Samia Halaby (b.1936 in Jerusalem) is a Palestinian-American artist, activist, and scholar living and working in New York. She was educated in the 1950s in the American Midwest, at a time when abstract expressionism was popular, but female abstract painters were often rejected.
In the 1960s she started working with intense colors to construct geometrical shapes, that repeat and spread on canvas surfaces. Over time, the geometric forms transformed into lines and diagonals that defined the dynamics of her compositions, ultimately withdrawing to liberate highly colorful textured brushstrokes.
In her attempt to capture the process of growth and change observed in nature, and inevitably related to the flux of social realities, Halaby develops her distinctive artistic signature: her painting method is based on the visual perception of her environment, translated to canvas using abstract vocabulary, in a radical spirit of experimentation and creativity.
While most of her American contemporaries such as Joan Mitchell, Frank Stella, Clifford Still or Ellsworth Kelly use the full surface of a canvas to create a composition, dripping and dropping color and constructing it around central forms, Halaby often adds her curved or geometrical shapes one after the other, like the letters of a word. By doing so, she references ancestral techniques of calligraphy or arabesques using triangular shapes, squares, circles, or dots to devise her own alphabet. What seems at first glance like a spontaneous explosion of colours is in fact a systematically -almost mathematically- scripted composition. Halaby seems to be “writing” her paintings, lining up shapes, colours, and energies, that flow into each other as if following a wandering thought that does not recognise the canvases borders as a limit. Her paintings feel like a galaxy of colourful sentences that overlap, change directions, and explode into a vibrant narrative captured through abstract expression.
Samia Halaby, Kinetic paintings series, 1986, Digital films with sound, programmed on an Amiga computer, transferred to Apple using an Amiga emulator, 1’11’’ – 2’30’’, Ed.7 + 2AP, Exhibition view, De-coding colour 2023, © Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut
Early in her practice, her works left the traditional rectangular stretched fabric, to become shaped canvases or expansive hanging installations, or even animated digital paintings. In the mid 1980s she coded her own program to create screen-based moving shapes using an Amiga computer.
Halaby constantly foregrounded works and techniques, and, in retrospect, was at the avant-garde of artistic production throughout her career. In her work, she manages to capture her biographical and political history, while acutely grasping the very essence of abstract painting.
Samia Halaby studied painting between 1960 and 1963 at the Michigan State University and at the Indiana University. She started exhibiting her work as early as 1965 and has held numerous teaching positions throughout her career at the Yale School of Art, The Cooper Union and the Birzeit University among many others.
Her most recent exhibitions include the Singapore Biennale (2022), group exhibitions at the NYU Grey Art Gallery, New York (2020), and the Katzen Art Center, Washington (2019) as well as solo shows at the Birzeit University Museum, Ramallah (2017) and the Beirut Exhibition Center (2015). Forthcoming solo exhibitions will be announced in 2023.
Selected public collections include the Guggenheim Museum (New York and Abu Dhabi), the Barjeel Art Foundation (Sharjah), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris) and Mathaf (Doha).
Samia Halaby, de-coding colours, 1982-2022
Location: Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut
Duration: 12 January – 15 April