What is art to you? What does art mean in our society?
Art to me is a cultural discipline within which I explore. In contemporary society it functions just as it always has from the beginning of recorded history; except that today, its methods and its content are more complex and more sophisticated. I am a painter and can talk with confidence only about pictures, of which painting is a subset, not all of art.
I understand pictures as having always recorded a society’s knowledge, morality and history. They have grown tremendously in type, and serve many uses, ranging from practical application, such as perspective for architecture, to imaging for medical diagnosis. But there is always a leading edge of investigation in the language and methods of making pictures. As a painter, I want my work to be investigative and at the leading edge of discovery. That is why I make abstract painting. The study of history has shown me that abstraction is the most promising area for future meaningfulness.
What are your thoughts on the following quote: “Art is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted?”
Someone is trying to say that art should be challenging and reassure those who have lost their optimism. Challenging and optimistic are a good combination that I can accept as resulting from good painting; there is much more to art than that. To me this quote is a reflection of the sky glittering on the surface of much deeper waters.
What are your thoughts on the following quote by Etel Adnan: “One paints only oneself?”
Bless Etel! I love her and I love her work and I love her generous heart. However, I agree more with Mark Rothko who is known to have clearly implied that his paintings are not him.
When did your interest in art begin? What prompted you to embark on a career in art?
My interest in painting began in childhood. I delighted in making pictures. The pleasure of making mud pies was so huge that I still remember the delight of it. But I never seriously thought that I would make a career out of painting. When it came time to go to college, I thought of studying mathematics rather seriously and possibly physics or chemistry. I was extremely undecided until my mother reminded me that I always loved drawing and that I should consider studying art. The year was 1954 and if computer science were then a possible choice, I might have been severely tempted.
When working/living in the West, are you ever made to feel as if you have to speak on behalf of the Arab/Muslim world?
Yes! It is because the ambient propaganda places us in categories labeled “minorities.” The implication is that we are lesser. Our work is seen as different from and less significant than the art of the mainstream. This is true more for the arts than for the sciences because we become visible socially if we gain recognition. Visibility must be reserved for those whose profile is like that of those who rule and who are loyal to them. If we are research scientists hidden within corporations then it is acceptable because we are not visible while contributing our talent. It is the nature of the brain drain.
We take back our history in order to resist this destructive kind of profiling. The history of art written by the West dominates consciousness all over the world. This art history is not really interested in the arts of the rest of the world and treats them with disdain. Simultaneously, the West knows well the monetary and cultural value of art from the Arab world and from Africa but is glad to destroy those lands while draining their brains. Of course, under these circumstances self-respect demands that I defend the Arab/Muslim world.
I really do not like to be labeled as a female artist or a Middle Eastern artist; but I dislike the “Middle Eastern” label more — the term “Middle East” was coined by colonisers and imperialists. If I accept to be so labeled then I am accepting to be their object. I am an Arab. Who is it who keeps searching to avoid naming me an Arab and why? It can’t be someone I would like.
If I have to be identified as a member of a subset of artists then my preference is to be known as a Palestinian artist. However, if we lived in a world where imperialism has been erased, I would say that I should be labeled only as an artist, without adjectives. In our time, I demand to be known as a Palestinian artist because Palestine is under such brutal attack and I want to stand in complete solidarity with our heroic resistance.
Sub-categories are dangerous things. I also question why call me a female artist. Am I not at least as good as the men? Why not just call me an artist! Why categorise! I have set up my painting within a historic and international context and I compete with all men and women, with all artists of all times, from the supposedly “sacred” European masters to the humblest craftsmen from any time or anywhere. Judge me as you judge any of them because that is how I judge my work and how I set up my aesthetic standards.
Do you consider yourself representative of your gender and/or culture?
It is nearly impossible to be a representative of my gender or my culture. Females make up more than half the population of the world. There is too much variety in the work of artists of my gender. Besides, no one can tell the products of our work from those of men. Knowing the Arab art world, I would answer that I am not representative of contemporary Arab painting either.
Do you consider art a way to freedom?
