INTERVIEW SAMIA HALABY BY OLA ABDALLAH, 30 MARCH 2009,
(Published in French in AREA REVUE n°19/20 page 86)
O.A. You were born in 1936 in the city of Jerusalem where you spend the first three years of your life, do you have any memories of that time?
S.A. Maybe some extremely vague ones! But nothing that I am able to write about.
But I do have many memories of Palestine between the ages of 3 and 11 when we lived in the port city of Yafa (Jaffa). I have been writing little stories of my life and I have a few about my joy with visual experiences from that time. Here are two of them which are very early memories but I am not sure how old I was. Definitely before 5:
Wearing a brown suite, Boulos sat on the other side of the radio from his father Abdelnour. Abdelnour, my grandfather, wore an umbaz. I remember his long robe of shiny white Damascus cotton with thin black and yellow stripes against the white marble floor whose gray striations occupied my contemplation.
My uncle called and I watched as he began to deconstruct an old matchbox made of thin sheets of wood. As he took it apart some sheets of translucent colored papers magically appeared from between the layers of wood. A wave of intense aesthetic pleasure overtook me. I searched but never found another such matchbox. The visual magic of it comes back to me often as I paint.
Bas-Relief in Mud
The boys, Munir, Sami, and Fouad were playing a game of territory in the mud. I wish that I could remember the logic of it. But the visual pleasure of it, the brown of the wet soil, the sliced shapes made by the thrown knife, the consequent reforming of shapes all make up a beautiful, intensely pleasurable memory of a bas-relief in motion. First they flooded the flowerbed with water. Then they marked out a rectangle by carving a deep channel in the mud. After marking out territories, they took turns tossing the penknife into the mud. According to some principle they then won a piece of the opponents territory and could therefore reshape the fields in the mud.
O.A. You emigrated to the U.S.A. with your family while you were a teenager and begun your art studies there, how did you come to art? And how where your first years of learning art, who were the artists that counted in your education?
S.H. I always sketched in the margins of my books and notebooks. And sometimes, I took special effort to paint in watercolor. When it came time to go to college, I assumed that I would study one of the sciences like my two older brothers. But I was not enthusiastic and I was very undecided as to which one. At that point, it was my mother who recommended that I study art since I always liked it. But I did not heed her advice so much because I wanted to earn a living by myself. So I studied design thinking that that was near enough to art and yet one might live from it.
O.A. You choose abstraction as a main way of expression in you art, what does it mean “abstract art” for you, is there an opposition between abstraction and nature?
S.H. I do not think that there is an opposition between abstraction and nature. I think that abstraction is an illusion of reality as much as any other way of painting or drawing or making pictures. But it makes the illusion by presenting general principles of the motion of nature. So for example, a pattern of brush marks might have the same dynamic as a crowd of people or a herd of animals. Other brush marks might feel like tree leaves in the wind. Color relationships give us qualities of light in the morning or at night or inside the house. If we can accept that geometry and arithmetic describe reality then think of abstraction as describing reality but visually with a full palette of color and shape and texture.
O.A. You started thinking of moving to New York in 1960 as it became the most exciting artistic center in the world, but you really moved in 1976, during this period you started teaching art mostly at the Yale Art School to earn money, how did this experience of teaching influence your creativity? And how did the experience of the Yale Art School end?
S.H. I always enjoyed teaching especially the first year students who were anxious to test their skill and to learn and who had the innocence to draw from the heart. But I also liked teaching the older ones who were more sophisticated. I always felt that teaching was mostly more education for me. I taught for 17 years and the last ten were at Yale. Yale was a racist and elitist place and I did not like it.
I remember when they would bring this or that Israeli leader to campus and I would begin to feel that I was teaching the children of my enemies.
I was the first full time female professor at the Yale School of Art. I remember how everyone reacted to me. As a woman with such a fancy job, many stopped seeing me and only saw Yale. I hated that and I began to hide where I worked. I wanted people to relate to me not to the important university.
