Samia Halaby has been living in her present studio for the past 27 years. It is in an old building in the heart of Tribeca in New York city. She is the third artist to live in her loft space which once was a welding shop in this the garment district. Paintings, drawings, books, and note papers occupy the walls, shelves, and table tops. They give this garage like space its flavor. In the corner of the studio, as early as the 80’s was an early computer on a desk heaped with books, papers, CDs, and diskettes.
She spends her time traveling, painting, writing on art, and teaching. In her youth she visited the museums and architectural monuments of Europe and the Arab World. During the late eighties and early nineties she travels mostly to attend electronic art conferences where ever they took place. During the 90’s to the present, her travels have been directed to the Arab world with a focus on Palestine. She began exhibiting at Arab center during the 90’s and continues her deep connection to Palestine.
Samia was born on December 12, 1936, in the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. She is the third offspring and first daughter of Asaad Saba Halaby and his wife Foutounie Abdelnour Atallah At the time of her birth and during her childhood Al Quds was entirely an Arab city. Israeli encroachments had not yet destroyed ts delightful flavor. Pointing to a photograph of the Palestinians in revolt during 1936 she says: “I was born to the sound of these marvelous crowds, to the noise of revolution. My first three years of life were the years of the great Palestinian revold and genenal strike from 1936 to 1939.”
She sees in her mind's eye the beauty of Al Quds even through the thick layer of Israeli aggression and terrorism. "In my memory there is a shape like a candle flame, luminescent but cooler in color and warm to the touch. This is the very shape which visually forms in my mind as the aggregate of my memories of Jerusalem. It is made up of grandmothers, visiting relatives, wonderment at fountains in gardens of fruits and blossoms, the turn of a narrow street, the old city walls and shops, the calm and peace of its people, the stone arches and domes of an old bakery, the grand uncle in his shoe repair shop, the vegetable seller on his donkey, and the modern burgeoning new neighborhoods with beeping cars and bustling shops. I remember the persuasion that we lived here in our Quds at the wellsprings of culture."
She began dedicating her time to painting during her first years at graduate school at Michigan State University where she studied with Abstract Expressionist painters who visited the school from New York. As a result of this, like many other art students of the period, she began to think of moving to New York. It was 1960 and the idea was daunting. She decided first to develop her work as she accepted teaching positions. Teaching was then the only way to earn money if your college degree was in the arts.
Samia Halaby taught continuously in the art department of American universities for 17 years from 1963 to 1982. Her teaching career ascended from lesser known art schools to culminate in a position at the countries most distinguished school - The Yale School of Art. She followed this seemingly inexorable path of bourgeois success finding along the way that the most distinguished school and its most distinguished professors were in fact less than their less distinguished counterparts. After promising her tenure and after a tenure of 10 years, Yale’s administration fired her. In response to their racist and sexist attitudes and unfair termination, Halaby with a large committee of students, organized an exhibition, in New York, critical of Yale titles “On Trial: Yale School of Art.” Yale workers, then on strike, submitted the very creative posters that had been made for the strike.
In 1976, while still teaching at Yale, Halaby moved to New York City. She did so in search of an intellectual atmosphere. Her experiences with academia had revealed them to be cold places where administrators sought to atomize scholars rather than stimulate interaction. Of all the places she taugh, only Bloomington, Indiana, and the University of Indiana’s art school had provided a satisfying social atmosphere of intellectual stimulation.
Halaby continued to paint actively while teaching. Thus without relocation she found that her teaching career had smoothly fulfilled her wishes and left her a practicing artist free of full-time teaching in the city considered to be the world's center of painting. Unfortunate, what Halaby found in New York with rare exception were a few artists willing to be friends who always taked success with galleries and rarely treated issues. The atmosphere in the arts was cliqueish and competitiveness rather than collaborative. Thus it was that during the 80’s, after she stopped teaching, Halaby began to focus on opening her loft in New York to evenings of poetry and painting. The poetry was often in several languages including Arabic and English while the artists who showed slides were of many national backgrounds.
After a decade of independence from academia, Samia Halaby began to feel the real intellectual freedom she had originally sought at institutes of higher education. Instead these univertities had cast a pall of coldness, a measure of brainwashing, which had dampened both her thinking and her art. Both began to change rapidly. During the 80’s. These changes, in total, had a deeper cause. Halaby was aware of and sympathetic to the Palestinian revolutionary movement taking place in Lebanon at that time. She was in touch with artists in Beirut whose work was beginning to develop into what would be a distinguished school of Palestinian Liberation art. It was during that time that Halaby came in contact with Mona Saudi and developed a lasting friendship based on their commitment to art.
Her painting activity includes several media such as oil, encaustic, acrylics and several drawing media as well as computer. In 1986 after returning from her exhibition in Grenada, Spain, she decided to investigate the computer as a tool for making art. She was interested in it as a medium and not as an electronic mode to prepare ideas for oil painting.
For many years, even before moving to New York, she tried to establish a good relationship with an art dealer and had only marginal success. Her favorite dealer was Marta Santos-Lourdes who operated the Tossan-Tossan Gallery. Marta being of Basque origin and Samia being of Palestinian origin both found common emotions in the traditions of struggle and resistance of their respective national origins. Further Marta was the first dealer Samia had met whose interest in being a dealer had more substance than mere fashionable merchandising. Halaby's relationship with New York dealers was always aggravated beyond the normal antithesis of artist to dealer by the Zionist political persuasion of most New York dealers as well as the social ambiance of chauvinism in New York. Most critics, dealers, and curators are terrified of Jewish Zionist pressure and reject anything Palestinian out of hand.
