Palestinian Painter Samia Halaby’s Retrospective Triumphs in Michigan After Cancellation in Indiana 

Some 60 years ago, during her undergraduate studies at Michigan State University (MSU), Samia Halaby’s interest in abstract painting began to take shape. Now, at 87, the influential Palestinian painter is realizing her first United States retrospective: “Samia Halaby: Eye Witness,” at MSU’s Broad Art Museum. In a homecoming of sorts, the show introduces the artist at her alma mater via some of those earliest undergrad forays into abstraction. Two examples are Lilac Bushes (1960) and House (1959): both boast thick layers of warm colors that contrast with olive greens and cool blues.

Ever since, Halaby has continued to push the limits of oil abstraction obsessively to capture and embody various sensory experiences. Early on, she focused on prismatic refractions. One work, Aluminum Steel (1971), showcases her ability to draw inspiration from rather quotidian sources and experiences. A large-scale meditation in oil on the eponymous material’s interactions with light, the painting asserts Halaby’s vision of metal as “the only substance with colored highlights.” She divides lenticular metallic planes into hundreds of thin bands of color, creating a complex geometric field. Nearby, a hand-painted tone study and framed pencil sketch reveal the careful planning that underpins the painting. The work is a monument to dedication and patience—qualities so evident in her art, that must also have served her well in her career. Like so many women artists of her generation, she has waited for decades for a show like this. And like so many women, she enjoyed institutional recognition as an educator before she received her due as an artist: in 1972 she became the first woman to be appointed a full-time associate professor at the Yale School of Art.

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Surely such neglect could warrant a little bitterness over the course of a long career, but if resentment exists within Halaby’s private thoughts, there is no evidence of it in her work. Her experiments are brave and far ranging, and her appetite for formal exploration is voracious. All the while, her use of color is joyful and kaleidoscopic: Mother of Pearl II (2018) features every color of the rainbow in an abstract swirl of mosaic-tile-like shapes. In her hands, abstraction is not a tool for turning her subject into a cipher; rather, it allows the work to open toward something universal—perhaps owing to how Arab art resisted representation long before abstraction was welcome in the United States.

Until the mid-1970s, Halaby was largely preoccupied with diagonal line drawings. In 1976 she left her position at Yale and moved to New York City, where she is now based. There, she settled in with new tools, new perspectives, and a whole new arsenal of geometric forms. Pink Walking Green (1983) is a Tetris-like composition with colorful blocky shapes: Halaby described the work to curator Rachel Winter as an effort to capture the experience of watching a woman in pink walking along the green of her verdant street. By the ’80s, Halaby was working not from photo references or models, but largely seeking to re-create sensory experiences of life in her paintings, including attendant sounds, the feeling of the wind, and the visual interactions of shapes and colors.

Indeed, one is able to intuit a lively interaction in Pink Walking Green, just as Angels and Butterflies (2010) successfully imparts the movement of wings with nothing more than rays of color unfolding at sharp angles. Her interest in capturing motion led her to computational experiments in the mid-’80s: she enlisted Amiga, a newly available personal computer, to craft kinetic visual experiments. The resulting “Kinetic Paintings” (1988–ongoing) reveal an eagerness to try any tool that might unlock new possibilities in abstraction. In later compositions, more explicit figuration returns, but her interest in motion persists: Bamboo (2010) is a stunning and synthesized vision of gentle light seen through leaves and moving in every direction.

Angled rays of colorful bursts form an all-over composition.
Samia Halaby: Angels and Butterflies, 2010.

Not all the movements she captures are as whimsical as breezes and butterflies. The exhibition’s title derives from an inscription on a watercolor work, Occupied Palestine, that Halaby created during a 1995 visit to Jerusalem, her birthplace. It presents an abstract field of pastel brushstrokes and confetti-like sunbursts, overlayed with punctuating brown and black swoops. Though Halaby only rarely adds text to her compositions, this one bears a handwritten caption. “It is as though I am here to witness the last moments in the life of this beautiful and ancient city of Jerusalem,” Halaby penciled into the bottom margin of the image. “My Jerusalem is being murdered. And I make this painting feeling the pain and beauty of Jerusalem.”

Nearly 30 years since this witnessing, and the murder has only multiplied; meanwhile, in the US, Halaby is one of several artists to have faced professional consequences for taking a stance. “Eye Witness” was initially planned as one-half of a joint exhibition between MSU and Indiana University (IU), where she completed her MFA. But in January, IU abruptly canceled her exhibition, citing vague “safety concerns” and dismissing the artist in a two-line email. The cancellation followed Halaby’s post on Instagram decrying Israel’s bombing of Gaza.

The exhibition catalog, Centers of Energy, went to print before the cancellation, and shares a title with the aborted IU exhibition; it begins with a directors’ foreword cowritten by leadership of the two institutions. There is a tragic irony in the contribution of David A. Brenneman, director of the Eskenazi Museum of Art at IU; he asserts that the museum’s 2017 renovation, including the establishment of its first contemporary art department, advances its purpose “to spark reflective dialogue within our university community around artistic issues that include identity, changing cultural landscapes, and social justice.”

One can hardly think of an artist more perfectly poised fulfill this mission than Halaby, whose work so eloquently bears witness both to injustice and to everyday beauty. The IU cancellation is disturbing and disappointing. Yet it would be regrettable to allow this slight to overshadow the triumph of her MSU solo debut; here, the Broad allows Halaby to serve as a witness, and to be witnessed.


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