I remember my growing disenchantment. I was for years on the admissions committee and one day the parent of one of the student called me and offered me a fur coat in return for getting his kid into the school. I was shocked. I remember how during the week that we were looking at slide, some of the students who were hoping to be accepted would come and do their best to meet the teachers and personally try to gain privilege. It seemed dishonest to me and I mentioned it. One professor replied that, “we at Yale want the bold go-get-em students who seek advantage.” I remember being criticized for giving normal grades. The students at Yale were not better than students at the state university and so I treated them the same way. The head of the painting department came to me and told me that these are Yale students, they do not get Cs. He wanted me to give out more A. and a few Bs and no Cs.
Eventually Yale and I parted ways in an unfriendly manner.
I organized an exhibition in New York called, “On Trial: The Yale School of Art.” It got a lot of attention in the press.
O.A. When you moved to New York in 1976, how was the intellectual atmosphere? Was it a stimulating city for your art work and what where the limitations of New York?
S.H. I did not find the intellectual atmosphere that I yearned for. Instead, I found a great deal of isolation. Artists did not want to speak to one another and competed more than they cooperated. The influence of the commercial gallery seemed to dominate and separate. I also ran into a lot of Zionist and racist attitude and was not able to get a gallery. The galleries were rude and nasty. Of course, it is hard for all artists. But for women and for a Palestinian, it seemed a nightmare.
Eventually, I turned my back on the artistic community and spent more of my time in the Arab and Palestinian community and I spent a lot of time as an activist for Palestine.
The Midwest is a friendlier place than New York and some of my artist friends from the Midwest were here in New York and I did keep in contact with them.
O.A. you more conscious of your identity as a Palestinian woman artist when you searched for an art dealer?
S.H. The middle classes of America, especially in New York, are very racist and you cannot but be conscious of your history. The bourgeoisie like to make boxes and put us in them. They like to separate and rule. So, from the very beginning one is told that they are different and that difference will allow you to go some place and not other, be some things and not others.
For a long time, I kept a diary on what the dealers said to me when I went to show them artwork. Then I threw it away and threw away all my childish respect of them. In the end, after much trouble, I will exist without them.
I began to be active with artist-run galleries and began to curate shows and to write about art a little bit.
Eventually, helped organize a committee called “Arab Women Artists” and we were very active in the 90s.
Palestinian resistance had more influence on me than the rejection in the New York gallery scene. When ever I read about the Cubists, the Futurists, and the Suprematists, I became very sympathetic and very excited. To this day, I love to read their writing and I love to see their paintings. This influenced me very deeply.
In 1989, I was the first artist from North America to be invited to exhibit in the Havana Biennial. I was very excited. I went and when I came back and my paintings were returned to me, I was threatened by one officer at customs.
When I saw the art at the Havan Biennial from Asia and Africa and South America, I was truly amazed. I began to feel that New York was not the center but instead was a place of ignorance.
N.M. Thinking about the beautiful book of Edward Said" A contre voie" (his biography) I would like to know when and how being american you took concience of you palestinian identity, how your artistic evolution occured in relationship with this concience, and how your attachement to your palestinian identity influenced your work? Is there any parallel evolution?
S.H. I have not read much of Eduad Said. My political stand vis-à-vis Palestine has always been different and more radical. I admire and identify with Marxist thought while he disliked it. I am sure however, that his biography is excellent.
I came to the US when I was 14 years of aged. I remember that during our first year here, my father instructed us to be open minded to America and not live in the past. Perhaps he was talking to his own experiences because as a 14 year old, I took things naturally as they came and there was no thought in my mind of living in the past.
But, at every turn, I ran into a reaction from Americans themselves that told me that I am an outsider, someone and something else quite different from the typical American. I remember that on our arrival in Cincinnati, the newspaper wanted to interview the family from the co called “Holy Land.” When the article came out, I was disturbed at their attention to the color of my skin. They described me in a way that alienated me. Later in that same newspaper, I read an article about a man that was being arrested and once of the factors contributing to the assumption of his guilt was his ownership of books in the Arabic language.
As time went by my young brain adjusted to these facts of American life and I tried to relate to my fellow students. When I was teaching at Indiana University, Arab many young men of great enthusiasm were coming to study at the same University. Their influence on me was substantial. I began to work with them as a designer and political activist.