No, I do not consider art a way to freedom. Art is a huge area of human endeavour. It is comprised of numerous disciplines that benefit mankind. None of them break chains or open prison doors. Skill in making political symbols to use in conjunction with the motion of the people can give a little support to liberation.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yes, I do consider myself an activist; but less so now than before. I used to be very active in organising demonstrations, political committees, and the making of posters and banners and speeches. My activism was not and is not in my painting. Being a vehement activist for Palestine at some points in my life helped me understand that my paintings cannot be political and that they have to be investigative, international and beautiful. My political work often demanded the making of posters and banners, and I filled them with my political thoughts. They are different from my painting. I do not mix my painting and my political art. If I were to mix the two, I would essentially destroy both. I would remove the creative investigation out of painting and impose a fuzzy, artsy confusion over the political posters.
But I make other kinds of “art” in support of Palestine. I make documentary art recording some of the tragedies imposed on Palestine, such as, for example, my Kafr Qasem drawings. But those are all separate from my painting as well. Documentation and investigative painting are two different worlds of thought. Learning to make clear distinctions and living by them allows us to grow in creative power in all our endeavours.
Do you think that an Arab artist should live in or be connected to the West in order to attain success, exposure and recognition?
In my case, living in the U.S. made life hell in relation to the art world. I was completely rejected for being an Arab, a Palestinian, an immigrant, a female, for being political, and for speaking with an accent. But when I began to exhibit my work in the Arab world, I was received with open arms. Maybe I should say that the reverse was true for me. Living in the West made it easy to attain exposure and recognition in the Arab world. But I think what is important is to learn to speak the languages of the art world, those being both English and the social behaviour of the gallery set. English was imposed on me by colonialism, Zionism and imperialism. In the art world, we artists have to put on a different hat than the one we wear in the studio; and that is a language we have to learn.
Which female artists do you admire?
I admire the work of Saloua Raouda Choucair immensely. I have a reverse daydream that one day when I was 13 years old someone took us to visit her studio in Beirut, where we were living after exile from Palestine. Also, I admire Mona Saudi, Fahrelnissa Zeid and Etel Adnan, among contemporary artists of any gender or nationality. Of earlier history, I deeply admire the women of Soviet abstraction like Olga Rozanova and Lyubov Popova.
Do you feel that some of your artwork is specifically targeted to an audience of women?
I never target an audience with my work and certainly do not consider it a good idea to target only women as an audience. If I think of an audience for my work it would be my contemporary friends and the future. I believe we as human society grow in intellectual power and knowledge and I want to make intelligent paintings that will mean something to future generations.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am planning a book that will cover my work on paper and include some of my other media such as the hanging sculptures made of stitched canvas. I am also still working to publish a second edition of the book Liberation Art of Palestine. Also, I am preparing for another show of new paintings to happen, hopefully, two years from now.
Which venue do you dream of exhibiting your work in?
A retrospective in any really large international museum would be a wonderful conclusion to my career. But regardless of venues, I am here, I have been seen and I want to explore areas of painting that are enlightened by nearly six decades of thought and practice.
You had to flee your homeland in 1948 and you immigrated to Lebanon and later to the U.S. How has this experience impacted your artwork?
Exiled from Palestine, escaped to Lebanon, then settling in America gave me a peek into the international world of differing societies, as well as a clear idea of the immorality of others. My father protected our family well against the horrors imposed by the British and the Israelis but I could see the emotional stress and the suffering of other refugees all around. That experience impacted me personally. It impacted how I see the world — it allowed me to see through the friendly façade of hostile constructs. But the world is larger than the colonisers, the Zionists or the imperialists. I have to peer through their stupidity, their defunct morality, and their terror and see a future where their dissolution is a faint memory. I am optimistic and paint for an enlightened future.
Landscapes, nature and space are constant elements in your paintings. Can you explain their importance and the role they represent in your art?
Space is a major topic of concern in my painting. I consider not only landscape but also cityscape and interior space inside our home. Distant horizons intermix with my painting space as well. Sometimes, I mix the two. In a recent group of paintings titled Illuminated Space I examined the relationship of interior and exterior space as I experience them through my windows and the fire escape between my rooms and the street outside. Another series, Trees and the High Rising City, considered the life of trees within human habitation. I was particularly focused on the beauty of trees at night in big cities illuminated by the many colours of artificial light.
Your paintings often embody your homeland Palestine. Is this why your landscapes are abstract? Is painting your homeland a way for you to keep your country alive?
