Buro 24/7 Middle East Interview: Samia Halaby

Buro 24/7 Middle East Interview: Samia Halaby

One of the Arab world's leading contemporary painters

Image: Ayyam Gallery

A prolific artist that has enjoyed five decades of pioneering exploration in contemporary art, Buro 24/7 speaks to Samia A. Halaby

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, Samia Halaby is a leading abstract painter and an influential scholar of Palestinian art, recognised as a pioneer of contemporary abstraction in the Arab world.

Although based in the United States since 1951, Halaby has exhibited extensively throughout the Middle East region and abroad, and is widely collected by international institutions such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art (in New York and Abu Dhabi), the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, Institute du Monde Arab in Paris, the British Museum, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

Not only that, Halaby was the first full time female associate professor at the Yale School of Art, a position she held for nearly a decade, and now celebrating fifty years in practice, there is a re-evaluation in play concerning Halaby's experiments with computer-based painting in the 1980s – something which she created programs for and performed live at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, categorised as 'kinetic art'.

Buro 24/7 speaks to Samia A. Halaby ahead of her talk in person at the opening night of her retrospective exhibit at the Ayyam Gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz district.

Interview with Samia Halaby

Pyramids. 2011. Acrylic on canvas


Congratulations on a wonderful exhibit, you must be very proud of such an achievement. Which decade has been the most important to you?

Perhaps the first decade is the most important, the decade in which I completed my graduate study in painting and discovered a path that I would traverse for five decades. Although the years of study changed the type of imagery I created prior to my education, my resistance to that change was smaller than my curiosity to learn. However, a year after graduation in 1963, a two-sided ambition began to form. One side was to do a virtual housecleaning of my education, to re-examine what I learnt: while the other side was to find a logical place to start. The question was where does one in the middle of the twentieth century begin? It needed to be a beginning not only for me personally but for me as a painter who wished to grow with the most advanced thinking in pictures to date. I wanted to be scientific.

I decided to start by making small paintings of humble objects. This quickly led to curiosity about how we see. Will painting very accurately what one sees create a good illusion of space? It seemed not and it became obvious that realistic painting has its forms to help make good illusions. These forms are abstractions.

As I continued working my aesthetic experiences with Arabic/Islamic art began to assert themselves in how I selected parts of a still life on which to focus. In time Arabic geometric arts quickly took the lead as influence. Before the decade was over I had transitioned from paintings about the relativity of color to paintings which examined how we see with a heavy aesthetic influence from Arabic art, to finally making paintings based on plotting forms on graph paper such as the painting Third Spiral, the star of the exhibition.

Interview with Samia Halaby

Third Spiral with Dark Center. 1970. Oil on canvas


Can you describe how you felt on your return to tour Arabia in 1966, after spending so much time in America?

I felt that I had returned home. I was happy to see my relatives again and excited to visit places that I had heard a lot about in my childhood and had never had a chance to experience. I wanted to return to live in Palestine but Israel made that difficult. When I first returned in 1966, I had a grant from the Kansas City Council for Faculty Development, which I used to visit the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Damascus, as well as many monuments in Istanbul most important of which were Aya Sophia and The Blue Mosque. These architectural monuments and the unique way in which they utilize color and inlaid art moved me deeply and influenced the way I think about painting. In due time the strongest of these influences asserted itself in the early 1980s when I did a series that I titled Dome of the Rock.


How do you feel the art scene in the Middle East region differentiates from the rest of the world?

The art scene in the Middle East, that being the Arab world and our historic neighbours; Iran and Turkey, has unifying attributes while being firmly embedded in the contemporary, international art world. Of course, this scene is varied but its most obvious attribute is the use of installation art. These belong to a new artform composed of mixed technological advance media and is given the name 'Post Modernism'. But what is most fascinating about the Post Modernism of the Arab world is that it focuses on subject matter that is significant politically to the nationality of its Arab, Iranian, and Turkish practitioners.