I lost contact with them when I first moved to Yale University in 1972. I became active again in 1976 when I moved to New York looking for an arts community but found it closed and had begun to join Palestinian community events.
As time went buy and I became more sophisticated politically, I realized that the theme of identity was a bourgeois creation intended to divide and rule us. I understood that I must reject their definitions and the concepts of borders. I feel that I am an Arab and a Palestinian regardless of where I live. I live with the injuries that both America and Israel imposed on us. Those are many and they vary from emotional distress to anger and anguish as well as a distorted education. The distorted education can be remedied with study. The anger and anguish would have long ago gone if it were not for the fact that America and Israel, with support from European governments as well, continue to impose great tragedies on the Arabs and especially on the Palestinians.
O.A. You said that the best part of living in New York was to be in contact with what you called the “minorities underground”, how active was this minority and what was the 22 Wooster Gallery about?
S.H. There was a group of artists called Women of Color and I joined it and worked with them for years. There was also a gallery called the Alternative Museum which exhibited members of minorities usually excluded and they appealed to the artists of the Lower East Side and their opening were always mobbed. They were not part of the art establishment of New York. There was always an artists’ group called Artists Talk on Art which was run by artists and invited individuals to talk and discuss. The 22 Wooster Gallery was run by 6 artists. The founder was a Lebanese artists, Sumayya Samaha. She had gotten a ten year lease on a space which we used for our exhibitions. We had disagreements about how to relate to the established art world. I wanted to disregard them and do our thing while others wanted to invite critics and dealers and try to woe them so they would use the artists’ gallery as a stepping stone to the commercial gallery.
I did the show there called “On Trial: Yales School of Art.” We produced a catalog which was not very rational as I was overwhelmed and working very hard. The faculties as the school were afraid to join the show. But students did and one set of Parents whose daughter had committed suicide as a result of pressure at the Yale School of Art. Four students at the school committed suicide during my ten years there. I also invited the workers at Yale to submit the beautiful posters that they had made for their union drive. I hung them in the show and I photographed them and put them in the catalog. (if you want, I can send you a copy, or scan some of it and send to you)
My disagreements with the other artists at 22 Wooster got bigger and heavier and eventually we parted ways and soon after the lease ran out and no one had the energy to continue.
I also exhibited at another artist run gallery called the Spectrum gallery. But, that was earlier, that was in 1970 to 1975.
O.A. In your art work, what are the essential elements of your plastic vocabulary?
S.H. I will first describe some of the important influences on my work then describe its elements. The history of Arabic art has had a serious influence on me but to many it seems invisible. In the early 70s I studied Arabic geometric abstraction making many drawings of the symmetrical designs. Then in the early 80’s the marble inlays at the lower part of the walls of the Dome of the Rock led me to create a group of paintings based on the geometry of the rectangle of the painting. I also think that the sensations of the Arabic calligraphy that I practices with so much delight in my childhood at school, asserts itself in the general calligraphy of my contemporary paintings.
As a Palestinian, I was once asked by a youth “Where is Palestine in your work?” I wrote a paper in response. It was very political and also it clarified that in my painting, I do not seek to be Palestinian or Arab but rather international and seek to be as explorative and as open and as good as anyone anywhere. I ask in return, that if you need a doctor, would you have that doctor be educated in and practice only the medicine of Palestine. Would you not want them to know all that there is to know. With that as an ambition, I think it is the duty of the painter to know as much as possible about the history of art.
My ancestors in painting are the radical and revolutionary artists of the 20th centry. I admire the entire batch of movements that were inspired by a groundswell of working-class revolution beginning with Impressionism and the Paris Commune and Ending with the Abtract Expressionists and the Industrial Union Movement. I love the Cubists and futurists, but I love the constructivists and suprematists even more. I love Popova. In my early years of painting, I loved Seurat and later Monet. There was an even earlier time in my student life that I love Paul Klee and Juan Miro.
I love to read the writings of the Constructivists and the writing of Kasimir Malevich especially. They are so exciting. They make me want to move to paint to breath to live. They are so beautiful. I envy them living as such a time, at the time of a great revolution. I try to continue their thinking and their work.