My paintings are abstract because I consider abstraction to be the true painting for the future. I consider the Impressionists, the Cubists, the Futurists, the Constructivists, the Abstract Expressionists, as well as the art of the Intifadah to be my ancestors. I seek to make my paintings the descendants of their work. by doing so, I am also asserting that all of mankind’s culture is my heritage. I often use titles that refer to Palestine because I want to assert that I am Palestinian and Arab and I dare anyone to forget it. I will continue to do so until Palestine is re-established on the entire soil of historic Palestine.
Was the longing and the loss of Palestine a catalyst for you to create Earth Works, in which you photograph sand, footprints and stones?
No, it was not. I do the earth works because, like many people in this world, I like mud and planting and growing things. I have a wish that will probably never be fulfilled. I would like to strip and roll in a big puddle of beautiful mud. I like the idea of blending with the soil, of touching it and respecting its value.
What is New York to you, Samia?
Sometimes New York is home, a place in America nearest to Palestine. But I came to New York in the first place searching for an intellectual artistic environment and only found a crass art-world that soundly rejected me. I then directed myself toward the exile Palestinian and Arab communities here and have been thus connected since then.
What role have Arab artists living in the diaspora played in the past, and what role do they play today? What challenges have you faced as a Palestinian artist living in the U.S.?
When I first began to return to Palestine on a regular basis in the mid-1990s I found two types of reception. One section told me that I was not one of them because I did not suffer the occupation with them; while the other one welcomed any knowledge that I brought from the outside. The artist Tayseer Barakat told me that he considers all of us who have lived outside to be a great contribution bringing new thoughts and attitudes. Palestinians living in the Gallilee, however, wholeheartedly welcomed me with open arms. I made wonderful friends among Palestinians in all the places we live.
As to the challenges I face, as a Palestinian artist living in the U.S. there is much that I already said in my answers above about profiling and rejection. There is a method known as tokenism in U.S.-racism where only one of a “minority” group is accepted into a mainstream situation. This is to tell the world that the U.S. mainstream of art did their best searching for a “minority” artist but could only find one good one. It is a double-edged sword declaring their piety while disrespecting an entire segment of the population.
When the Yale School of Art approached me to teach at their school they promised it would be a permanent position, as I had to give up tenure at Indiana University. I was the first woman to be hired as a full-time associate professor at the School. But the dean called me soon after I began teaching and informed me that I was to them “like killing two birds with one stone for being both ‘minority’ and female” and he bragged about how that helped them satisfy a government initiative called “Affirmative Action,” intended to create equal opportunity.
After ten years of teaching there they did not want to give me tenure. At that point, they terminated all the women working at the school. In effect, they hired me because to them I was a “minority” female and later fired me for the same reason. Furthermore, they feared my enlightened teaching and how much the students liked me.
Do you think that Arab artists living in the diaspora face the dichotomy of needing to represent their country’s visual identity and that of adopting the Western modern style of painting?
I can speak for artists living in the U.S. Yes, I think they have to face that dichotomy. I also think that dichotomy is forced on them by U.S. propaganda as much as it is imposed on them by Arab nationalist propaganda. I could see through the artificiality of that dichotomy very early in my career when I wrote an essay entitled Where is Palestine in Your Work? I still see this dichotomy only as propaganda with an oppressive intent. I am happy knowing I am Palestinian and that the culture of mankind, all of it, is my heritage. It is my responsibility as a painter to study and know as much of it as I can.
What does geometry signify in your work?
Geometry for Arabic art is the equivalent of perspective for Western art. Medieval Arabic abstraction utilised symmetry to describe the rhythms and patterns we learn from observing and understanding nature. Geometry has equivalencies with the visual language, that is, with the art of making pictures. It gives us tools with which to understand space, mass, and manmade objects. Its methods are useful in manufacture as they are in the composition of a painting.
Your black-and-white drawings of Kafr Qassem Massacre are figurative and narrative compared to your colourful abstract paintings. Can you explain this shift in media and form?
