Being Samia Halaby: Selection of Artworks: Over Six Decades of Bold and Explorative Artistic Expression Part I

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.

Halaby’s artistic evolution reflects a decades-long commitment to creativity and innovation. Her early exposure to the visual richness of Palestinian art laid the groundwork for a career marked by exploration and experimentation. Her journey took a transformative turn when she pursued her art education in the American Midwest during the 1950s, immersing herself in the shifting cultural landscape of the United States. Inspired by the geometric abstraction and vibrant colours of Palestinian visual arts, Halaby’s earliest work was rooted in her identity. Abstraction, in its purest form, became her language, devoid of the influences of Western art theory and movements. However, as she delved deeper into her artistic practice, Halaby’s technique began to evolve, influenced initially by the meticulous detail and luminous colours of Dutch painting. Her embrace of abstraction quickly expanded with an almost scientific approach, incorporating technological tools into her creative process. This intersection of art and technology allowed her to push the boundaries of traditional mediums, creating dynamic compositions that challenged the status quo. Throughout her career spanning over six decades, Halaby remained steadfast in her commitment to forging her own path, eschewing the gaze of professors and critics to explore her unique artistic vision. Her style, characterised by bold colours, intricate patterns, and geometric forms, defies easy categorisation, embodying a fusion of influences and ideas. What follows offers readers a highly detailed, scholarly perspective on her artistic journey, inviting them to delve into the thought process behind each brushstroke and composition. As she recounts her experiences and reflections, she provides invaluable insights into the complexities of the creative process and the enduring power of artistic expression. Halaby’s artistic journey is a reflection of broader social, economic and technological changes and the transformative potential of art in a rapidly changing world, and also, the world’s transformative effect on the evolving practice of art.

EARLY PAINTING REMINISCENCES OF PALESTINE

Red Gate White Moon, 1960, oil on hardboard, 32 x 23 3/4 in (81 x 60 cm).
Red Gate White Moon, 1960, oil on hardboard, 32 x 23 3/4 in
(81 x 60 cm).

I hardly know that person whom I was during my late teenage years when my aesthetic thoughts began to gain conscious presence even while I was always scribbling on the covers of my notebooks or in the margins of my school books or on any available paper. Beginning in my childhood, gifts of crayons, chalks, and paint sets from family members tell me something of how I was seen and therefore of who I was. Once I took up the making of paintings during my undergraduate years, I found that my work of the time bears a strong imprint of Palestinian visual arts. Red Gate White Moon, 1960, fulfils exactly what four decades later I learnt while interviewing the artists of the Intifada. I was using images abstractly, I was not shading light to dark, and I was not even remotely interested in projection and perspective. Notions of western style depth were not even a small breeze in the air. The paintings, nevertheless, partook of abstraction and the relativity of space. Sometimes ignorance is wisdom. But it is dangerous to be ignorant as the minute you learn one little thing, confusion can send creative intuition into long-term hiding.

STUDENT YEARS

City (Al Quds), 1960, o.c., 39 x 44 1/4 in (99 x 112.5 cm).
City (Al Quds), 1960, o.c., 39 x 44 1/4 in
(99 x 112.5 cm).

I attended two different universities in the Midwest. I earned a Master of Art degree from Michigan State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Indiana University. In both cases, I started by exploring, feeling uncertain but continuously working. In both cases, after extended effort it would seem like the conscious part of my thinking would become disengaged and an intuitive part of me would take over silently and I would paint with assurance. It would be as though I had stumbled into a visual language that had far horizons and I would paint what later would look like a related series. Abstraction was on my mind and I sought it naively using images but camouflaging it through visual manipulation. City, 1960, was one of the earliest paintings that was done at Michigan State University where I spent one year. It recalls Palestinian tradition in loyalty to 20th century abstraction as it contains hints of the city of my birth, Jerusalem. Soon after, I developed a way of creating texture on the surface of the oil painting over which I dry-brushed shadowy figurations using broad graduations of colour and light. At Indiana University, two years later, a similar process occurred as had at Michigan State University, I had arrived at a true abstraction no longer relying on ideas of camouflaged imagery. Largest Blue Green, 1963, and The Apron of Gorky’s Mother, 1963, belong to a series that I created late during my two years at Indiana University. I had arrived at a visual syntax of areas of flat colours that recalled flat surfaces and boundaries in our environment. My affinity to abstraction had finally asserted itself.