I believe that abstraction is an imitation of reality as much as Renaissance painting. Only it does not copy reality from one point of view but rather from a moving and visually studying thing from all aspects. Abstraction is about the general principles of motion in things, their coming and going, their patterns, the moving of light, the changing from morning to afternoon to evening light. The colors of city nights are different from morning lights.
The elements of my plastic vocabulary are all those beautiful, visual things in nature and human life that I look at and see and enjoy and have an ambition to paint.
Things come to my attention and I enthusiastically deal with them, then others replace them etc. I once wrote a book which was not published that comes out of my sketch books where I show I make shapes grow and change and shift.
Here is something compressed that I recently wrote about my painting:
After I recognized that I have made a good painting, a lasting sensation of creative well-being haunts my consciousness and becomes a pleasurable addictive background. It intrudes on my thoughts for a few days. Sometimes, it almost tastes good like a fresh warm loaf of bread, feels like sunshine on trees. And like an addict, when the painting goes badly, I am frantic, disappointed, angry, feeling betrayed. I avoid the painting; avoid the difficulty of necessary decisions. The process of exploration is then exposed. Creative pleasure is replaced by a trying battle between the conscious urge to paint properly and the intuitive urge to let color and brush fly with the winds of visual memory.
I love painting and feel wonderful that my life has been that of a painter. I am proud to be a member of a family that provided two Halaby painters during the first half of the 20th century in Palestine. I strive to position my painting in the direction where history tells it will go in the future, that is where our world society will go in the future. Abstraction is the most significant advance in painterly thinking of our time and exploration of its potential is yet at the very beginning. I admire sculpture and installation but they are not painting. The particular nature of painting is to be flat and within that flatness describe world visually.
O.A. In the 80’s you begun to explore the potentialities of computers, you create Kinetic computer paintings, can you explain what it is and why you felt attracted by new technologies? Do you consider the computer as a new medium for a “new work” in the way pioneers of the abstraction wanted to create? Is it in continuity with the ideas of the pioneers?
S.H. I was fascinated by the computer from the first time that I heard about it. My fellow graduate students used to be scientists and they always talked about how they were teaching the computer English. Then they showed me a print out of the Mona Lisa in letter symbols. That was in 1963. I was not impressed but they were very excited. Then while teaching at Indiana University, my studio classes were next to the computer labs and I always had connection with them. Then one day in 1971 the programmers invited me to work with them but it was just before I accepted a job at Yale University. I taught at Yale School of Art for ten years and it was an education by reverse example in all that was conservative and backward and oppressive in education. My greatest regret about moving to teach at Yale, which was then supposedly the most distinguished and number one school in the country, was that I missed out on developing a connection with the friendly programmers at Indiana University.
In 1984, I visited my sister and found that she had bought one of the very first Apples on the market. I began to play with it and did some programs with a very simple programming language. I fell in love. I went and got an Amiga in 1985 and began to teach myself how to program.
I wanted to use the computer as a medium itself and not to use the software programs that make it act as though it were a pen and paper or a brush and canvas.
Also, when I saw the potential of the computer, I realized that I could do moving abstract images and sound together. I began to contemplate the world and consider how we see and how we hear shapes all around us.
Yes, I wanted to continue the ambitions of the Constructivists and at the same time I wanted, like all the artists that I admire, use the most advanced technologies of my time.
Programs are really beautiful things. I could not help but see how much they are like the way that human life is organized in modern cities. Functions are like factories. You feed them numbers and they produce shapes and sounds. Like feeding factory materials and have products come out at the other end.
My first programs were short one which ran for 4 to ten minutes and they had sound programmed right in with the shapes and colors.
Then one day at one of the computer conference, I saw some musicians jamming on stage after all the sessions were over. So I decided to rewrite my program in order to perform with musicians, to jam life with them.
I produced a video tape of digital images and sounds. It was great fun. I called the program Kinetic Painting.
O.A. You are a painter, but also a writer, and a curator, you have published some important papers and books on different subjects mainly related to art, how do you live this relationship between practice and theory in art?
