BSC Artist Spotlight! Samia Halaby

By Nancy Cook & Samar Hussaini, Artist's and Blue Scarf Members

Samia Halaby, Palestinian artist and scholar is based in NY and recognized as one of the Arab world’s leading contemporary painters. Her work is held in many public collections such as The Guggenheim Museum, The Chicago Institute of Art, The National Museum of Art and the Institute du Monde Arabe. Halaby has taught most notably at Yale School of Art where she was the first woman to hold the position of full-time professor.

Halaby primarily works in abstraction and her oeuvre consists of over 3,000 works. In the 1990’s she experimented electronically teaching herself how to program languages on an Amiga computer allowing viewers to witness the process of live computerized painting. With the help of musicians she toured extensively with her “Kinetic Painting Group. Recently she has done figurative drawing in more political works such as the Kafr Qasem series as well as painted canvas hanging  sculptures.

Halaby has designed political posters and banners for various anti-war causes and has long been active in the NYC art scene mostly through independent and non profit art spaces and artist-run initiatives, advocating for pro-Palestinian struggles.

Early in June, Samar and I had the pleasure of speaking with her over lunch at her loft in Tribeca. Our visit left quite an impression on the two of us.

Samar: What does art mean to you?

Samia: I can only answer that question by analyzing it. First, let us ask the same question for an equivalent discipline. What does geometry mean to you? It is not a question that can be answered. But maybe you just mean to ask me if I love art. Yes! I do. I am a painter and I enjoy painting and attempt to understand it as scientifically as possible.

Samar: What is one of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as an artist?

Samia: One of the many challenges for a painter or other type of artist is to not fall in love with their own work only because they made it. The challenge is to try and see it as though you are a stranger to it. You have to try to understand how others see it. It has to be beautiful to others not just to you. To overcome the failure of falling in love with your own work, you have to keep questioning and keep learning.

Nancy: Do you think art can affect social change and advancement?

Samia: I don’t think it does. The real fact is that it is the other way round. It is social change that affects art. Social change and advancement emanates from revolution and in our time revolution emanates from the working class. There is no reason to have huge ambitions of social change from art. You can be an artist who is political and is happy with the small steps that art can make to persuade people and change consciousness.

Samar: In your work, is there one particular painting or body of work that you feel was a turning point for you?

Samia: During the 1960s after cleaning my education out of my head, I began a series based on still-lives that I built myself of geometric volumes and carefully illuminated. The compositions were simplified to give importance to the picture plain. I also sliced the volumes as part of an attempt to do something that I called the conjugation of shape. That is I wanted to take pictorial images and subject them to change by slicing the volumes or by changing the media of the work. I did bas-relief of certain paintings then painted illusions of the bas-relief. It was a good period in my work, the start of a long fertile path that kept changing as I added more limitations or conditions on the set of ideas leading the work. The painting Green Half Sphere is a good example.

Green Half Sphere, 1967, oil on canvas, 37 x 37 in, 94 x 94 cm.

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Samar: Can you tell us about the current body of work you are researching and crafting?

Samia: The series that I just did was in the show which opened in Dubai in March. It was titled “Illuminated Space”. Because abstraction does not use shading or rely on directional light, I have to find ways in using colors and shapes next to each other to talk about the reality of space around me, a reality where I see a lot of illuminated surfaces.

Nancy: Can you tell us about your kinetic painting group and what drew you to kinetic painting?

Samia: I started asking myself the question if I’m a painter of my time then I should use the technology of my time otherwise I’m really not a painter. I bought a computer and started programming. I had decided that as an abstract painter I should do it in a way that was within its true nature and not what it imitates. The computer programmers were making paint programs that would imitate drawing and the idea was how can they make things look like actual work prior to the computer by imitating pencil texture or brush texture. I was interested in something else. This is a medium that is digital and I wondered what it might be capable of? It’s capable of images that move and capable of accompanying the images with sound. I designed programs to make little moving paintings that took 30 seconds or two minutes, very short, moving abstract images with sounds. The sounds were not intended to be music. I’m not a musician and my sensitivity to music is not very great but I was looking at the world and seeing objects and objects have sounds. Everything we do has a sound. When you move a spoon you hear something. Sometimes you see something and you don’t hear it or you hear it and you don’t see it. I was using all these signals of sound and image and image in motion to create kinetic paintings. Then I saw musicians performing and jamming at digital conferences and I decided I would like to jam my images with them. I wrote a program called Kinetic Painting which transforms the keyboard into an abstract painting-piano and we would project the image onto the wall and play with musicians jamming and transformed the keyboard from typing letters to typing images.

I don’t think art is about feeling; it is about ideas. I think we artists are intelligent thinking people. Making art is like cooking. If you are a Mother and you cook for your children, you will select the best ingredients. You cook as intelligently as possible so that it will taste good and be healthy. Then when your children eat it and love it they react with pleasure and you feel satisfied. That pleasure and satisfaction is feeling. Feeling is a reaction to things. It is not the subject of art. Art is full of the attitudes, history, religion, and technology of society. Art is not about the feelings of the artist. When I make painting full of ideas and people understand them I feel happy because we have shared some thoughts. If you get addicted to that happy feeling then you will work ever harder and more intelligently to earn that feeling again. - Samia Halaby


Sarah Klein