My scholarship is focused on Palestinian art on which I have written extensively. What was of great interest in this history is how artists that I call the 'liberation artists' created an aesthetic during the Intifadah, beginning during the 1970s, in which a modernist, partly cubist, method of painting was overlaid with the symbols of the resistance movement. Their art was heavily influenced by both Islamic geometric abstraction and the Mexican Muralists. My thesis on this subject was developed in a book, which I published in 2003 titled Liberation Art of Palestine. What is fascinating in this context of Palestinian art and Arab Post Modernism is that there is a fraction of the new generation of Palestinian artists who continue the traditions of the liberation artists while another fraction uses the new art-form, intermixing new technologies in an installation mode. The subject of Palestine is uppermost in both fractions but while the descendants of the liberation artists tend to be painters who continue to create their message first and foremost to serve their own people, the Palestinian Post Modernists tend to create a message explaining Palestine to a western audience. These young Palestinian Post Modernists differ vastly from the majority of western Post Modernists in that their themes are in unity with resistance.

Interview with Samia Halaby

Blue Trap in a Railroad Station. 1978. Oil on canvas

Interview with Samia Halaby

Essence of Arab.2007. Acrylic on  canvas


Which technology has most transformed your work?

Digital technology has had a deep impact on my use of colour and my concept of painting. In many ways the most advance thinking that I have done in painting took place between 1985 and 1990 when I was programming an Amiga. I had always thought that being an advanced painter one had to use the advanced technology of their time. Programming paintings led me to create abstractions that move, which I called 'Kinetic Painting'. As I programmed abstraction in motion, it was clear that the computer would allow me to also program sound in close interaction with visual material. I began at that point to question how we see and how we hear things not simultaneously but with variations that imply space. 

I realised that sometimes we only hear things and do not see them and the opposite. What is important in these investigations was that I was using digital technology not to create installation and mixed media but rather to create paintings that actually possessed sound and motion and most importantly remained abstract. They are abstractions, extractions from the corporeal world that treat the way we see and hear the things that surround us.

This practice eventually led me to structure my digital program in such a way that the keyboard became an instrument, which allowed me to publicly perform Kinetic Paintings in collaboration with musicians.


Do you have any regrets from the past five decades?

Yes, I do. I regret that I did not develop a more intimate knowledge of the history of Asian art. I allowed its beauty to overcome my aesthetic knowledge in intuitive ways, but an intimate knowledge of its history and its cultural and historical background is an enrichment that I lack. As I read about Chinese aesthetics during the early centuries AD, perhaps millennia prior to any such thoughts in Europe and the rest of the world, I only regret this deficit in my knowledge all the more deeply.


What are you proud of?

I am very proud of the stubbornness of Palestinian artists and Palestinian resistance. After decades of suffering and loss, a persistence that is truly unusual in human history continues to inspire and to promote international solidarity. Indeed Palestine has become an international call for liberation.

Interview with Samia Halaby

War Women, For Dalal Mughrabi. 1978. Oil on canvas


What do you hope to achieve in 2014?

I have two ambitions for 2014. The first is to bring my book Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre to a publisher and the second is to substantially prepare the manuscript for a second edition of my book Liberation Art of Palestine. The Kafr Qasem massacre was executed by Israel in 1956 when 51 innocent civilians were deliberately slaughtered in horrific circumstances. I have researched the subject carefully and collected many witness statements, which have served as the basis for a series of drawings on the subject. These will all be included in the book with contributions from three other scholars.

The other book, a second edition of Liberation Art of Palestine, will contain approximately 400 hundred paintings along with detailed documentation of their media and size and a renewed analysis of their form and social history within an art historical attitude. The importance of the large number of images and their detailed documentation is highly significant in an area of study where both are rare and difficult to find.

I will divide my days into two parts. I will devote mornings to new paintings and afternoons to writing. And the privilege of exhibiting my work internationally with Ayyam Gallery continues to be a huge motivator for the substantial number of late works that I have been creating since beginning this association in 2008...

Interview with Samia Halaby

Red Africa. 2001. Acrylic on paper

Interview with Samia Halaby

World Wide Intifadah. 1989. Acrylic on canvas and paper


Samia Halaby: Five decades of Painting and Innovation opens tomorrow night at the Ayyam Gallery in Dubai's Al Quoz art district