S.H. I think they are totally wedded to each other. I feel that knowing art history is essential for a painter and especially a painter like me. I feel very secluded because I am Palestinian living in the hostile art world of New York, hostile because it is very Zionist. Also, I feel secluded because I love the art of Revolution and these are none around me. Thus, if I did not find my own path, I would be lost in the backward, ready-made paths that the commercial gallery provides or that the propaganda of the US government provides.
When I wrote the book, Liberation Art of Palestine, I interviewed 44 artists. Their ideas had a strong influence on me. I could see that I belonged to them but at the same time that I was outside of them. I am now doing a book on the dimensions of space in painting. It is a book on Arabic art and how it fits within the history of art generally. In the end the theory that I write about is an expression of my having studied bourgeois art history, found it lacking, and rewrote it for myself in order to survive as a painter.
I do not believe in the bourgeois ideology of individualism. I do not think that my art is about myself. I think that I am a channel between radical social thought and painting. And I believe that process has to be guarded by the artist from pollution by the museum, the historian, the critic, and the dealer.
O.A. In the 90’s you were active in a group called Arab Women Artists and you begun to return more often to the middle east and specially to Palestine, you have written a book called “Liberation Art of Palestine” (2003) in which you interviewed 46 palestinian artists, you also curate lately the exhibition “Made in Palestine”(2002), can you tell us more about those projects that show your engagement in a cause? Do you think that art can help change things?
S.H. In the early nineties, while I and a friend, Inea Bushnaq, were visiting her nephew Osama Abu Sitta, I brought up the idea of forming a committee to promote Arab art. They both responded enthusiastically and a committee of 8 Arab women and two Arab men was soon formulated. Our meetings were a bit on the insane side. Now in hindsight, I would say that we had not good method for meeting. We were a bit immature in that respect. There were moments of madness. My solution was always to interject a plan of action. This always re-organized us into enthusiastic work.
The meetings were actually fun and everyone wanted to talk. We always arrived with bundles of food and after the meeting we all enjoyed sharing a meal. Our activity was to sponsor an event every month where we invited Arab artists to present their work. The presentations could be anything from poetry to music to paintings to historical research. Once, someone did research on Um Kulthume and presented a series of slides and videos.
During the early 90’s activism on Palestine was quiet. It was the time of the deafeat of the Intifadah and the attack on Iraq. We were the only Arab thing going in town and most of us were Palestinian. So we began to attract a huge crowd of people. We filled the café to capacity getting from 50 to 150 attendees each time.
We met at a restaurant called Anarchy Café. And as we became successful and attracted from autdience, I noticed that there were often people at the fringes that were spy types. Eventually we received a call from a woman who was an Israeli and said she was the owner’s sister-in-law and that she was the new manager of the restaurant and that we had to pay $10 per person plus guarantee everyone bought a meal. It had been agreed with the owner that we would use the restaurant on Sunday afternoon when no one was there and it worked out till this Israeli woman ruined it for us.
We tried to continue at various other places and for several months we succeeded, but we soon failed as the whole thing was beginning to be a lot of heavy work.
In the mid 1990s I began to go to Palestine an average of twice a year. I was impressed with how easily I made and maintained friends. I made contact with galleries and was surprised at how normal it was. I found it far more amenable than the New York art world. I began to show in Palestine and that was great fun. I noticed that the daily newspapers were always interested in the shows and always interviewed me. I was impressed with how interested the press was.
In 1999, Sliman Mansour of Al Wasiti Center asked me to write a 40 page essay on contemporary Palestinian art. I did but it expanded to 100 pages and in the end, he gave it to someone else to edit and that became a mess. So I did it on my own and published it in 2003.
For the book, I did 46 interviews with Palestinian artists. I did not want to write about individuals, however, but about the movement surrounding the Palestinian uprising which started in Beirut and continued in the West Bank as Intifada painting. Interviewing the artists was important to me. Even though many of them were very boring, some of them were very exciting. Some aspects of their work began to influence my work.
