moving images in the similar way as the keys of a piano create sounds. This allows the painter to create an abstract painting intuitively and spontaneously in live performance with musicians.” I personally found this to be fascinating! Some of her more recent exhibitions include “Three Arab Painters in New York” in 2006, “New Works” in Beirut 2010, and “Trees and The High Rising City” in Dubai 2011.
For many years, Samia Halaby tried to establish a good relationship with an art dealer but had little success. Still, her favorite dealer was Marta Santos-Lourdes who operated the Tossan-Tossan Gallery. Marta being of Basque origin and Samia being of Palestinian origin both found common emotions in the traditions of struggle and resistance of their respective national origins. Halaby did not have many successful relationship with New York City dealers due to their Zionist sympathies. While many museums own her work, the number of exhibitions where she presented her work is not large. This seems to indicate the trouble she has had in making gallery contacts due to discrimination against women and Arabs. Yet clearly museum curators have readily recognized the value of her artistic contribution.
Her expertise in art and opinion is best embodied in the following quote:
“Today, flat two dimensional pictures are so numerous, so cheep, and so omnipresent that we forget that only seventy years ago they were rare expensive commodities. I think more pictures were made during the past century than in all previous centuries. We use them for a variety of functions and most of them serve our needs by aiding the production of life’s necessities. Pictures are a useful magnificent language. I try to explore the language of pictures. I do not believe that contemporary symbolist and surrealist tendencies will advance the art of picturing. I think they are an artistic dead end. But they are fashionable and my abstract paintings are very unfashionable now. I know! But, I think that it is in the area of abstraction as the concrete imitation of motion in reality that new ideas will grow.”
It is obvious that the environment in which an artist is brought up, and the cultural identity which they possess shapes their artwork. Samia Halaby is living proof of this correlation. Losing her country remained painful throughout her life. We can definitely see the effects of Palestinian suffering in her paintings. As do we see the same relationship between various American artists (like Don Crook) and American identity. However unlike American identity, being Palestinian, by virtue of withstanding a life of continuous political conflict, imposes a tremendously somber attitude. I would imagine that the abstractness of her paintings is an outlet of her aggression towards Israeli Occupation. On the other hand, her illusional paintings are very quite and peaceful.