Palestinian Artist Samia Halaby Slams Indiana University for Canceling Exhibit over Her Support for Gaza

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Over the past three months, artists, writers and other cultural workers in the United States and Europe have faced a backlash after expressing solidarity for Palestine as Israel has continued its relentless assault on Gaza. Talks and performances have been canceled, artworks deinstalled, exhibits removed, and livelihoods threatened.

Today we speak with two Palestinian American artists. One was canceled by her own alma mater, Indiana University. The other was canceled in Berlin. And we’ll speak with a German American Jewish Holocaust survivor who stood outside the White House for months calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. She was scheduled to speak at a number of schools in her native Hamburg but was told her appearances were canceled.

We begin with Samia Halaby, a renowned Palestinian visual artist, activist, educator and scholar. Samia Halaby’s first U.S. retrospective, which had taken three years to organize, was abruptly canceled by Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art over her criticism of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which she has described as a genocide.

Before we speak with Samia about what happened, let’s turn to a short documentary about her life and work by Palestinian Jordanian filmmaker Munir Atalla. This is Samia talking about moving with her family to the United States as a teenager from Palestine.

SAMIA HALABY: In 1951, my father and mother had come to the decision that it was safer to bring their family up in the U.S. I did not want to come. I was 14 and close to high school. I couldn’t decide between the sciences. It was my mother who finally said, “You always loved art. Why don’t you study art?”

I gained tenure at Indiana University and decided that really I wanted to be in New York. But it’s hard to just pick up and have no money and come to New York, a city I don’t know anybody or anything in. I moved in ’76. I continued trying to get a gallery for years. It was total rejection. In this world, people don’t see — if you’re Palestinian, don’t see what you make. They see you. And they don’t like us Palestinians.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is another clip of Samia, talking about the process of creating her art and how abstraction can result from a new way of seeing.

SAMIA HALABY: I work on two, three, sometimes four or five paintings at the same time. When I enter and get going, then the paintings begin to permeate my consciousness. The paintings do not arise out of feelings. They arise out of thinking. And I am very scientific in the way I think and plan. But when I do them, I trust my intuitions — 

Fulfilling every whim that comes along.

— balancing back and forth between what I intuit is right and what I want to do, and which one wins is hard to tell. When a painting is going badly, I’m feeling badly, but not because my feeling is in the painting. I’m reacting to frustration. But when it’s going well, I’m very happy, because I’ve captured something I’ve wanted to capture.

As I was saying about Palestine, something remains that I almost feel it with my hands I can make it. I put it in a painting, but it’s not a photographic image. It’s what remains visually in memory. It’s something palpable and real. What your iPhone or cellphone is telling you when you take a picture is only a teeny slice of what is in front of it when you take the picture. It’s an image of a fragment of time of reality. But the new abstraction can result from a new way of seeing.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Samia Halaby: A Video Portrait, a short documentary about the Palestinian American artist’s life and work. Samia Halaby’s paintings are in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago. And Samia joins us today in New York.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! We’ve told a bit of the story, but you are one of the most prestigious Palestinian American artists, in these permanent art collections around the country. You were doing this life retrospective at your alma mater, Indiana University, worked on it for three years, Samia. Can you tell us what happened right before it was to open?

SAMIA HALABY: Thank you, Amy. I’m really pleased to be with you and to tell my story and tell the story of what happened, which is very important also to the community in Bloomington and Indiana.

Just immediately before, after a lot of work preparing, first I heard a little rumble that someone was paying attention to the fact that I’m Palestinian. Other than that, I had expected, being an alumna and a one-time professor who had been awarded tenure, to be somewhat immune, because I knew the atmosphere in the country. And so, the sudden, sudden cancellation came as a surprise.

It was amazing to know that they would go ahead and act in this way, when a catalog that’s one-inch thick and hard cover had been printed and delivered, plans for the opening were being made, the artwork was picked up by the shippers. Everything was done in so beautifully and excellent museum fashion that, suddenly, after the — few days after the pickup of the paintings, I hear a very brief notice, a two-sentence letter, saying the show is canceled and the art will be returned to me. I wrote two letters suggesting, in very friendly terms, that they reverse this decision, but I have not heard a word back from them.

And, you know, Amy, this was a twin retrospective committed to my relationship to the Midwest. The Midwest had been a place where I had felt was my second home. I really enjoyed my education there. I started as I arrived in the U.S. at age 14. I’m 87 now. And I remember the University of Cincinnati with a great deal of affection for the great education we received there. I remember it being an atmosphere that was very open and radical. My teachers were all inspired by the resistant painters of the time, like Ben Shahn. They were in admiration of the industrial union movement. The Great Depression was still in people’s memory. And the professors were all very enlightened and advanced and talked a lot about academic freedom. My feeling is I wished I could bring that batch of attitudes in those professors to modern, to contemporary American education.

