Interview with Samia Halaby

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, Halaby spent most of her childhood in Palestine before being forced to move to Beirut in 1948 and settle in the United States in 1951. Eight years later, Halaby received a Bachelor of Science in Design from the University of Cincinnati. In 1963, she earned a Master of Fine Arts. In 1972, Halaby began teaching at Yale University before moving to New York in 1976. Although it has been quite the struggle being a Palestinian artist in New York City, Halaby’s paintings are housed in a number of significant institutions ranging from the Guggenheim to the Art Institute of Chicago. Halaby’s artistic career that spans six decades, transcends national and cultural barriers by voicing her powerful narratives and extensive experience as not only a Palestinian, but also an innovator.

First, could you describe how it was like living in Palestine? What were some hobbies that you had when you were young?

I used to enjoy painting. I cannot remember doing it a lot, but I did. I had a stock of images I liked to draw. I remember my sister and her friends a couple of times would ask me to draw animals for them that we would cut up and make into a collage. But I was not drawing all the time. I almost loved my crayon boxes more than using them.

Overall, I would say I had a nice childhood. We were a big family and every Sunday we would visit my grandmother’s home in Jerusalem, where I was born. I remember the British soldiers, but I was not old enough to understand why they were there and what was happening. I do remember them being intrusive and examining our baggage. We were living in Jaffa when we left Palestine. I was then almost 12 years old and just beginning to comprehend reality and my surroundings.

When you were younger were you as observant of nature and your surroundings in Palestine as you are now?

Yes, I did notice things on a more visual level. The texture of Palestine is engrained in my consciousness. Probably in every Palestinian’s as well – it feels like an old friend every time I visit. I love remembering the feeling of sitting under an olive tree seeing the sun through foliage casting shadows on freshly-plowed earth. I still remember the rock formations on the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. The structure of rock formation, the dappled earth, the culture of the stepped mountains, and the blue of the Mediterranean all come together to make a very beautiful image of Palestine. I miss the ocean most of all—the Mediterranean Sea. On a personal level, what I miss most is the people.

How do you describe how your artwork evolved?

My artwork can be divided into three parts: political posters and banners done mostly when I was an activist, documentary work on the Kafr Qasem massacre and the Israeli massacre of our olive trees, and third—my central artistic effort—explorative abstraction. I divided my efforts because I realized that you cannot really explore the future of painting while simultaneously showcasing political themes. You will no longer be researching pure abstraction if you add political themes to it; and, on the other hand, you would not impart a clear political view if you are trying to explore abstraction. However, I do not think everybody has to do it my way.

“I think abstract art imitates reality—they are not separate.”

Samia Halaby’s kitchen in her Tribeca studio.

What is the driving force that motivates you to create the work that you do?

I just enjoy making it. I love it. I like to see things. I am measuring things with my eye – comparing how I see the distance of things, we are always walking around seeing really beautiful things, and then I try to make beautiful things in my paintings. But when I leave it for a long time, I start to forget how nice it is to be in the studio. In the studio I feel a strange kind of oppression when things are not going well and the opposite happens when things are going well.

It is an emotional journey with my paintings but that is not to say that painting is my emotion—I am very scientific about that. My attitude is that these paintings are things we both see in reality. It is like how you looked at my paintings and saw what is in them. If you knew what is in them, then those ideas are in your head as well and are in your experiences. So, it is about experience.

But what is my reaction to it — why do I do it?

It is my work. It is the work I chose to do. Sometimes I wonder if I chose correctly, there were times when I would wonder why I did not choose to be a mathematician instead. I go through periods when I wished I were a mathematician and asked myself why I studied painting. But, in school I used to get a headache every time I took a math exam – so I thought I am not going to live my life with a headache.

How did you come about this space?

I have been here since 1976, so for 43 years. That is a long time. It was not so easy to find a place back then. I wanted to live in Soho. At the time I was a professor at Yale University, I did not have a big salary and it was going to decrease because they did not want me to move to New York. As a result, Yale reduced my courses and my salary and so Soho was too expensive for me. Instead, I found a place through a friend here in Tribeca.

What importance does innovation play in your art and kinetic painting?

For me, the question is that if I am a painter of my time I need to use the technology of my time. I started exploring digital technology which was great fun. I bought the Amiga in 1985. It came with a booklet on how to code. I enjoyed how a function worked and compared it to a factory into which raw material is fed and out of which ready made products emerge. Program logic seemed to me to be similar to the logic of a functioning city—programing was like life itself. But the computer is still primitive compared to oil and acrylic paint. It is hard for it to have the presence of a 60 x 80-inch painting with the kind of delicacy of color possible with paint.

What I discovered was that the computer had the potential for other exciting things. I can make something abstract that can also have motion. However, I was not interested in the kind of motion that came as a result of a lens-based video or camera because that takes you back to perspective, which to me is an earlier technology that painting has amply explored. I am more interested in the relatively of space, time and color. To have those elements but also to allow them to grow and change and shift, as well as combining them with sound, was interesting— so I did that for a while.

What are the projects you are working on at the moment?

I have too many projects on my plate and more in the planning stage. I have too many half-done projects. I have to learn to make a choice and put a limit. I was recently accepted into the 8th Beijing Biennial and I am very excited to be going to share in the opening and attending the symposium on the following day. There will be artists from approximately 121 or so countries from around the world and I look forward to meeting some. It will be a special experience to see what is happening in painting from throughout the world.

Do you have any advice for Arab artists beginning their career?

The important part is to not give up working if exposure does not come. Also, do not really wait for the dealer or museum to come around. I advise you to create as much artwork as possible because that is really enjoyable. And I advise you to unify with other Arab artists and exhibit together. Be proactive because things happen when you are proactive. Finally, document everything and keep a diary of what you are doing.

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