Preserving Palestine’s memory through art: interview with John Halaka

30 August 2013

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“Survival - Return” (2012), ink and rubber stamped ink on paper, from Landscapes of Desire series by John Halaka

Landscapes of Desire, a series of drawings by John Halaka currently on display at the Arab American National Museum in Detroit, is based on stone houses from Palestinian villages destroyed by Zionist forces. By depicting these houses with words such as “return” and “rebuild” rubber-stamped on them, Halaka set out to show that preserving memory is an act of resistance when an attempt is being made to erase an entire culture.

Born in Egypt to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother in 1957, Halaka has lived in the US from the age of 12. As well as a leading Palestinian-American visual artist, he is a professor of visual art at San Diego University.

Halaka spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Irving.

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Detail of “Survival - Return” (2012), ink and rubber stamped ink on paper, from Landscapes of Desire series by John Halaka

Sarah Irving: How did you first start to find your way into the visual arts?

John Halaka: That goes back a bit. I’d been drawing as a child but I didn’t really learn about art until I went to university.

I was from a working-class family so we didn’t go to museums or anything like that. I didn’t know about the art world, even that there was such a thing as an art world, until I went to university and discovered that I could actually be trained in drawing and focus on it. That changed my life.

From early on I was engaged in political ideas, and that crept into my work even from my university days in the mid-1970s and became the main focus of my work — issues of displacement and exile.

SI: How has being Palestinian — you describe yourself as “an artist of Palestinian descent” — affected your position in relation to the art world?

JH: I’ve faced quite a few problems, resistance to my work. In the US, if an artist makes work that addresses the Palestinian situation — and my work is really about human rights — you face all kinds of obstacles and doors being closed in front of you. Even when invited, you can face attempts to censor and control your work.

I make work that I think is visually quite elegant and seductive in many ways, deliberately so, but the ideas within it disturb people who are not willing to have the issue of Palestine aired publicly. So I’ve been censored, I’ve had threats to close down or remove my work from exhibitions, I’ve had my artist’s statements published in an edited form without my knowledge, I’ve had statements written by gallery curators and posted next to my work that “the views within the work do not represent the gallery.” So it’s not been an easy ride.

Even the Arab American Museum, wonderful as they are, talked for two years before accepting this current exhibition of Landscapes of Desire.

Two years ago, I was invited to be part of an exhibition at the African American National Museum in Los Angeles. Before the show even opened, the museum was receiving threats of being boycotted and demonstrated against because they had invited a Palestinian-American artist who makes work about destroyed Palestinian villages. There were politicians threatening to cut the budget for this national cultural institution.

They did keep my material in the exhibition — the curator fought hard and long to do it. But they published a catalog of the exhibition and they edited my artist’s statement without my knowledge and published it in an edited version.

I thought my artist’s statement was pretty gentle — I’m completely committed to nonviolent resistance. So I was heartbroken when they did that, especially an institution which at its core is dealing with human rights and civil rights.

Strengthening discourse

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“Resist” (2009), ink and rubber stamped ink on canvas, from Landscapes of Desire series by John Halaka

SI: You describe yourself as an artist of Palestinian descent. What, for you, does that mean?

JH: It’s a political identity, more than just a cultural identity. Because I was not born in Palestine. So for me being Palestinian is an affiliation with the human rights violations which the Palestinians continue to experience.

I started out making work that was about human rights, but as I began to mature I began to make art that dealt with Palestine. It had been there before on a cultural level, on a family level, on a historical level, I knew all about it, but it didn’t come to the fore in my work until I began to deal with issues of human rights.

I always think of myself as an artist of Palestinian descent, but I am really making work with a focus on violations of rights. One of the things I’m very conscious of is not to try and exclude myself, to say “I’m a Palestinian artist, therefore I should be making art about Palestine.”

That is not at all the case. I think all artists who make political art should be making art about Palestine, about Native Americans, about Aborigines.

I don’t like the exclusionary notion that a Palestinian artist should only make art about Palestine. I think it’s critical that we look at the abuses as abuses against human beings, and develop links between oppressed people on a global level. I think that strengthens the critical discourse of the Palestinians, if we’re not talking in an exclusivist sense.

SI: Do you think it is the responsibility of artists to tackle political themes?

JH: I think all human beings have a responsibility to be politically conscious, and artists are no different. I think it’s equally legitimate to make art about love or any issue — so I don’t speak for other artists, but I think all human beings should take responsibility for what, as citizens, is done in their name and what they can do to help to improve the conditions of others. I don’t want to talk about it as a responsibility only of artists; I think it’s a broader engagement that all of us need to have.

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Detail of “Resist” (2009), ink and rubber stamped ink on canvas, from Landscapes of Desire series by John Halaka

SI: You mentioned that you consider your work to be both political and elegant. How do you balance the issue of beauty with that of politics in your art?

JH: I think that’s a very deliberate strategy. I think it’s my sensibility to make art that is visually elegant, and we all need to be true to our sensibilities.

But I’ve also come to the awareness that political art that beats people over the head often goes unheard. You can’t make people listen when you’re screaming at them.

