Famous for her abstract painting and penetrating thinking, Palestinian artist Samia Halaby moved to the USA in 1951 with her family, after being expelled from their home in Jaffa, Palestine. Born in 1936 in Jerusalem, Halaby continued her studies in the USA and taught at several universities around the country such as the Yale School of Art and Michigan State University. Now living and working in New York City, Halaby produces painting that is characterised by pure abstraction, but as she explains, an abstraction that derives from reality and the natural world. Halaby is considered one of the most important visual artists in the Arab World today.
Between 1999 and 2012, Halaby created a series of drawings depicting a massacre that took place in 1956 at the Palestinian village of Kafr Qasem: on the day when France, Britain and Israel invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez canal, Israeli forces murdered 49 villagers at Kafr Qasem and wounded dozens of others, most of whom were left bleeding on the streets and were later loaded on trucks to be taken to the hospital. The excuse for the massacre was a curfew enforced by the Israeli border police only half an hour after it was announced; as a result, farmers returning to the village after a day’s work were executed, together with children and women who happened to be on the streets. Because of the curfew, survivors had to wait inside their homes until the next day, agonising over whether their loved ones where dead, or alive and suffering outside.
Halaby decided to draw a series of images depicting scenes from the massacre in realistic detail.
Since the massacre took place in 1956, the villagers of Kafr Qasem hold an annual march and memorial for the victims, where artists and writers are invited to talk about the events. An act of remembrance and healing, this annual memorial event is also an act of perseverance, of Palestinian sumud, where the people of Kafr Qasem resist Israeli violence and oppression by remaining on their land. Samia Halaby was invited to Kafr Qasem in 1999, where she conducted interviews with survivors of the massacre and local scholars and activists. In response to her research, she decided to draw a series of images depicting scenes from the massacre in realistic detail and with as much accurate information from the real incident as possible. These were presented together with four wall-sized drawings at an exhibition for the 50th anniversary of the Kafr Qasem massacre, which took place in New York in 2006.
Later on, in 2011, Halaby decided to create a book with her drawings, which would help disseminate the story about the massacre to a wider audience. This book was published in 2017 by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam, and includes the original drawings together with a new series of drawings by Halaby made in 2012. For the book, Halaby also made transcripts of the accounts of victims she had collected during her visits to Kafr Qasem, and wrote a long preface where she explains in detail her artistic process and the findings of the research; an essay by Kafr Qasem historian Salman Abu Sitta completes the volume, and discusses how the massacre functioned as a tool of terrorism and ethnic cleansing.
“I was looking for the heroic moments, for moments of humanity, consciousness, and dignity.”
Although Halaby’s work is abstract, colourful and geometrical, for the Kafr Qasem drawings she chose the technique of chiaroscuro to depict the gruesome moments of manslaughter that took place on 29 October 1956 in the village. As the artist explains on a website she created dedicated to this body of work, she decided that “Renaissance drawing and chiaroscuro (shading) is the state of the art in the type of documentary drawing that I wanted to do.” Halaby’s drawings show the different stages of the culling, which unfolded in nine “waves of killing” in different parts of the village. Some drawings show Kafr Qasem villagers arriving peacefully with their bicycles and herds, others show them twisting in pain as they’re being executed. Their faces at all times retain an expression of calmness, despite their terrible fate: as Halaby explains, she was looking for “the heroic moments, for moments of humanity, consciousness, and dignity.” The faces of the Israeli executors are not shown in the drawings, but are rendered only as empty forms or shadows. “I decided not to show them at all,” says Halaby. “The story is not about them.”
Samia Halaby’s book “Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre” is a painful and laborious act of documenting a series of events that have traumatised and entire community, and who haunt Palestinians to this day. Halaby had to wade through the painful memories and trauma of the Kafr Qasem people, as she was enquiring into the minutest details of the killing in order to make her drawings as accurate as possible. An exhausting emotional experience, this “reliving” of the massacre and its documentation in drawing and text is in itself an act of perseverance and coping, and hopefully will fulfil Halaby’s intention to encourage other artists to do the same for other parts of Palestine’s history.
‘Drawing the Kafr Qasem Massacre’ is published by Schilt Publishing, available for £40/$50/€45 in stores and online.
Image caption: Samia Halaby, Death of the Shepherd Boy Fathi, 2012. Courtesy Samia Halaby/Schilt Publishing.