Veteran Palestinian artist Samia Halaby speaks to MEMO on Palestinian art and activism
"If you're angry with bad things or about misbehaviour of politically destructive stuff then you're a good person, you should be angry with bad things."
Samia Halaby was born in 1936 in Jerusalem; her family were forced to leave twelve years later. She experienced both her parents and her people suffer with exile. In the west she was subjected to negative propaganda about her homeland and glowing propaganda about Israel; "a deeply affecting event in all parts of my life" she says.
In terms of her artwork - some of which adorns the Guggenheim in New York and the British Museum in London - her past has made her look forward. "In painting it has affected me in that I decided I would be as forward looking as possible, be a painter, be a Palestinian painter, but be conscious of the entire globe and its history and I chose carefully which direction in painting I would pursue."
Halaby is known to have had a great influence on contemporary, abstract Arab art and a selection of her work will be exhibited from October 9 at the Ayyam Gallery in London. Her work depicts colourful, abstract images drawn from the world around her; clouds, trees and landscapes for example.
The paintings have a peaceful, calm feel about them and I ask her if that is the peace and tranquillity that Palestinians are looking for. "You're right in taking that from it," she says, "you can also take beauty out of it too. If the things you see are peaceful, optimistic and pleasant then you're getting the right thing out of it."
"If something I do in painting somehow provokes your own visual memories and they lead you to feelings of peace," she continues, "then I've succeeded because we have communicated and you have recognised something in my work that is true in your own life. To me that is the highest and most important point in research painting."
Besides painting, Samia also makes what she describes as visual pictures. One set has documented the Kafr Qasem massacre of 1956, another revisits the destruction of olive trees - "an economic attack on the Palestinians" - she says.
Halaby explains that her political outlook is that of optimism; she tells me there is no point arguing about propaganda. "I do not allow the major propaganda themes out there in the world for artists and Palestinians and about Palestinians to affect my life. I never argue against them because I think they're fake and keeping me busy arguing with them is a waste of my time."
But still, this does not stop her from being angry and neither is feeling angry wrong, even though propaganda suggests it is. "If you're angry with bad things or about misbehaviour of politically destructive stuff then you're a good person, you should be angry with bad things."
"If I see someone destroying a beautiful tree I'm going to be very angry with them," she continues. "But I think the tree is beautiful and it should be saved. My feelings of beauty and peace at seeing it are not going to be destroyed by this evil woodsman. My anger is healthy, I like it. The anger is caused by the fact that I'm optimistic and I see ugly things and I dislike them."
At the same time as painting, Halaby is an active campaigner for Palestine. Can art and activism ever be separated? "I don't think so" she answers. "Since everything is political, how you choose what art you do is political. If you choose to do political art that's political. Being political does not define which side you're on. You can be political on two different sides. You can support imperialism or you can fight against it. "
For a long time in New York Halaby tried hard to find a gallery. She has had some shows and a few contacts with dealers, but largely it's been difficult. "There's far too much Zionism and love of Israel for them to accept perhaps one Palestinian as a token and not more than that. I have not been accepted here, although I've been accepted in American museums, which is indicated by how many museum collections my paintings are in."
After a while Halaby turned her back on the galleries in New York, finding instead independent Arab societies and joining them. "From there I found other activist communities of other immigrant groups - many, many others - and it became an international crowd of people and the leftists as well. And so I got very busy doing activist work and the interesting thing that connects it all to me, to art, to work is being around this forward looking community seeking ideals of equality and liberation."
Being around this community, says Halaby, also fuels her work. "I found myself being stimulated aesthetically. We might spend a day working on activist things with people and going to meetings etc., come home and the last two seemingly exhaustive hours of the day I would do more creative stuff and more inventive and exciting stuff in my studio than I did over many months in previous days."
"After a while," she continues, "when you turn yourself on a commercial art world you are left on your own with your aesthetic thought. And so you're free to explore. I didn't have a dealer, I didn't have critics talking to me I was alone in an art world."
In 2001 Halaby wrote and self-published ‘Liberation Art of Palestine' with a limited edition of 400 copies. It was a study of Palestinian art based on interviews with artists.
"Palestinian art was beginning to thrive in the first half of the twentieth century," she tells me, "as nationalism was beginning to look for liberation in Palestine from British colonialism. But instead the British of course planted Israel and supported them 120% whilst trying to destroy us and so after the Nakba, after 1948, there was a period of quiescence. Slowly artists began to do things both in the refugee camps and in the cities inside and outside in Gaza."
The First Intifada really stimulated the arts, believes Halaby. Artists formed clubs, discussed their work and the union of Palestinian artists. "It was a very exciting period even though it was very hard for them to meet each other. Occasionally they would be out in one of the communist bloc countries and they would meet there. But as to meeting on Arab soil, that was practically impossible for them, and in time this art blossomed and was magnificent and there were lots of paintings and there was a lot of destruction."
But it all began to change in the nineties when funding came from outside countries. "There blossomed a layer, a social layer of arts administrators which was absent beforehand." Without art administrators, she explains, "the art can become more honest, it blossomed." With the administrators came the idea of individual competition; success was planted and the collective activism disappeared.
Now, says Halaby, Palestinian art has become divided into two. "Currently we have two directions among Palestinian artists and it's alive and well because Palestinian art has become an outlet, a kind of peaceful resistance outlet for the Palestinians and sort of a soft propaganda."
"One are those who inherited consciously and take up the ideas set forth by the liberation artists and then another set that uses the international post-modernist language and tries to explain Palestine to the outside world and uses the metaphors."
Palestinian artists "seem unable to separate themselves from the subject" says Halaby. "During the Intifada, the collective aesthetic, which became a principle that the vast majority of artists followed, was that we have to talk to our own people, we direct our art to our own people and we use the symbols of Palestinian culture and so it was a symbolic art and using the imagery similar to the imagery of the symbols but using a kind of cubist method one might see in the Mexican mural movement."
"The typical symbols are known to everyone" she continues. "The key about the right of return, the sun about freedom, the flute about the tune of the revolution, the horse represents the revolution. The wedding also represents the revolution and the flag and the chains representing the prisoners."
As for the role art can play in finding a solution to the conflict, "because we make art individually," she says, "it can only play the role an individual can play. We can say our opinion but in the end to make a lasting peace in this world is not dependent on art it's going to be dependent on military struggle."
"It's not peace between the Arabs and the Israelis or Palestinians and Israelis that is needed" she continues "I mean there are interests here beyond the Israelis. The Israelis are acting basically as an instrument of American bourgeois will. If the Americans wanted peace, there would be peace. It's not Israel that doesn't want peace and the Israelis are pretty heavily brainwashed."
Your question, Halaby tells me, does not take account of the larger frame in which we all live. That frame being the world. "There are movements now which you will begin to observe and you've probably observed them, of Israelis and Palestinians collaborating on apolitical issues of friendship and defence of Palestinians. It's nice and it indicates that the two people will find a way to live with each other but for Palestinians there has to be a right of return, a complete right of return, a right to return to your homes and lands and there has to be reparation and I don't see this happening without a certain international change taking place."
Published in Middle East Monitor