So the strategy is to make work that is sensitive, that is visually seductive. When the viewer engages with my work, I want them to stand and look. I don’t want to make work that will poke them in the eye but that will seduce them. I use the word very deliberately. That will engage them on a visual level, and then on an emotional level, in the way that music engages, and on an intellectual level, that gets them to raise questions about the subject matter, about their relation to it, their role in relation to the subject matter.

I think a good work of art leaves the viewer with questions. There is nothing that overtly says “Palestine” about my art, but it should leave the viewer with an irritating series of questions that they ponder for hours or days or years.

Engagement

SI: You wrote in a recent article for Jadaliyya that “I have a great affection for old images of faces and places, especially … Palestinian faces and places.” What do they mean to you?

JH: This operates on several levels. As a child I remember wondering about old photographs, who people were, what their lives were like … so there’s a very personal engagement with old visual images. But in the case of Palestinians’ photographs, because I’m close to the subject matter, I look at them with even greater fascination, with a sense of almost poetic wonder — who are they?

What were their lives like? What could they have been like had the Nakba not occurred? Especially those families who were dismembered, who were pushed all over the world, who have not seen each other, because of the Nakba.

When I look at photographs by the Palestinian photographer Khalil Raad, I’m amazed at his sensitivity to the human being, to the men and women who just stand there and look, ordinary people, nothing famous or glorious about them.

It goes back to my fascination with the tradition of realism, going back to mid-nineteenth century French art, this tradition of looking at the poetic in the ordinary.

It’s the same if I’m looking at late nineteenth century photos of Native Americans. There were a lot of photographers who documented the Native Americans during the decades of wiping them out. I look at them with the same fascination, and of sorrow and mourning at a culture that was nearly obliterated.

It is similar with the Palestinians, a culture with such tremendous potential that was nearly obliterated by colonial hatred and racist belligerence and the absolute arrogance of the Western world that Arabs can be pushed out of the way and treated as less than human.

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Zeinab Sakalla, Beirut, (2012) digital print from Portraits of Denial & Desire series by John Halaka

SI: You also talk about the “mystery of the ordinary,” especially in relation to film. How do drawing or painting and film relate to one another in your work?

JH: I have to be honest and say that film is a fairly recent endeavor. I’m not a filmmaker by training, I taught myself because I wanted to collect stories of Palestinians.

Drawing and painting are very natural at this point in my career; I’ve been doing them since childhood. Film is not unnatural, just a different language that I am nowhere near fluid in.

In terms of content, in film the focus is on the ordinary — going back to realism, on the realities that go unnoticed, the ordinary life that we pass by. In the case of Palestinians, ordinary life is not ordinary, whether they are living under occupation or in exile, they are living unusual lives, where one can say they live in an emotional vacuum, not knowing where they are or where they will be.

So the films are about recording stories and allowing the subject to tell her or his own story. And making those stories available so that the ordinary is heard, becomes possible. So that people can listen to Palestinians speaking about Palestine.

The archives that I’m working on are for me a way of preserving a reality that has been hidden in broad daylight. It’s a way of taking little fragments, slivers, nuggets from this cultural tapestry that has been bashed and scattered and rendered for the rest of the world almost invisible, and trying to connect some of them, and allow pieces of lives to come through and tell a history that has been decimated and untold.

I don’t want to sound in any way like my work is unique — there are lots of other people doing the same thing, but I think it’s an important contribution, and I feel enormously privileged. I spent a year recently in Lebanon working with refugees, in the camps and outside. There are perhaps 470,000 registered refugees in Lebanon alone, four generations, families pushed into exile and their children born into exile, sometimes in the same refugee camp and sometimes in a series of camps because of destructions that occur.

I feel extremely privileged to bring my camera and microphone and have people share stories with me. In some cases, it’s very difficult for them to speak, in some cases it’s cathartic, in some cases they’re pleased that some person is asking them.

The great majority of the people I’ve interviewed have never told their story. It becomes a great responsibility.

There are thousands and thousands just tiny fragments, but for me it’s an important record I can leave for students and scholars and people who want to know about Palestine directly from the people, who are interested in realism instead of a romantic notion of the past, although I do have some of those romantic tendencies as well. That real interest in that sober realism, having someone look straight into the camera and tell their story.

SI: What are you working on at the moment?

JH: The project that I’m currently working on bridges the films and drawings. It’s called Portraits of Denial and Desire. I’m working on these large portraits, drawings as well as photographic portraits, which are directly informed by the interviews, the refugees, their faces, their hands, their details. They’re not just representational but more metaphorical portraits.

There is this connection which is evolving slowly and gradually and naturally as I become more and more comfortable with the idea of making films.

It’s a rather ambitious project which includes video, film, the archive as well as a series of drawings and of photos. I’m hoping that eventually there will be a book with some of the photographs with excerpts from the narratives of each of these individuals. The book obviously won’t have them all but maybe 55 or 60. An artist is always more excited about the project that is cooking at the forefront of his mind, and I’m very excited about that.

All images courtsey of John Halaka.

John Halaka’s Landscapes of Desire is on show at the Arab American National Museum in Detroit until January 2014.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.