Being Samia Halaby: Artistic Practices: On the sinuous path from inspiration to implementation: Autumn Leaves

This article appeared in Being Samia Halaby Issue #68 dedicated to spotlighting the journey of Samia Halaby, a Palestinian-American artist whose resilience shines through despite challenges like the cancellation of a significant exhibition at Indiana University. Halaby’s remarkable year, marked by global exhibitions and well-deserved acclaim, underscores her ability to transcend borders with art that prompts reflection on themes of identity, belonging, and social justice, serving as a bridge across cultural divides.

September 29, 1975, colour pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in (43 x 35.5 cm).
September 29, 1975, colour pencil on paper,
17 x 14 in (43 x 35.5 cm).

As an artist, Samia Halaby has sought to infuse her creations with the vitality and essence of life itself. With a profound connection to nature, she embarked on a journey to explore the very properties that animate the world around us. Through her art, Halaby delved into the intricate interplay of light, colour, and form, drawing inspiration from the organic rhythms of the natural world.

Central to Halaby’s vision has always been her deep-rooted and troubled Palestinian identity, which found expression through themes echoing the land, soil, and olive trees of her country. In her quest to evoke the spirit of her homeland, she looked to the earth itself, finding inspiration in its rugged beauty and timeless resilience. By incorporating these elements into her work, Halaby not only captured the essence of her heritage but also celebrated its enduring vitality, even as the world witnessed Palestine’s ongoing struggle to exist. 

Yet Halaby’s art is not purely nostalgic, or confined to serene landscapes and idyllic scenes. Unapologetically confronting the harsh realities of history, she boldly addresses the atrocities inflicted upon her people. One such haunting chapter is the Kafr Qasim massacre of 1956, where Israeli forces brutally massacred innocent Palestinian civilians. Her visceral depictions of this tragedy serve as a stark reminder of the ongoing struggles faced by the Palestinian people.

In her pursuit of truth and justice, Halaby employs a diverse array of mediums, from traditional painting techniques to unconventional materials like paper-mâché and knit clothing. Through each stroke of her brush or weave of her fabric, she breathes life into her art, infusing it with raw emotion and unwavering conviction.

In essence, Samia Halaby’s art transcends mere representation; it pulsates with the vitality of nature and the indomitable spirit of Palestine. Through her uncompromising vision and unyielding dedication, she invites us to bear witness to the beauty, resilience, and struggles of her people, while forging a powerful testament to the human experience over a period of decades. She simultaneously provokes, challenges and inspires us. 

Autumn Leaves

First Leaf Study, Autumn Leaf series, gouache on paper, 7 x 6 in on 13 ½ x 10 ½ in.
First Leaf Study, Autumn Leaf series, gouache on paper, 7 x 6 in on 13 ½ x 10 ½ in.

I take note of the fact that my delight in making sketches and studies born of seeing beautiful things became a practice that I continued without plan or forethought of its connection to the central progress of my aesthetic path in making paintings. Photographing all the mosques that I could during my 1966 study of Arabic art took shape in my paintings in 1981. Similarly, a study of autumn leaves that I did in 1975 while still living in New Haven then began to assert itself in my paintings of 1982 in New York. My absorption with the beauty of autumn leaves in combination with my fascination with how humanity divides plots of land and city blocks based on natural formation gave way to the Autumn Leaves and City Blocks series. It was during 1975 while still making my Helix and Cycloid paintings moving slowly in thought to the Diagonal Flight that this sudden love of the beauty of autumn leaves took hold of me. It began with interest in the measurements and geometry of plants. I used measurements between segments of growth along the stem of a fern to guide the proportions and incidences of illumination in the painting Fern, 1975, one of the Diagonal Flight series. When autumn came that year in New Haven, Connecticut, the falling of tree leaves and their decay had such beauty that they overwhelmed my sketching and work on paper. The first move was to collect and press them in books until all my books were swollen to excess. The way rot and worms denuded sections of the leaves led me to examine the veins more carefully. I did drawings of the veins, I cut segments of leaves and made slides out of them and projected them to see better what I could learn. I drew and painted on paper fragments of the leaves. Finally one day in that studio on Temple Street with its red carpet, I sat with a lot of leaves in my hands demanding they tell me why they were more beautiful than any of my drawings of them. It was precisely at that moment that I realised that if I wanted my paintings to be beautiful like the autumn leaves, that they would have to grow like the autumn leaves and not merely imitate a rectangular segment of the leaf. The whole of the leaf was a temporary position in the process of life. A rectangle cut from the leaf and frozen in a drawing is not a position in a process of life but something artificially removed from life. For now, however, I continued with my transition from painting the Helix series into the Diagonal Flight series. The question of how I could make paintings grow like autumn leaves or anything else in nature remained in the house of my aesthetic thoughts, quietly maturing and waiting for its moment of entry into my paintings.

October 31, 1975, colour pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in (43 x 35.5 cm).
October 31, 1975, colour pencil on paper,
17 x 14 in (43 x 35.5 cm).



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