Among the huge number of artists from all over the world who live in New York are numerous groupings of varied intellectual and political persuasions. artists of a layer which might be called "the minorities underground" is something she claims is the best part of living in New York. She claims that their unfavorable position in this chauvinist ambiance gives them clearer vision and thus makes them better artists. This contact started during the years when she helped to run the 22 Wooster Gallery. 22 Wooster was run by a small group of artist on a voluntary basis. These artists curated shows and helped organize committees of artists to sponsor exhibitions independently of the commercial gallery scene. As an enthusiastic group of artists and art lovers developed around the gallery disagreement erupted among the gallery members. Halaby wanted the gallery to be totally independent of establishment critics and curators while others wanted the gallery to be a showcase stepping stone to success.
It was at the 22 Wooster Gallery that she and a group of students and workers organized the unusual exhibition which put the Yale School of art on trial. The show included posters made by workers at the University in the struggle to win a union. Connected to the show was a series of performance events. The show received substantial critical attention and was the beginning of division between Samia Halaby and some of the other members of the 22 Wooster Gallery.
After the most recent return to teach in Hawaii in 1986, one could see the profound influence on her paintings of the tropical vegetation and dramatic light of the islands. One of her finest painting, an installation work dating from 1985 was titled To Niihau from Palestine, and was dedicated to the Hawaiians and to the working class in Hawaii. Niihau is one of the Hawaiian islands which is privately owned and where only Hawaiians of 'pure' decent can live; and they live there in a state similar to slavery.
Samia Halaby continues to search for ways to interact with fellow artists in a meaningful way independently of the devastating effects of the art market. An attempt to do this was an attempt to publish a Xerox book by artist and poets of international origin in support of the liberation struggles in Palestine and south Africa. During the early 90’s she was active in a group called Arab Women Artists. This committee sponsored shows and performances by Arab artists.
In 1989 her paintings were included in the third biennial of Havana in Cuba. Halaby was delighted and traveled to Havana to attend the exhibition and events. It was a special education. The many exhibitions included from Africa and South America surprised. She became even further conscious of the limitations of living within the ambience of the New York art world. To know of the boradness and breadth of contemporary artistic effort was an education she could not forget. Halaby had just visited the Venice Biennial the year before and the contrast between what the international ruling class presents as art and how Palestine is completely frozen out contrasted dramatically with what the working class presented in Havana and how they embraced Palestine. Halaby wrote a paper on the subject which remains unpublished.
Halaby has an extensive exhibition record. Her professional resume shows a short list of one artist shows and a slightly more substantial list of museums which own her work. this seems to indicate the trouble she has had in making gallery contacts due to chauvinism against women and against Arabs. Yet clearly museum curators have readily recognized the value of her artistic contribution and were willing to acquire them.
Samia Halaby also has an electronic studio on the World Wide Web which is visited daily by Web Surfers from all over the world. This studio is much like an exhibition and resembles a book format. In it are essays on her paintings both oil and electronic. She has also placed essays on Palestine dealing with her memories and experiences. Also posted on the web are various papers and studios for several Palestinian artists.
Writing is an endeavor she takes seriously. She has written on recent degenerate art in the New York Galleries, on the being treated as "a minority", on being a Palestinian Arab painter, and an essay comparing the Venice biennial of 1988 to the Havana biennial of 1989. A recent unpublished essay traces the history of twentieth century abstraction. She has also written a theoretical paper on the abstraction of medieval Arabic art. A continuing effort is a small book on the history and theory of pictures in general. She has also written about her own work.
Beginning in 1995, Halaby began to return often to Palestine visiting at least twice a year or more. She made many contacts and worked both at Beir Zeit University and with the UNDP program. During these trips she interview Palestinian artists and started several projects. One was a series of drawings of olive trees.
One of the very important projects begun on these trips to Palestine treated the 1956 massacre at Kafr Qasem village. Kafr Qasem was given to Israel by Jordan in 1949, a year after the Nakbe, the 1948 tragedy of Palestine. Halaby interviewed survivers and read available material on the subject. She then created a series of drawings of the massacre which will soon be published on the web.
In 2002, Halaby conducted two delegations to Palestine. The first one has the task of examining various areas for depleted uranium usage and the other was to guide a group of activists through various areas of Palestine to introduce them to Palestinian organizations.
In 2002, Halaby worked with the Aljiser group to create the exhibiton “Williamsburg Bridges Palestine” showing 50 Palestinian artists. Halaby was the senior curator for the show. She traveled throughout occupied Palestine, the West Bank, Ghazze (Gaza), and territories occupied in 1948, and personally collected the art for the show.
During November and December of 2002, Halaby guided a group of curators from the ArtCar Museum in Houston Texas throughout Palestine selecting art for the exhibtion: Made in Palestine. This work culminated in an exhibition in Houston Texas at the Station Museum titeld, “Made in Palestine.”
In 2003, the private publication of a book on the Liberation Art of Palestine occurred. It was the result of several years of work during which 46 palestinian artists were interviewed.