I noticed that Vera Tamari, Nabile Anani, and Mahmoud Taha were first making the pieces of their work separately and later putting them together to create the whole. The result was often that the work did not fit with a rectangle because they did not start with a rectangle. The work would have an uneven edge. This must have been behind how I began to work in that same way about that time, just after the year 2000. That is when I began to cut the canvas to pieces and put it back together by stitching it. It all reminded me of Arabic art and how marble is inlaid and how wood and mother of pearl are inlaid and how the parts are first made then put together.
An example of that is the painting “Mountain Olives of Palestine.” I will send you a picture of this one. There were also in this series of paintings which I call paintings freed from the stretcher, a set of ideas that came out of how I was then analyzing reality. I was thinking that I could make pieces of paintings of irregular shape that would represent the big things in the world of our vision such as pieces that represented the sky, or chunks of sky between building, or building, or areas of grass or road. Then I thought that I would make smaller pieces that would represent people or cars or carts or animals etc. Then the part would be exchangeable.
As the same time that I was writing the book the second Intifada began and I again became very active politically. I had been very active politically with the left during the late seventies and the withdrew a bit during the mid 1980s.
I wrote a lot of letters describing what was happening in Palestine and sent them out to a political email list and to friends and relatives. I began to organize trips for American activists to visit Palestine. We did a lot of such visits and I encouraged the delegates on these trips to write letters telling what they saw. Later, in 1905 and 1906 I took two delegations to south Lebanon and I wrote a series of public letters out of Lebanon. All the letters were very popular and I want to publish them in some way. Maybe it would be good to post them on the web.
Some years Arab Women Artists failed, I began to urge friends to re-organize. I had a friend who was the director of the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Williamsburg which is in Brooklyn across the river from Manhattan. Brooklyn is part of New York City. She and I planned to create an exhibition of Palestinian art. She was to provide the center at a small cost and I was to organize a committee to build the exhibition. I kept looking for members to join and eventually almost gave it all up until I med Renda Dabit from California who adopted the project and began to organize a committee. We were at the point of collapse when I began to send letters to the committee from Palestine telling them of the artwork that I was borrowing from artists.
Renda Dabit called the committee Al Jisser Group.
These letters that I sent from Palestine energized the committee and we were on our way to create the first exhibition of Palestinian art in the US that was outside of the efforts of the PLO and outside of the UN in an art world venue.
To persuade the Palestinian artists to loan or give work for the show, I took with me a portfolio of my own work and exchanged my work for the work of other artists and in this way gained much of the exhibition and gained the trust of the artists. I had met them all when I interviewed them for the book that I did.
We put the show together, and it opened in November of 2002 at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, and it was called “Williamsburg Bridges Palestine.” I remember some Zionists came to the show and then printed a very rude review. We were also terrorized by some Rabbis who came one day and tore the banner outside the door and trampled on it.
As we were organizing that show, in 2002, I received a letter from The Station Museum saying they wanted to do a museum show on Palestine that same year. I told them and told them that museum shows take years to plan but that I was ready discuss it with them. The museum director, James Harithas, and his two curators flew to New York and we discussed the whole thing. I suggested that a show of Palestinian art was better than a show about Palestine. I suggested that a show by international artists on Palestine would by definition include Israel and in such a case, I would not be willing to help.
I made it a condition of my help that if they do this show on Palestine, they do not then do a show of Israeli art to balance things. They agreed and they kept their promise. I am impressed with them for keeping that promise. In America this promise is very very hard to keep as the Zionist Jews are powerful and they terrorize people.
In any case, the director and curators visited me in New York a second time to study my archive on Palestinian artists. I had accumulated files on each of the artists that I interviewed. This became the nucleus of my collection which I kept expanding with every new catalog or postcard or resume or book that I could find. We then began to plan a trip to Palestine to curate the show.
Having had experience in creating delegations, I made the travel plans and I took 4 people with me to visit artists in Gaza, Amman, Zarka, the West Bank, Gallilee, and Damascus to interview and select the show. James Harithas did not space any expense and selected the best and biggest work by any artist that he found and liked.
There were many ligitical problems and at that date most Arabs hated the US and were loath to lend their work. Some refused to lend unless I signed myself and took responsibility.
