“Here is Where I am Now”: A conversation with Samia Halaby [Video]

The exhibitionTaking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s on view at The Block in Fall 2022 explores mid-20th-century abstract art from North Africa, West Asia, and the Arab diaspora—a vast geographic expanse that encompasses diverse cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. Comprising nearly 90 works by artists from countries including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the exhibition is drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, UAE.

On November 9, 2022 The Block was honored to host a rich conversation with exhibition artist Samia Halaby (b. 1936, Jerusalem) that explored her groundbreaking artistic practice and career. Halaby is an artist, activist, and scholar living and working in New York, and a recognized as a pioneer of abstract painting.  Her work is housed in international private and public collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York and Abu Dhabi), the Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris), and the Chicago Art Institute.

Halaby received her education in the Midwest between 1954 and 1963. She was active as an educator at the university level for 17 years. She was the first woman to hold the position of Associate Professor at the Yale School of Art where she taught for 10 years. Throughout her years of teaching, she produced an incredible body of work, inspired by her understanding of shape and color, her travels, and her exposure to artists. She settled in New York in 1976 and by 1982, she began to devote her time entirely to painting and writing.

Based in New York since 1976, Halaby has long been active in the city’s art scene, mainly through independent and non-profit art spaces and artist-run initiatives. The artist was joined in conversation by Sarah Dwider, Block Museum 2021–22 Graduate Fellow and Northwestern PhD Student, Department of Art History.

Watch the Conversation

“And so I wanted to paint the surfaces of this image imitating metal and how metal reflects light. At this point I began to say, “Okay, perspective is an art.” We had two years of perspective in my undergraduate education at the University of Cincinnati. And I know it thoroughly, and I know it is not how reality is. To make it work, you have to fudge a few things. You know, we lie a little bit in order to make the illusion work, otherwise it would not go down very well.

So I was telling myself, “Okay, let me exploit what is it that we see.” And I was always very interested in, I thought, “What if we eliminate the two ends of the cylinder and just look at the cylinder and shade it very, very accurately, but only without the ends? Would we really see something cylindrical?” And what began to happen is that space began to be hard to measure. And in a way I had found, by asking that question and challenging perspective, I had found myself in an abstract space.”

Samia Halaby

Top image credit: Samia Halaby portraits by Lara Atallah

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