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An Interview with SUMAYYAH SAMAHA

JULY 17, 2008
© Amir Bey, 2007
SUMAYYAH SAMAHA, a painter and mixed media artist who combines the personal, social and nature in her work
Detail from "Israel/Palestine Fence". mono prints/mixed media. Each panel is 6"X8"
"Israel/Palestine Fence" is in protest of Israel building a separation wall on Palestinian lands separating farmers from their farms and making contacts for a family difficult if not impossible in certain cases.
5475jb. "I am an Arab"
water color and ink
9" x 16"
Portrait of Iraq
Installation in charcoal (each piece is 6" x 8")
Two images: one is tomb stones and the other is spirals that could be just abstract forms or hand grenades.
Pine Trees Don't Make Pine Nuts Anymore
Water color and ink
11.5" x 30"
Pine trees in Lebanon are in mourning about Lebanon
HOLLER!: Art is a many-splendored thing and thereís really no way to describe it, but Iíll ask this anyway: how do you like to define yourself as an artist?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: Art is my life line. It is what I do, it is what I think about, and it is what keeps me moving. I just make art. For some reason it manages to get out! I am not complaining.

HOLLER!: What artistic transitions did you make from your earlier period in Lebanon to your early days in the New York City art scene of the late 70s?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: I started making art after I got to New York. I was 34 years all. I started accidentally and it was like a whirl wind. There is before and after! It completely changed my life.

HOLLER!: Your work at Skotoís makes me want to ask you: are you linking nature and nations? I guess Iím also asking separate questions: how are you envisioning nature, and how do you see humanityís situation?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: You are absolute right. I grew up in the mountains and I was a very active and playful child. I loved the woods and loved going up and down the hills. I had no toys nor did my friends, we had to get creative about playing.
My paper work is about where I come from. In some I have used pins and nails to express violence like in the "Cluster Bombs" installation. In the "Lebanese Flag" I spilled ink like spilled blood as well as pins.
I turned to poetry of Arab poets, primarily women poets, Etel Adnan and Suhair Hammad, who express in words the feelings I share with them, primarily pain regarding our Arab world.

HOLLER!: What are the major centers of modern art, areas where artists in the Middle East and North Africa?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: Lebanon has a very interesting and active art seen. Ashkal Alwan, is a non profit enterprise that encourages artists and organizes many of activities around art. They have an annual meeting called "Workshop" that features lots of art from the entire Arab world that includes also video and movies. They invite artists and curators from all over the world to participate.
Egypt also has a very active art scene and interesting galleries. The art scene in the West Bank in Palestine is also very alive in spite of the hardships of living under occupation.

HOLLER!: How does the work and activities of Lebanese artists differ from say, those of Saudi Arabia?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: I really donít know much about the art scene in Saudi Arabia. As for Lebanese art, it is international yet deals with issues of the time and the place. There are many photographers and video and movies.

HOLLER!: What do you think is the best solution between the Palestinian and Lebanese people and Israel?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: End of the occupation in Palestine and allow the returns of refugees. There are many Palestinian camps in Lebanon. They cannot work nor have the citizenship and are mainly confined to their camps. It is upsetting. I would like for those who do not wish to go back to Palestine to become fully integrated in Lebanon and to be treated totally respectfully.
I have done many works that include "Israel/Palestine Fence" and Mausoleums and Urns for Palestinian kids who die in the occupied territories. These kids donít have a name for the face. If an Israeli kid dies we get to know not only his name, rightly so, but also the names of his mother and father etc. It is so convenient to deny identity to the fallen Palestinian kid.
I have done an installation in charcoal that deals with Iraq entitled "Portrait of Iraq". The images are mostly of tomb stones.

HOLLER!: How do you see your art relating to that situation?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: One day my art was involuntarily and forcefully propelled in to responding to what is happening.

HOLLER!: Have you exhibited in Israel?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: No; however, I would love to exhibit in the West Bank and Gaza.

HOLLER!: What kinds of venues exist in there?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: There are galleries and as I said before Palestinians in spite of the occupation are very active and creative. Emily Jacir and Annmarie Jacir are both successful artists and especially Emily, live part time in the West Bank.
There was an exhibition 3 years ago which was a travelling exhibition "Made in Palestine" that started in Houston, Texas, in a small Museum, then went to Montreal and in both places were very well received. NO gallery and NO museum in NY accepted to show it. They had to rent a space to exhibit it!
I very much would like to show there!

HOLLER!: What kinds of collective endeavors are Arab artists undertaking?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: I really donít know. Perhaps there are collective projects etc. that I am not aware of. There are many Arab artists whose work I respect very much. Of the ones known in the West are Mona Hatoum, Emily and Annmarie Jacir, Walid Raad, Marya Kazoun, Nda Sehanaoui, Samia Halaby Nabil Nahas and more.

HOLLER!: Are there pressures that those artists face from their respective governments?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: I donít think so. I know that writers and film makers are pressured perhaps in Syria and Egypt but not in Lebanon. I have not heard of anything as such happening to visual artists.

HOLLER!: What kinds of activities have Israel artists engaged in that relate to whatís going on in the region?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: I donít know.

HOLLER!: What future projects to you have coming up?

SUMAYYAH SAMAHA: I will continue painting but I also have an idea for an installation that is about the camps in the west bank.
I have a big show next spring at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Please scroll down to view some photos of Sumayyahís work.
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