The show was called “Made in Palestine” and it opened in Houston, Texas and stayed on show for 6 months. The museum did a hard cover catalog that was very beautiful. James Harithas, the director of the museum promised he would use his considerable influence to have the show travel all over the world and all over the US. But as hard as he tried, he could not find any museum or gallery willing to take the show. His best and closest associated told him that they would lose their funding if they did a show on Palestinian art.
The result was that three grass-roots committees got organized to bring the show to their neighborhoods. And all three succeeded. Thus the show called “Made in Palestine” organized by the Station Museum in Houston, opened in San-Francisco in 2005 and then in Vermont in 2005 and then in New York in 2006.
2005 Made in Palestine, Somarts, San Francisco.
2005 Made in Palestine, T. W. Wood Gallery, Montpelier, Vermont.
2006 Made in Palestine, Bridge Gallery, New York.
Al Jisser Group has collapsed after the Williamsburg show. I found one member willing to continue with me but she soon gave up. But we already had a nucleus and we built it and we did fundraising for two years till we got enough money to bring the show to New york. We tried very hard to find a museum or gallery or alternative space to accept the show and they all said NO NO NO. No one had the courage in the city of New York to accept the show.
For two years of fundraising, we did an event every month and many artists helped us by performing free of charge. We sponsored theatre plays and musical events and poetry readings and dinners and exhibitions. We collected our money in small donations from the grassroots. We had to rent a space that needed fixing and we spent $40,000.00 to make it into a gallery space and we paid rent of 12,000 per month on it. BUT WE DID OPEN THE SHOW, and we opened it in Chelsea, the New York art world most popular neighborhood.
The opening was a mad bash and a great success. We had 1500 people arrive just for opening night. The landlord was incesed with us because he said if the fire department had seen our mob, they would have shut down the building. People were filling the stairwell all the way up to the third floor and all the way down the block and all were celebrating and we danced and did the dabke before the night was over. And we had a wonderful village woman from Palestine and she did a great Zaghrouta for us.
And what was amazing is that an important critic from the New York Times came and saw the show and he wrote a great review which brought us a lot of visitors. We made a mark. Then a friend, a young graduate student who is Arab herself, wrote a review in collaboration with an important arts magazine, Art in America, and they had four wonderful pages about the show. It was all wonderful
O.A. Being a women and an artist: how does the relationship between your artistic practice and your life as a woman has been weaved? Do you believe there is a distinction in an art work?
S.H. I do not believe that there is a woman’s art. There is only art made by women. I do not think it looks different than art made by men. Both men and women can make art devoted to issues of women.
I recently wrote this, maybe one month ago, for a show of women artists. I insert it here as a way to answer the question:
Artist’s Statement for the “Women Forward” show at the WAH Center
By Samia A. Halaby
My life in my studio is completely separate from the art world. Its ecology is includes friends, critics, and observers. When I paint, I am there only as myself, alone in a submarine traversing the ocean of social culture – searching and exploring. I am thought not gender.
Sexist patterns of the art world tell me that as female I must be twice as good as men to measure. That is the normal that applies between events of prejudice and rejection. In the New York art world and in US education, chauvinism toward me as a woman is mild in contrast to chauvinism towards me as an Arab. Have I ever experienced prejudice? Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! On both fronts!
To replace the commercial art world, I joined friends in committees to create a world of art based on our needs. One result was the formation of a group active in the early 90s called Arab Women Artists. We sponsored many exhibitions and performance events. In recent years we formed Al Jisser Group. Our biggest accomplishment was staging the first all Palestinian exhibitions in the US held at a private gallery – The WAH Center. In 2003 we brought the Made in Palestine exhibition to Chelsea which was visited by over 3,000 people. This major exhibition was rejected by all the museums and galleries of the greater New York area. Through huge effort, we rented space and created our own gallery in order to open the show in March of 2006.
Painting is more important than either the world of art or art education, I separate the two completely. Galleries and dealers and their sexist patterns come and go. It is the art that stays and it is the art that has significance. Will the art historian find the workings of the commercial art world more influential on the development of culture and civilization or the activities and thoughts of the artists of the time? The center is in my studio, an open channel to social progress.