Last month, Samia Halaby’s retrospective, Five Decades of Painting and Innovation, traveled to Lebanon. Organized by Ayyam Gallery, the retrospective was held at the Beirut Exhibition Center, where it was shown from 2 to 26 February. For the Beirut installment, Halaby added nearly two dozen rarely seen drawings and several more paintings, significantly expanding the original list of included works. Lebanon’s Agenda Culturel interviewed Halaby about her artistic practice shortly before the show opened. The text below is the original transcript of the interview, which was conducted in English via email. Halaby’s Paintings from the Sixties and Seventies, a selection of works from the formative period of her oeuvre, will open at Ayyam Gallery London on 18 May.
Agenda Culturel: How would you define your exhibition Five Decades of Painting and Innovation?
Samia Halaby: The exhibition Five Decades of Painting and Innovation is a retrospective of my work curated by Maymanah Farhat in collaboration with Ayyam Gallery. It is a small glimpse into a lifetime of producing paintings, drawings, and some sculpture. The show also includes a presentation of my exploration of the meaning of contemporary technology, digital media, and its possibilities for new expression in art. The exhibition really shows the many sides of my visual thinking over five decades of work.
AC: What is the main theme/topic of the exhibition?
SH: Actually, there isn’t a main theme or topic to the exhibition but rather attitudes of aesthetic thought dominate. In this regard, it is noticeable that during the early decades of my work, I dedicated myself to understanding the visual impact of man-made space. The geometry of the early paintings is the relatively simple one that exists in human architecture and patterns of transportation.
In my work, being an abstract painter, I seek to discover the general conditions that govern the many different particulars of life. How we build both architecture and roadways conforms to the exigencies of nature. This relationship fascinated me at that time.
During the more recent decades, I turned my attention to the more complex geometry of nature. Being more complex it tends to be invisible due to the small scale of its repeat patterns. The softness, that is the variability of parts of natural things differs from the solidity of human architecture. The motion of leaves in the wind for example had a complex geometry and a structure different from the pyramid or the tall building.
These two trends govern the general theme of this retrospective. But simultaneous with them are many thoughts and detours. I have studied Arabic geometric abstraction and it affects my work, as do all the arts of the world that I admire. I also love color and use it maximally to define space and times of day. Its emotional impact is great.
But for me, the emotions are reactions to things that lead us to then work in a conscious almost scientific way. My attitude is very pedestrian towards creativity. I believe most people are creative in the various ways they practice their work and hobbies during their life. Art is not holy and is not above other production.
AC: Give me an example of one of your paintings or drawings or sculptures.
SH: Open Flower started as a wish to use the color orange properly. I find it a difficult color to incorporate. How the physiology of our eyes interacts with light influences how we see the color orange. At night it is relatively dark and during the day it seems lighter. Its relationship to neighboring colors changes over the course of a day. I started by using it surrounded by other colors very near to its level of light so that this would help dramatize the change. “Open Flower” as I worked on it became something about femaleness and I did not resist the implications allowing the viewer to see what arises from their own experience.
How do you work? How do get the ideas?
SH: I get ideas from the things I see. Many times, I see something beautiful and try to memorize it. I might do so sitting in one place or walking around it. I store it in memory or make some sketches in color or in black and white. I try to analyze and consider it and its similarity to other things. I then forget it and pay attention to the mainstream of my thoughts emerging in painting. Later that research comes into the arena of ideas occupying my thoughts as I am painting. The beautiful autumn leaves that I collected in Connecticut over several years [while teaching at the Yale School of Art] were an example of such an exploration. The amazing art of The Dome of the Rock led me to a similar exploration that then asserted itself in a series of that same name several years later.
AC: What are your sources of inspiration?
SH: The beautiful things that I see are the sources of inspiration. I do not develop visual ideas from the written word or from verbal discourse. The source of my work is always nature and reality.
AC: How long does it take you to create a piece of work?
SH: The length of time that it takes me to make a piece of work varies, depending on how much trouble it is giving me. In recent years, it varies from between one week to two months.
AC: How would you define your influences?
SH: I gladly absorb influences from the art of all nations and I try to study it and understand it. Sometimes I try to imitate it. But that always brings me to the realization that imitating any art is impossible if one does not live the reality of the society that produced it. We imitate but our imitations are hollow. Thus trying to absorb it and learn from it and allowing it to seep into my visual knowledge brings it back out in my own work in a natural way. I believe influence is a positive and important part of artistic practice. It is useless to deny it and empowering to embrace it.
AC: Who are your favorites artists?
SH: My favorite artists keep changing as I change. When I was a student I loved Paul Klee. Later I loved Miro. I always admire Leonardo and Diego Rivera. Seurat is a great artist and has influenced me deeply.
AC: What message do you want to convey through your art?
SH: I would like to tell the young that they should be hopeful and search hard for their inspiration.
AC: What does it represent for you to exhibit in Lebanon?
SH: Lebanon was my second home for a few years after my family left Palestine in 1948. For this reason, I honor its wonderful people. I enjoy the unique down-to-earth personalities. Beirut is beautiful, full of life, unquenchable. I hope that peace and security will return, and I look forward to a time when Beirut and all Lebanon are thriving.
AC: Do you any coming projects?
SH: There are two books—maybe three—that I have the ambition to complete. The first one is now under review by publishers and it is about my drawings of the 1956 Kafr Qasem massacre. The second one is a republication of my book Liberation Art of Palestine. It is about the Palestinian painters of the Intifada. I hope to publish it again with many more pictures. If life gives me a bit more time after these two, I would like to create a book, which explains the formal methods I use to extract visual form from the things we see.