Q&A: Samia Halaby on Painting and Palestine

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Samia Halaby is hard to pin down. She's an advocate for fellow Palestinian artists, but says her own art isn't about Palestine; she works in bold abstractions, yet describes medieval art as an influence. Her work has been often overlooked — but now she's finally getting a celebratory retrospective in the form of a new book, Samia Halaby: Five Decades of Painting and Innovation, out this March.

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, Halaby was 12 when her family was driven out of their home in Jaffa. Her family sought refuge in Lebanon, and then Cincinnati; after pursuing her MFA at Indiana University in Bloomington, Halaby became the first full-time female professor at the Yale School of Art. Halaby taught there for ten years until 1982, when, despite having promised her a permanent position, Yale failed to renew her contract — a move which Halaby believes had to do with her gender and her increasing political activism. She decamped for New York. “Now there are a few Palestinians in galleries,"  Halaby told the Cut when we spoke in her Tribeca loft. "But in those days, being female and then, on top of that, being Palestinian, made things extremely difficult.”

Halaby turned her focus toward the Arab art scene in the states, organizing groundbreaking exhibitions of Palestinian artists. In recent years, her own work has garnered more attention: Her large, varied canvases — bursting with rich color applied in thick brushstrokes — now appear in many American museums, including the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Cut spoke with Halaby about her art, her life, and her politics.

What drew you to abstraction when you were younger?

Medieval Arabic art is very geometric and abstract, and so are Persian carpets, and I’ve always been influenced by them. In graduate school, I began to focus on cubism. I decided to be an abstractionist. And, you know, when I went to school in the fifties, the Abstract Expressionists were big in New York — so everything influences you.

You’ve said that abstraction is a visual language to represent reality.

Abstraction, when it was written about a lot, was described in a way that I think was false. It was described as being totally of the mind, so you are confronted with something that’s supposed to be personal, and an invention of the artist — self-expression. I don’t believe in any of that. I don’t believe art is self-expression.

The stuff comes out of me, but it’s not about me. Our brain is a storehouse of all of the things we’ve seen, and as we process them, we discern the general principles that govern them. Abstraction, being about general principles, can remind you of many sets of things that share the same principles. Abstract paintings are not about specific objects.

Right now the artists in fashion tend to be media and postmodernist artists. Their work is very, very different from abstraction. Most of the artists in fashion focus on postmodern philosophy, semiology, and phenomenology, and so it’s very word-based. For that reason, it’s easier for people who write or who read or who are interested in philosophy to deal with and write about.  I don’t have patience with the postmodern philosophers because I’m a person who wants to deal with concrete things. I believe what I see is real, and I want to paint about it.

After graduate school, you returned to Palestine for the first time since your childhood. What was your visit like?

I went back in 1966 and I visited the Dome of the Rock, which is one of the most amazing architectural monuments in the world. It’s a mosque, and it influenced my work enormously. I saw large, very simple marble inlays of geometric art. The inlays were at least twelve to fourteen feet tall, and some were just a few squares arranged with a black outline. Medieval Arabic art is very much based on symmetry: There’s a repeating pattern with chosen parts represented in a rectangle. So I came back and decided to let the rectangle of the painting determine what I do.

You’ve said that when you first returned to Palestine, you noticed that the Arabic art there looked a lot like some of your earliest work, but that a lot of those inclinations had been discouraged during your Western training.

Yeah, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t bother me. Some people get very bothered about that, like, Oh, they stole my natural inclinations. But you have to learn. And, you know, looking back, I don’t regret having changed, because you can always do it again. I’ve gone through all kinds of styles. And the interesting thing was, some of the stuff I did in my final year as a graduate student is really similar to some of the stuff I’m doing now. That’s something I’ve noticed in the work of a lot of artists — some things they did when they were very young they came back to in their old age.

Did going back to Palestine influence your politics?

I’m very much an activist for Palestine, and I’m a leftist — the two seem to go together. The experience of being evicted from Palestine and losing everything was a very painful one. My father was affluent when we were evicted from Palestine, so I won’t say I suffered hunger or pain or not having a roof over my head, like the refugees, but nevertheless, there’s a lot of emotional stress. There’s a deep pain in every Palestinian about it, I think.

Yet it seems you’re fairly adamant that your painting is not “about” Palestine.

As I see it, Palestine need not be in my painting and should not be in my painting. If Arab art and Palestine is in some paintings, that’s because it’s part of my past and will come through as part of my experiences in the real world. But if I’m a painter, I should be a painter trying to do paintings that are the most advanced possible. In the United States, I’ve noticed that there are all of these things to persuade immigrants and people of national minorities to go back to their roots. I think that’s also a way to control us: Don’t be part of the mainstream, don’t be ambitious, just go back to your ancient roots. I think that’s very backward.

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