DUBAI — Samia Halaby is an important and celebrated leader of abstract painting, and a scholar of Palestinian art. Born in Jaffa in 1936, in what was then Mandatory Palestine, Halaby was forced to flee after the Arab/Israeli war in 1948, eventually settling in the United States in 1951. Though her works are not overtly or avowedly political, she says that they portray the materiality of her experiences, feelings, and personal narrative, which in turn become central to understanding her work. In this way, her abstractions become concrete, material references to wider social issues and causes.
Yet the canon of abstract art is and remains mostly associated with white men. The Wikipedia entry for abstract art contains only a handful of female names — like Georgia O’Keeffe and Hilma af Klint — who basically serve as footnotes to giants like Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and others. A 2014 article published by Anna Seaman in The National praised Halaby’s work on the occasion of a major retrospective at Ayyam Gallery, yet the artist’s inclusion into the often cited canon of abstract art remains a footnote.
In 1989, Halaby wrote that “major museums are closed to us,” yet she is now collected by some of the largest and most prestigious museums in the world, including the Guggenheim in New York, the Chicago Institute of Art, Institut Du Monde Arabe in Paris, and The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to name a few. However, Halaby has never received a large retrospective or solo-exhibition by these institutions, which many of her Western male counterparts have received in bulk.
According to Halaby, being a culturally relocated person has left an indelible mark on her life and art, a reason perhaps she has never been given adequate recognition in Western institutions. Halaby spoke last month to an audience in Dubai about her feelings of displacement in both the US and in Palestine, and her unwavering commitment to art and social justice.
“I’ve never felt at home and was always embarrassed I never mastered the Arab language,” she said in honest, humbling terms. Speaking to an audience of about 100 people assembled at Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi’s house as part of a series of talks he has been organizing through the Barjeel Foundation called Cultural Majlis, the event synthesized for many Halaby’s unique insights into the principles of abstraction that have defined her decades-long work.
During her talk, Halaby recalled in detail the difficulties she’s always felt concerning her displacement from her ancestral roots. She spoke of maintaining a kindred affinity towards Arab lands, and the people and cultures therein. She reflected in longing terms about being deeply impacted by geometric abstraction and the principals of Islamic design and architecture, a key influence behind much of her work, I learned, especially after she returned to Palestine in 1966 for the first time since being forced to flee.
Halaby recalled how much of her early work was exhibited in independent and nonprofit art spaces and artist-run initiatives in and around New York City, where she has resided since 1976. Some of these works, like “Tribeca” (1982), use shapes like squares and rectangles to convey the ebullience and inexhaustible vitality of NYC, via abstract pairings that portray urban movement through dynamic entities, which appear, at first glance, to be in motion.
Halaby has also taught at a number of prominent American art universities, including the Yale School of Art from 1972 to 1982, where she was the first woman to hold the position of associate professor. In her academic career, like in her art, she has worked to advance under-represented voices — notably, those affected by imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and colonialism. She has illustrated over a dozen posters for various anti-war groups, and continues to publish independent scholarship on art and politics.
At 82, she continues to speak out against global injustices, championing the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people in America and abroad, albeit never straying far from wider injustices like imperialism. As a self-described “Arab leftist,” Halaby has for decades been interested in using art and visual culture as a means of advancing issues of social justice.
She recalled how her interest in abstraction stemmed from trying to grasp and understand reality, but how this approach then became a kind of prism into other issues. For example, in “For Ni’ihau From Palestine” (1985), an acrylic and canvas work installed on the wall of an exhibition, Halaby describes trying to materialize the oppression of the Palestinians and Hawaiʻians in a single work. At first glance, what may appear to be a mural consisting of simple lines, appears almost Kandinsky-like, but what Halaby is instead referencing is an interplay of forms that have potent symbolic references to each culture.