It is not a shift in media or form. It is an entirely different discipline of making pictures. Long ago, I determined that the mainstream of my effort as a painter is to investigate the language of pictures and attempt to add something to the mountain of human culture. In this endeavour there is not room for copying centuries-old methods or for practical political content. Thus, I divide my visual work into three different disciplines. It is similar to a poet who also writes critical essays. The other two forms of my work are devoted to documentation in the service of Palestinian history, and to political posters in the service of my political activism. The Kafr Qasem drawings are documentary. There is nothing new in their formal language. Illusion, or figuration, was thoroughly accomplished by the Renaissance. To repeat what the Renaissance artists accomplished is not investigation.
Helen Khal wrote: ‘For me, the language of painting begins and ends with colour; it is infinite in its expression.’ How does this apply to your art? What importance does colour take in your painting?
For me, the language of painting begins with reality and ends up a visual message. Colour, to me, is something to study scientifically. I understand something of its behaviour and the effect of light upon it. I also know something of how our eyes work and how we perceive colour. Furthermore, the skill of mixing colours to create relationships that evoke the subtleties of our eyes and the world we see is necessary for a painter. Understanding artists’ colour systems is also important. The old Munsell colour system is familiar to me and very useful. Josef Albers’ book The Interaction of Color is also of primary importance. Colour in painting is not a closed system. Our understanding of it grows with our deepening understanding of reality and nature.
What’s novelty in art to you? You experimented with computers and used it in your art to create animated abstract images. You also worked with sound. Can you talk to us about this phase?
Novelty in art, to me, is embodied in those artists that create tricks to catch the attention of the dealer and collector. They sparkle for a while and are quickly extinguished.
Programming a computer resulted from serious considerations regarding being a painter of my time. Studying history, I always noted that the most advanced art of any society used the most advanced technology of its time. I always admired Leonardo and Michelangelo for their great daring to dissect cadavers in order to learn how to draw.
As a result, I challenged myself, asking if I were a painter of my time would I not use digital technology and programming? I went shopping for computers and once I got one into my studio, I discovered that most art programmes were limited by the visual knowledge of the programmer. What programmers did was create programmes that imitated old methods like pencil drawing, brush mark textures or photo retouching. What I wanted was to discover the nature of the digital medium and create what traditional media could not. I wanted to know what it is capable of.
Thus, I had to learn programming and, as I began to do so, I found that programming meant that things appear on the screen sequentially. The computer could also produce sound along with the abstract shapes sequentially growing on the screen. I called the program Kinetic painting. Eventually, I created a program that converted the keyboard to play abstract sequences that moved. I used this program to jam with musicians and we called ourselves “The Kinetic Painting Group.”
Is there a literary connection between your artists’ books and your paintings? Can you talk to us about Worldwide Intifada?
The book Worldwide Intifada relates to my painting completely. It is a painting that unfolds as the pages of the book are turned. It differs from a painting only in that it unfolds like a book rather than being one flat image.
There is a small relationship between the content of the book and its title. Perhaps the small connection lies in the area of the scattered free-flying shapes and in the difference between the visual ambiance of any two-page spreads. When I planned the book, I wanted a surprising new ambiance created each time a page is turned. So maybe the freedom of shape and the variety of ambiances is like a worldwide Intifada with all nations working together but preserving their culture uniqueness.
From 2000 onwards, you created a new body of work named Paintings Freed from Frames, which is an interplay between painting, cut-ups, collage and three-dimensional works. What led you to this new experience?
It started with a very frustrating painting that refused to succeed. With a bad painting, I am like a bulldog with a chunk of fresh meat, I cannot give it up and I get angry. I searched my brain for all the wisdom I have gathered from other painters and remembered the adage that to paint around the good areas makes finalising the painting unlikely. But even that adage was not helping. So in a bit of anger I reversed the wisdom, took a scissor and literally cut out the bad parts. I pinned the good parts to the wall. On the following day, I cut up the bad parts into nice shapes, painted on them, and then pinned them up too. I kept cutting, painting, pinning and eventually stitching parts together. I liked it all a lot and it became a new method in my work.
You have worked with refugees — what advice would you give to people who would like to use art to help refugees?
The most important part is respect and consciousness that we work with refugees because it benefits us. Refugee camps are places of important moral and cultural growth for our Palestinian national group.
by Mona Khazindar
Featured image: Mona Khazindar portrait, photo by Shadia Alem and Samia Halaby in her studio, Aug. 11th.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 89-97.