Treasures from the Vault: Samia Halaby

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

It was during the time I spent organizing the museum’s painting racks that I first took notice of Samia Halaby’s Mars. It is beautifully simplistic, and masterful in color. Its large size also leaves a lasting impression. I scribbled her name down to look up later and was pleasantly surprised at her stacked CV. Normally, when it comes to big-name or blue-chip artists, the works we hold are drawings or prints on paper. Halaby’s Indiana roots, and her place in the art world, make her a natural fit for the FWMoA collection.

Samia Halaby, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, came to the United States with her family after fleeing Palestine in 1948. Always sketching as a child, it was her mother that pushed her into pursuing an art education and career. They settled in Cincinnati, OH where she received her BFA from University of Cincinnati and went on to obtain her MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington. Growing up in these differing countries, and the importance of it in her life, is something that she is still processing. Her education at the university level took place wholly in the Midwest, it was a combination of a rare and important set of influences that helped her develop as an artist and continue seeking innovation. She feels fortunate for the opportunities that became a truly great education, as she said to Indiana University alum magazine: “I loved Bloomington even more as a teacher than I did as a student. It’s such a happy little town. I enjoyed its continuous peacefulness. Each time I return I am amazed to still find traces of the things I loved. There I had the peace of mind to work out intellectual and formal concepts and investigations. In New York, far too many things buzz your brain- the noise, transportation, heat, a thousand things.”

Being displaced left her feeling lost, as she never had a full connection with Palestine or the United States- she left at too young of an age to fully experience her own Arab culture but felt she didn’t fully fit in with Americans. Her works are not overtly political, but express her experiences in harmonious abstractions. Most of her imagery is inspired by the textures and landscapes of her native land, in particular, the olive trees. Halaby returned to Palestine in 1966, the first time since her departure, to study the geometry of Islamic design and architecture. She says, “In Arabic art, there is a sense of numbers and rhythms, duplicating principles of nature- not in appearance. My paintings are therefore an image of nature. They expose what the mind comprehends” (IU alum quote). No doubt that this affected the work we have in the collection, painted while teaching at Yale School of Art in 1977, where she was the first woman to hold the position as an associate professor.

Always pushing the boundaries for innovation, looking from the beginning to her current work, you can see a clear progression and direction. She never rests on what she knows, but seeks to learn and create new visuals- her work is in constant transition. Starting in the 60s it took on a simple, yet striking object/still life quality, later evolving in the 70s into landscape and natural elements, such as fire and water, as seen in Mars. From there, moving into the 80s, flat colors became textured and brighter colors were used more liberally. She took it a step further in the 90s with calligraphy-like mark-making and bold, bright colors. In fact, little black was used. Her current work brings all of these ideas together with stylized lines and colors, a creation of depth, and sometimes object-like shapes. She likes to work on several paintings at once, each influencing the other. Her work started out carefully planned with sketches and prep-work, but slowly she learned to be intuitive with her mark-making. Although there is a vast range within her body of work, it all looks distinctive yet from the same family, and you can see how each body of work inspired the next.

Samia Halaby, American born Palestine, 1936. Mars. Oil on canvas, 1977. Gift of Dr. Fouad Halaby, 1980.16. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Mars, a painting donated to the museum by her brother, Fouad Halaby, dates from 1977. It fits in her oeuvre at a period when she was departing from executing geometric still life paintings to plotting geometric volumes as sketches for her paintings, arriving at a stage where she began to question the contradictions of shading and perspective. The diagonal series started with the thought of painting cylindrical volumes without showing the elliptical ends so that the scale would be relative. They became more about experiences of the horizon than of small-scaled objects, while also referencing flight. When on an airplane, looking out a window at takeoff, the world feels as if it’s at an angle. Viewing Mars gives you the sense that you are taking off on a plane from the planet, and even the rusty red color references the planet. She recalls that the decision to paint diagonally grew from her observation of children playing airplane, noticing how they spread their arms like wings and banged diagonally. Halaby considers this series to be that last of the early half of her career, after which a purer abstraction took over and she abandoned gradations of light to dark as directional illumination. This painting can be hung with light at the top or at the bottom! After this body of work, she shifted from painting hard edges to soft movements.

Despite having a very successful career, both with art and teaching, and being in prestigious museums like the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian, Halaby has been left out of the conversation, a far too common experience for women artists. While her male counterparts, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, continue to receive various exhibits and attention, Halaby has yet to have a retrospective or solo exhibition. In recent years, her art has been highly collected and she has gained more attention for her work. She jokes in her discussion with the Palestine Museum US (video below) that she is happy people like her work now and she doesn’t feel like all her work will end up in the trash. Halaby feels she is creating her best art and that her style has been built on decades of learning and exploring new ideas. She continues to champion fellow Palestinian artists and speak out for social and global injustices.

Learn more about Samia Halaby by watching the videos below:

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