'Three Arab Painters in New York'

Humanizing the Other

Visitors at the opening of the "Made in Palestine" exhibit walk around Rana Bishara's "Blindfolded History." (Photo: Jean Gordon)

The emergence of Arab art in New York City has surprised many. "Made in Palestine," an exhibit that opened at the Bridge Gallery in March, drew large crowds. The battle to bring the show to New York, however, was no shock. Fearing a strong backlash from the pro-Israel community, galleries, and studios refused to show the exhibit. Still, the independently funded Bridge Gallery forged on and won critical acclaim in the New York Times and Time Out. That exhibit closed last month but has been followed by an equally moving and controversial new exhibit: "Three Arab Painters in New York," which opened June 3.

It is not as though the three Arab artists featured in "Three Arab Painters in New York" — Samia Halaby, Sumayyah Samaha, and Athir Shayota — intend to be controversial, but the wars that have consumed their countries and the atrocities that have been inflicted upon their people constitute a grim reality. The West's perception of these conflicts, and its dehumanization of the people suffering in countries that are in conflict with Western interests in general, leads to the characterization that Arab art is controversial. The culture, politics, and conflicts that encompassed these artist's surroundings influenced many of the pieces on display at the Bridge.

World-renowned Palestinian artist Samia Halaby has been integral in pushing forward the underground art movement in New York City and creating a platform for independent artists.

The gallery's curator, Maymanah Farhat, wrote, "Her dedication to the self-determination of colonized peoples has led Halaby to explore creative venues that surpass the rigid boundaries of the mainstream art world."

Halaby's work featured at "Three Arab Painters in New York" focuses on the Kafre Qasem Massacre of 1956, conducted by the Israeli military, which claimed the lives of 49 Palestinian men, women, and children. Halaby extensively researched the massacre, meeting with the surviving residents of the village, examining written documentation and studying photos of those slaughtered.

In "The Ninth Wave of Killing," Halaby depicts —with conte crayon — an instance when, as she articulates, "sixteen women were shot over and over again until only one survived. The sole survivor was in the center of the big hug that the women created as they were being shot."

Farhat further explains, "Some called this event in the massacre the 'Dance of Death' because when the shooting began the women came together and began to rotate slowly as the bullets hit them."

Halaby's depiction of the massacre captures the chilling event, thrusting the viewer into the world of the victims of Israeli occupation. A testimonial from one of the sole survivors of the massacre — pasted on the wall next to the "Dance of Death" — describes the unnerving day: the loss of friends and co-workers, the screaming of the women being slaughtered, the pain of visiting their graves decades later and the tears that still fall from his eyes when he thinks of the event.

Featured artist Sumayyah Samaha, who was born in Lebanon, has been active in the independent New York art scene since the late 1970's. Samaha co-founded the 22 Wooster Gallery in 1978 and remained involved with the gallery for the next 10 years. Samaha's recent art has been inspired by the conflicts engulfing the Middle East, more specifically the second Palestinian Intifada, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the political unrest consuming Lebanon. Sumayyah recently contributed to anti-war exhibits such as "Why War, Why Dubya?", "WAR ART," and "Defiance and War Culture."

In a current work titled "Israel/Palestine Fence" (featured in "Three Arab Painters in New York") Samaha states, "The work tries to convey the humanity of a people with a rich history and a culture that continues to thrive despite the harrowing conditions under which they live. They are writing poetry, making music and singing songs about love, pain, and hope."

Samaha masterfully integrates words of poetry into the background of many pieces in "Israel/Palestine Fence" — including a moving work that features a poem by Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad. In her ceramic work — the "Fifth Crusade" —she uses nails to represent the violence of President Bush's "crusade" into the Middle East. The ceramics in "Fifth Crusade" depict George Bush's "calling" and the tragedy that ensued as a result of the "war on terror."

Farhat summarizes Samaha's collection of art on display, "Through such works as 'Mausoleums,' 'Israel/Palestine Fence,' and 'Fifth Crusade,' Samaha forces the public to take a pensive look into the issues that can longer be ignored."

Deeply involved in the U.S. art scene since the late 1980's, Iraqi artist Athir Shayota was instrumental in organizing exhibits outside mainstream art spaces in Detroit until 1997. Shayota took on culturally and ethnically diverse projects, organizing exhibits with painters like Richard Ellington Lewis and involving himself with the Cultural Arts division of Access (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services). Following his move to New York City in 1997 and the illegitimate invasion of Iraq, Shayota became politically motivated.

He writes, "I began to spend much of my free time protesting war, attending peace vigils and leafleting around the city. Not only had the Iraqi people suffered under a monstrous regime, they were also subject to the slaughter of the Gulf War in 1991, as well as the genocidal sanctions that followed. Today it continues with more war and occupation."

Shayota's oil paintings on display at "Three Arab Painters in New York" take on Western style and imagery to appeal to the viewer on a familiar ground.

Farhat reveals the viewer's internal dilemma, "The viewer faces difficulty in placing these new images of Iraqis into the subordinate categories of representation that have dominated American consciousness, and are continuously reinforced by media stereotypes."

Shayota skillfully humanizes his subject Tarik, in "Tarik and Athir" and "Battaween Meats," countering the image of the "other" instilled in Western thought. About his recent paintings, he writes, "Although portrayed with compassion, those depicted reflect the violent world which they live."

Farhat comments, "Austerity is created with the depiction of self portraits blocked and interrupted by abstract spatial elements, resulting in an even greater tension with the viewer than that seen in earlier works."

Remi Kanazi will be hosting and performing at the Poetic Injustice Poetry Show at The Bridge on Wednesday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m.

The Bridge Gallery is located on 521 W. 26 St. (between 10th and 11th avenue) in Manhattan. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.

The exhibit, "Three Arab Painters in New York," is on display until June 24. For more information, visit

The quotes in this article are from the exhibition catalog and have been used with the permission of Maymanah Farhat and Al Jisser Group.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Remi Kanazi.