The Apron of Gorky’s Mother, 1963, o.c., 32 5/8 x 42 in (83 x 106.5 cm).
The Apron of Gorky’s Mother, 1963, o.c., 32 5/8 x 42 in (83 x 106.5 cm).

THE GEOMETRIC STILL LIFE

Two Vertical Cylinders, 1968, o.c., 21 x 21 in (53.5 x 53.5 cm).
Two Vertical Cylinders, 1968, o.c., 21 x 21 in
(53.5 x 53.5 cm).

A few years after graduation, I began to wonder why I was always asking if this or that professor would like what I did. I decided that it was time to clean the house of my education and start something of my own completely. I wanted that something to be a beginning that would be expandable to a lifetime endeavour. After perhaps six months of intense testing of possible styles, I decided that I am going about my exploration the wrong way. If painting is about the world, then I should begin by painting ordinary things in my environment. A further idea occurred to me, that I would deliberately examine every detail of the act of looking, seeing and interpreting. Finally, on inspiration from details of pristine Dutch painting, I began to build geometric still life objects and began to paint them. And as I became deeply absorbed in the making and painting, intuition took over the driver’s seat once again and all questioning and agonising over what to paint disappeared. The first works were brightly coloured spheres among white boxes based on the original inspiration from Dutch painting, the admiration of a fresh fruit on a brown windowsill in a Petrus Christus painting. To build on this I crafted an idea that is called visual conjugation. The first mature results were paintings of spheres and of variations based on my notion of visual conjugation. After painting the sphere whole, I would begin slicing it in perfect geometric ways, and I would execute it in a variety of methods. I would take it from drawing to painting to bas-relief and back to drawing the bas relief. Once the treatise on spheres was complete, I performed a similar treatment of a variety of other geometric volumes. And I thought that visual conjugation would take many years and would keep growing. I felt that I had found the beginning of a thread of aesthetic thinking that would keep growing for many years, perhaps a lifetime. Mirror Sphere, 1968, was part of the treatise on spheres. By using a metal sphere, a huge ball-bearing someone gave me, the result was a reproduction of me sitting in my apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, painting the sphere. Part of the treatise on cylinders, Two Vertical Cylinders, 1968, were arranged using geometric proportions carefully crafted to relate to the perimeter of the painting.

Mirror Sphere, 1968, o.c., 26 x 22 ½ in (66 x 57 cm).
Mirror Sphere, 1968, o.c., 26 x 22 ½ in
(66 x 57 cm).

FROM STILL LIFE TO GRAPH PAPER

White Spiral, 1970, o.c., 66 x 66 in (167.5 x 167.5 cm).
White Spiral, 1970, o.c., 66 x 66 in
(167.5 x 167.5 cm).

Arriving at those imagined many-years-into-the-future that I expected back then with my idea of ‘visual conjugation’, I began departing the world of still life objects and adapting to the world of discovering shape and volume on graph paper. The first efforts in this brief period of my work were rectilinear utilising isometric projection. Because they were invented volumes on graph paper, a measure of irrationality entered my work as a challenge to the logic of perspective. Isometric projection on graph paper allowed me to create illusions of volume that could not exist. That is, the volumes looked persuasive in the drawing but could not be built. Furthermore, I was not shading the objects as though they were illuminated by a single light source nor was I exploiting reflected light and casting shadows to create the illusion of roundness. I simply shaded areas from light to dark disregarding genuine chiaroscuro. It was a step away from direct observation of still life objects and an unconscious return to my early fascination with abstraction. White Spiral, 1970 is one of the first of these. In the negative spaces of the twisted rectilinear volume, I created a background that is the illusion of tinfoil. Fourth Spiral, 1970, uses the graph paper volumes in rotational symmetry inspired by Arabic art.

Fourth Spiral, 1970, o.c., 48 x 48 in (122 x 122 cm).
Fourth Spiral, 1970, o.c., 48 x 48 in
(122 x 122 cm).

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