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Visions of Samia

Samia Halaby’s Tribeca loft in Lower Manhattan is an apt home for the abstract artist’s vibrant life and work

Writer

Inea Bushnaq

Photographer

Lara Atallah

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Palestinian-American abstract artist Samia Halaby moved into a former welding shop in Lower Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood in 1976, back when the now fashionable area was a desolate industrial zone dominated by 19th century warehouses. Doing most of the work herself, she transformed the dim, high-ceilinged, raw shell into a restful haven far removed from the noise and grime of the streets below. ‘There was an underground artists’ movement to congregate in that triangle because spacious lofts where we could work abounded. We lived in them semi-secretly, as they were then zoned for commercial use only. We used black window shades to block the lights at night. Our names were not on our doors and there were no doorbells. Our friends would yell up and we would throw a key down to them.’

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Climbing up a creaking wooden staircase, the visitor enters an all-white gallery-like space – even the floor is white – which contrasts with Halaby’s large colourful canvases. Like bursts of brightness caught in mid-air, intricate paper sculptures in lemon yellow, emerald, scarlet and gold hang from the ceiling. Halaby tells me that they are ‘like three-dimensional paintings floating in air. When I make them, I think of deep sea life which can grow in any direction.’

Halaby’s loft offers many visual surprises. A chest of drawers in the bedroom is covered with a cascade of colourful shapes; the wall behind the kitchen sink is a backdrop for patterns reaching up towards the ceiling; cushions on armchairs are abstract compositions made by Halaby; she even paints some of her clothes and pieces other fabrics together into wearable collages. In the studio, pots of paint and brushes are arranged with the clarity her thoughts demand; a bunch of placards from demonstrations past are each miniature works of art.

Behind a tower of shelves inherited from her friend, master printer Sheila Marbain, a vintage computer displays short films of seemingly random stripes, patches and dots of colour dancing to music – both sound and sight activated by the computer keyboard in accordance with a programme invented by Halaby. ‘These little computer programmes might be the most innovative abstractions I have done. They are inspired not only by the shape and colour of things but also their motion and sound.’

Samia Halaby’s formal work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions all over the US and in Scandinavia, Russia, France, Spain, Cuba, Japan and several countries in the Middle East. Her drawings and paintings have been acquired by museums in America and internationally, including the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the British Museum, the Institut du Monde Arabe and Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan.

Halaby sees herself first and foremost as an abstract artist.  In her view, ‘abstract art is not entirely of the mind.’ Her compositions respond to elements that catch her eye or stimulate her imagination in nature or in her urban surroundings. It’s a visual language that is reflected in the titles she chooses for her canvases.

During her ten years teaching at Yale School of Art, Halaby repeatedly witnessed the famed New England ‘fall foliage’. This led her to produce a series of studies she calls ‘Autumn Leaves’. Although there is nothing resembling a leaf in these works, they express Halaby’s reaction to the wonder of nature.

Another series, this one from the 1990s, is titled ‘Dance on Canal’, referring to New York’s pulsing Canal Street. Why dance and why Canal Street? ‘I watch life on the street with aesthetic jealousy. I see a multimedia dance taking place. I feel the many rhythms of the pedestrians, cars and trucks, and the shaking of the subway; I hear the beeping, the bargaining and the many calls of sellers; I see mad beautiful arrangements of colourful objects temptingly placed by kiosk attendants so that no single one is as beautiful as the whole. On Canal Street life can be at the high pitch of a free-hearted Saturday afternoon.’ This excited tumble of words closely resembles the riot of shapes and colours in Halaby’s painted abstract rendering of the scene.

A dominant theme in Halaby’s art and in her life is the olive tree. Although she has lived in the US since the age of 14, was educated at the University of Cincinnati, Michigan State University and Indiana University and has, for over 30 years, been based in New York City, Halaby says, ‘I never thought of home as anywhere other than Palestine.’ Halaby was born in Jerusalem. In 1948, at the age of 11, her family was forced to leave her childhood home in Jaffa.

But Palestine and its history have never left her consciousness. The hardy olive tree growing in stony ground personifies her people: the enduring survivors and generous providers. During frequent visits to Palestine, Halaby has drawn and painted realistic portraits of individual trees as if they were friends, including one of herself embedded inside an old olive tree. ‘I felt the ancient olive trees were old women who took me in and I became one of them.’

Halaby’s loft has been the setting for numerous social and intellectual gatherings. Two significant exhibitions of Palestinian art grew out of meetings in her studio: ‘Williamsburg Bridges Palestine 2002’ and ‘Made in Palestine’, which opened in 2003 at the Station Museum in Houston and travelled to a number of states.

‘For two years we searched for a venue in New York that would accept ‘Made in Palestine’. We were met by total rejection and in the end we had to raise the money ourselves and opened our own gallery in a half-finished space in Chelsea. The show was a huge success and the New York Times gave us a substantial review. Also, the contrast between the beautiful art and the bombed-out look of the venue was a reminder of the house demolitions in the West Bank and Jerusalem.’ Art, Palestine, human and women’s rights are causes close to Halaby’s heart. She has dedicated paintings to the indigenous people of Hawaii, Native Americans of the Mid-West and, in the 1960s, the American civil rights movement.

Why did she choose to become an artist? ‘When I couldn’t decide what to study in college my mother reminded me how much I loved painting. The pleasure of painting, which resembles the joy of making mud pies in childhood, can be obliterated by education. But in the studio I always try to capture that joy again.’

Halaby is intensely serious about her work. There are several desks or workstations in her studio. ‘I have so many ongoing projects that having different locations for them helps keep them alive till their turn comes. The open shelves each hold an unfinished project like exchangeable tabletops. Then there is the computer desk where I am preparing the two books I would like to publish in the coming few years. The most peaceful workstation is the sofa and window where I often sit after breakfast to read or sew. Manipulating the needle is ancient woman’s work and it relaxes me and frees me to think.’

Besides work and activism, Halaby’s loft is often the scene of eccentric and lighthearted gatherings: readings of classical Arabic poetry, dancing to improvisations by musical friends or sharing first impressions from recent arrivals to New York or America. Most artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians from the Arab world passing through New York can be found at one time or another in Samia Halaby’s studio. At all times there is an inviting round-bellied pot of mint tea and a bowl of nuts or fruit to offer friends on
her table.

The artist is currently preparing for an exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in London, which feature a selection of new work. ‘At present, I’m so busy preparing for the show in London that my place is stacked full of large paintings. The smell of turpentine from days of varnishing is unpleasant. But the hours and hours of hard work will be transformed into satisfaction when I walk into the pristine space of Ayyam Gallery in London and see all these paintings for the last time before they make their way to future homes.’

I watch life on the street with aesthetic jealousy

This article appears in the issue41