During her talk last month in Dubai, Halaby also referenced the Kafr Qasem series she began in 1999, illustrations she made of a massacre that took place on October 29, 1956. The event was carried out by the Israel Border Police (Magav), which led to 48 Arab civilian murders, many of whom were women and children. On the eve of the Sinai War, the victims of the massacre were slaughtered indiscriminately after returning home from work during a curfew (of which they were unaware), imposed only 30 minutes earlier on that very same day. Halaby began the Kafr Qasem series after interviewing numerous survivors and relatives of the victims. The works mark a departure from abstraction into a more documentary-style of figurative drawing, foregrounding yet again her commitment to using art as a vehicle for propelling issues related to social justice forward.
“In Arabic art, seeing is an analytical and thoughtful process,” she said. “This impression is the experience of a visual language which reflects the symmetry of growth in nature.” In a landmark book from 2003 called Liberation Art of Palestine, Halaby conducted 46 interviews with leading Palestinian artists. She includes commentary and analysis of how Palestinian painting and sculpture (mostly) contributes to the history of a people who are otherwise de-platformed, muted, and silenced. “Palestine is full of epic subject matter,” Halaby wrote back in 1989, “it seems that anywhere you look, any person you question, any door you knock at, reveals subject matter fitting for great art.”
Part of what makes Halaby so interesting, at least for me, is her ability to transcend and move beyond the Western gaze with respect to abstraction. By balancing the boundaries of art and political engagement, abstraction and Islamic influences ranging from geometry, calligraphy, and architecture, through to figurative and more documentary styles, Halaby’s art represents a departure from the often cited tenets of Western-centric approaches to abstraction.
Halaby defines her works as materialist — meaning that they are in dialogue with the objective world around her. Yet they differ from reality as seen from the perspective of photography, for example, given that they are flat representations of our world in motion — full of rich colors, dexterous shapes, light, and movement. The works reference naturalistic forms like olive trees and shapes like rectangles, which, for Halaby, contain strong symbolic references to social justice and the Palestinian people.
In “I Found Myself Growing Inside an Old Olive Tree” (2005), for example, Halaby submitted to an open call seeking self-portraits from the Art Car Museum in Houston; she juxtaposes her identity to that of the olive tree. “The olive tree is both a symbol of resistance and a symbol of the perseverance of the Palestinian people,” Halaby said.
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Lecturer at the Council of Middle East Studies at Yale University, and organizer of Halaby’s talk last month in Dubai, said of her work: “Halaby combines the intellectual depth of an academic with the creative style of an artist. She has always been an experimental artist having worked with oil as well as computer-based kinetic art.”
He added, “I would very much like to see a major exhibition in the US that brings together Samia’s work from American and Middle Eastern museums and institutions.” I couldn’t agree more.
I found myself in Dubai listening to her speak on the edge of my seat. Few people, I reasoned, could give such testimony to the close kinship between art and activism as Halaby. Over six decades, Halaby has proven time and again that incisive commitment to politics and art are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they overlap. Looking at the many layers and textures of her works, her commitment to experimentation, social justice, and scholarship, one is left with the impression that her life’s work has still not been given adequate attention nor focus to date.
Halaby concluded her talk by stating matter-of-factly that she has and continues to believe that art can ignite a revolutionary impulse. Touching on art’s social co-efficient, particularly to the Palestinian cause and Arab leftism, she added artists have a social responsibility to act, which, she said: “we should never forget.”
In Linda Nochlin’s celebrated 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” she looks at how the structural conditions of museums in the West have entrenched gender biases, noting several disparaging trends. Following her analysis in the mid-80s, the Guerrilla Girls initiated a demonstration at a Museum of Modern Art survey that contained just 13 women in a show of 169 artists. Ever since, discussions have been taking place throughout the art world about gender disparity, albeit with dismal progress. In the purportedly liberal realm of the art world, an artist like Samia Halaby is certainly deserving of closer attention. Considering the unique developments she brought to abstract art over her 60+ year career, not to mention her enduring commitment to social justice issues, it remains telling that the inbuilt product of “greatness” in the art world continues to manifest in ways that are overtly Western-centric and male. And while there are undoubtedly plenty of female artists who achieve artistic “greatness” yet remain unrecognized, here’s to hoping Halaby is not one of them.