AUTHOR: Dana McNairn
Bridging Two WorldsBy —Dana McNairn
Oct 24 2007
Samia Halaby roots for the underdogs through art
Samia Halaby's life bridges two worlds. The first is represented by her studio loft, located in New York City's Tribeca neighbourhood. When she first moved in back in the '70s (only the third painter to do so), the neighbourhood was scruffy and dark and still notorious. Now, the gentrified Tribeca is filled yuppies and skyrocketing rents. "This makes it really hard on the artists now, but for New York, I have a lot of space." says Halaby. "There are stacks of paintings and papers everywhere."
Which brings us to her second world: Halaby is a Palestinian painter and art historian who made her mark teaching at Yale and has an impressive international exhibition record. She's also this year's keynote speaker at the Victoria International Arts Symposium, where she'll discuss the question, "By Addressing Social Justice, Can Art Shape History?" The second annual symposium's overall theme is "Artists Making History." She'll be speaking alongside Cree "mixed blood" interdisciplinary artist and performer Cheryl L'Hirondelle and two Victorians, filmmaker Peter Campbell and artist and writer Chris Creighton-Kelly. The evening forum will be moderated by Hal Wake, artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers Festival.
Halaby's own history also bridges the old and new world. Born in Al Quds (Jerusalem) in 1936, her childhood was interrupted when, after a brief absence from the city, her family was denied the right to return. The Halabys landed in Beirut for a few years and then emigrated to the United States. Halaby herself graduated from Indiana University with a Master of Fine Arts in painting in 1963 and began teaching. Palestinian art and artists are her passion because while the city of her childhood no longer exists, she remains positive about the future. One of her pieces is an "experimental book" called Worldwide Intifada. She gave it that name because of her "optimistic hope for both art and life to become free and fertile." She pauses before continuing. "Palestinians are not the only oppressed people in the world," she says. "There are many [others]. As we wish to liberate ourselves, so do others. So, an intifada, a 'shaking off,' [is] a liberation for all the oppressed people of the world."
For the last decade she has stepped up her visits to Palestine, working for the United Nations Development Program and Beirzeit University, bridging relations with emerging Middle East artists and performers and her world in New York. But the obstacles remain. She helped organize a contemporary Palestinian art exhibition in New York after repeated rejections. "It was packaged as a travelling show and no one would touch it," she says. "They said to us, 'Well, we'd like to, but we'll lose our funding if we do.' It was rejected everywhere—Venezuela, Mexico, Boston, everywhere." So the artists mounted the show themselves at the Bridge Gallery in Chelsea. "And the landlord complained because so many people came to the opening night," she recalls.
Her focus is the underrepresentation of Middle Eastern artists, Palestinians in particular. "Palestine is so rejected by the United States, Europe, most places in the world," Halaby says. "Palestinian art should enter into the historical document."
Part of her symposium talk this weekend will touch on the western bias in art and history and the lack of global perspective. She describes her relationship to art as an investigation into how advanced art emanates from advanced ideas in society, mentioning glass skyscrapers, elevators and electrical wiring to make her point. "Those advances have changed our perceptions of time and space and so, influence art," she says. "These advances [also] influence history."
She readily admits that she has long had to live with others' attitudes "that say I can't do this or that this is not right, not acceptable. So I have to resist this." She describes her dealers in Damascus, Beirut and Amman. "There, I'm accepted. I'm a normal person," she laughs softly. Later, she approvingly notes that Palestinian artist Emily Jacir won a Golden Lion at this year's La biennale di Venezia.
"I'm doing very political propaganda art at the same time as I understand history," she says. She talks about the importance of making art that honours what it tries to represent, but remains long outside the purview of galleries and museums before recognition or acclaim. "I say that if you're going to be a political artist, it is to chose not to put yourself at the leading edge of art," she says, "[instead] you're doing applied art."
For Halaby, it's about creating purposeful art that can be utilized to possibly make history, to shake off old oppressions. "My social justice," she says, "is to be a citizen of the world and to be as good an artist as possible."
Victoria International Art Symposium
6:30 pm Saturday, October 27
386-6121 • www.victoriaartssymposium.com