HoMA Select:

Samia Halaby (b. 1936, Jerusalem. Lives and works in New York.)
Red Trees, 1974
Oil on canvas
Gift of Joseph Cantor Foundation, 1986 (5453.1)

 
Palestinian-American artist, scholar, and activist Samia Halaby was born in Jerusalem and moved to the United States in 1951 following the Arab-Israeli War. As a woman and an immigrant, Halaby faced the daunting task of navigating a primarily white, male-dominated art world of the 1960s. About her experience, she states:

“The ambient propaganda places us in categories labeled ‘minorities.’ The implication is that we are lesser. Our work is seen as different from and less significant than the art of the mainstream…I was completely rejected for being an Arab, a Palestinian, an immigrant, a female, for being political, and for speaking with an accent.”

Despite the hardships she encountered, she went on to break gender barriers as the first full-time female faculty member in the Yale School of Art. Her long and distinguished career in academia began in 1963 in Honolulu, when shortly after graduate school she landed her first job as an instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She returned to Hawaiʻi several times, including to teach in the summer of 1966 and in 1985–86 as a visiting artist. Activism is a key component of her practice, and her art and scholarship are guided by a strong stance on issues such as the rights of Palestinians and other displaced peoples, colonialism, war, and racism. An artist’s book and mural created in Honolulu in 1985, For Niʻihau from Palestine, connects Hawaiʻi with the Middle East through the politics of self-determination and land rights. Of the project, she writes:

“[It is] dedicated to the Hawaiian people and to the working-class in Hawaiʻi. This dedication resulted from my experience as a Palestinian. I know the pain applied to oppressed nationalities. I needed to express my sentiments in this way so that I could attain a degree of honesty while enjoying life on the beautiful land of the beautiful Hawaiians.”

A keen interest in visual phenomena and in how our eyes work to see the world around us led her to experiment with a range of painting styles—including color field abstraction and geometric abstraction. In 1966 Halaby returned to the Middle East on a grant-funded trip to study Islamic art and architecture. While visiting mosques she was struck by how an eloquent combination of forms, colors, and materials worked together to translate symbolic meaning within a multi-dimensional architectural space. She has carried this understanding of Islamic art into her own work, especially in her use of rhythmic patterns and symbolic forms to express personal and political meaning.

In the 1970s, a growing interest in the physical properties of materials drove an exploration into metallic shapes and surfaces, as we see in HoMA’s painting Red Trees. Here narrow striations painted in black, blue, red, and silver, join to form shapes that appear to twist and curve in multiple directions. The title suggests leaves that turn color in autumn, then fall in the breeze to the ground below, while the metallic sheen alludes to steel or reflective surfaces found in the built environment.

An expert at capturing movement and light in layered and harmonious compositions, Halaby’s recent paintings merge organic shapes, lines, and colors drawn from the natural world. Bright swatches of paint appear to vibrate on the surface of her canvases, and graceful ribbon-like forms frequently dance across the picture plane. This interest in optical effects connects Halaby’s work to the Optical Art style of abstraction. Op Art paintings create the illusion of movement and shifting spatial depth. The viewer becomes an interactive participant, acutely aware of the act of seeing. Halaby expands on this interest in interactive art and technology through her work with the Kinetic Painting Group. Since the 1980s, she has collaborated with musicians in performances that use specially designed computer software to create paintings that move and evolve in real time.

Today, at the age of 85, Halaby exhibits her work, writes, and lectures internationally, and is active on social media. (She can be found on Instagram @samiahalaby.) Her engagement in an evolving art practice—along with her fierce commitment to social and political concerns—keep her work relevant in the present moment, inspiring future generations of artists and activists across the globe.

— Katherine Love, Assistant Curator Contemporary Art