Maybe I’m going on too long, Amy, but my feeling, through words, what happened to me, is that the administration has lost sight of their responsibility to the community, to the students who are there. They’re trying to stop students from moving forward with thinking with their creative process politically. And that’s — they’re being more responsible to pronouncements from the government and from threats, perhaps, from parts of the government, but not at all responsible. A division is taking place in their position of having administrative power, but no responsibility to the real community.

I feel the students — the repression of the students right now in the country, who are the most advanced, the new partnership between the young Palestinians and all they’re doing and the young Jews and all that they are doing. They’re so disciplined and determined and clear-thinking. I’m really in admiration for them. And I think this act of suspension, of cancellation, is as much against them as it is against me and the curator of the show. We mustn’t forget about the curator, a curator beginning their career, to whom this was a very important show, Elliot Reichert, who was magnificent in his — as was all the staff at the museum, magnificent in their effort.


SAMIA HALABY: So I’m very — go ahead.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Samia Halaby, we’d like to get your response to the formal explanation that Indiana University, your alma mater, where you received your master’s degree — the formal response that the university gave to why your show was canceled. The university provost, Rahul Shrivastav, spoke at a faculty council meeting and addressed the backlash over the decision to cancel your show. He called your exhibit a, quote, “potential lightning rod” that could incite protests, and said the three months for it to be on view would require long-term security, adding, quote, “[If] I have to make a decision on keeping a project, a program going when there is a risk of violence or a risk of other incidents, I would err on the side of caution.” So, Samia Halaby, your response to that?

SAMIA HALABY: Well, my response to that is, first of all, they never gave me a reason, and they never responded. And they never even talked to me. So I got the impression that they didn’t like my — from a very brief phone call with the director of the museum, that, one way or the other, my general attitude and support of Palestine and criticism of Israel and U.S. partnership, U.S.-Israel attacking Palestine, and especially the massacre, the unbelievable massacre in Gaza, both destruction of people and of culture, that my anger with that and my support of the Palestinians was the cause.

I think this idea that they’re so terrorized or frightened by me being a lightning rod and the show bringing — I think the students, to their majority, were for the show. They would have been delighted to see the show. I think this idea of a lightning rod for trouble is their imagination, their invention. It’s just a propaganda, you know, invention. I don’t see the — you know, museums guard their work always, guard what is there, and they could have put a second guard on the show, if that’s — they’re so frightened. But canceling it, considering all of the grants they received, all the expenses they went through, is just not reflective of this kind of fear. Museums all over are concerned about art. So, yes, that’s my reaction to that.

You know, I would like to say some more about what’s happening in Gaza, because it connects to art. First of all, I do want to say that this is much larger than I am. There’s suppression of students throughout the U.S. There’s suppression of faculty. There’s one faculty member at Indiana University who’s been censored for — censured for a very minor thing, as an excuse for his true open-mindedness and support of young students.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to — 

SAMIA HALABY: To me, the young students are — 

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to that point, Samia. I’m looking at a piece in The Nation magazine. On December 15th, Indiana University did — suspended professor Abdulkader Sinno, “a tenured faculty member who has taught at IU for almost two decades and who, until his suspension, was the faculty adviser of the PSC. The supposed reason for the suspension: alleged mistakes in the filing of a room reservation form to support a PSC event, a scheduled public lecture by Miko Peled, an Israeli American IDF veteran and peace activist.” I mean, this is amazing. You know, Miko Peled is the son of General Peled, who, well-known in Israel, fought in 1948 and in the Six-Day War. Miko Peled was going to speak. And so, “the alleged mistakes led the administration to demand cancellation of the event two days before it was scheduled.” They went forward anyway. It proceeded without a hitch, until the administration claimed it was an unauthorized event, and the professor suspended. Samia Halaby?

SAMIA HALABY: You know, my feeling is that they indict themselves with their own words. When they suspend someone and they say the reason is he did something — made a minor mistake in filling a form requesting space for the event, it is ridiculous. You don’t suspend a professor for that kind of thing. And then you make — you create a whole range of excuses to defend the real reason. And it’s similar to my case. You know, in his case, they’re accusing him of misfilling a form. In my case, they’re saying they need — they’re worried that my show is a lightning rod to hostile activity against the show or discord among the students. So, it doesn’t make sense to me that they suspend someone who is so highly respected by the students and beloved of the students. It is unforgivable.

Again, it’s an indication that there is a huge gap growing between administrative layers and the government and the students, professors, workers, staff and general population in this country. You see it very clearly. You see huge demonstrations not only in the U.S., but all over the world, and disregard. This whole disregard of governments to what the people are asking for is, in miniature form, taking place at Indiana University. And it is this very thing I’m talking about, this division in the minds of administrators that they no longer owe anything to the students and to the faculty or to an open atmosphere of learning and discourse, as though disagreement, differences of opinion, is a negative thing. It is a kind of attempted mind control. You know, you can only think that way, and then you’re OK, and you can be a student. But if you want to discourse and see other points of view, you’re not allowed. So, it’s very backward. Very backward.

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