“I love making beautiful work,” says John Halaka, “but I want to make beautiful work that bugs the s**t out of the audience.”A self-described “artist activist” Halaka is preparing a lecture on his current work in progress, “Portraits of Desire and Denial.”
This article was featured on the Daily Star’s website (www.dailystar.com.lb) on January 09, 2011, written by Niamh Fleming-Farrell.
It is the fruit of almost 30 years exploring Palestinian history and identity, and it’s evident his passion for the subject hasn’t dulled.
A professor of visual arts at the University of San Diego, the artist has chosen to spend his sabbatical in Lebanon to complete a project he began in Palestine four years ago.
Born in Egypt and of Palestinian descent, Halaka regularly spends his summers in Palestine. He usually works in paints and sketches, but a blossoming interest in Palestinian art spurred him to talk to local artists with the aim of making a series of films on the subject.
He veered off this course after he met a number of Palestinian refugees whose stories “were even more compelling than the artists’. I loved the artists but they seemed very much like a bunch of prima madonnas compared to the refugees.”
The first refugee he interviewed was an elderly man displaced from his Galilee village in 1948 and who has since fought for his right to return to the place of his birth, mere kilometers from where his has been forced to grow old.
“It became evident when I talked to this guy that these stories have never been heard outside of Palestine, and many, many of these narratives have died as the elders have disappeared.”
Thus, though Halaka intended to use his camera only as a research tool, it soon extended his range to include documentary film, exploring the themes of repression and displacement, desire and denial in the community’s 63-year exilic history.
His goal is to produce a series of six 15-minute documentaries to be presented together as a film with six chapters, each focused on a different aspect of the refugee experience.
These documentaries will ideally be shown in tandem with Halaka’s drawings, which, he explains, represent the personal processing of the information he gathers publically.
The drawings will probably take the form of a portrait series, but the artist says he won’t commence work on these until he’s back in his own studio in the U.S. However, they are likely to continue in a similar vein to his past work.
These works are often deceptively innocuous ink sketches. His 2009-2011 series “Landscapes of Desire” appears to be comprised of quaint renderings of ruins in Palestine.
A second glance reveals that Halaka’s flurried strokes in brown, yellow and orange capture something of the mystical sense of transience evoked by disintegrating buildings – each structure appears on the verge of disappearing, as if conjured by a fortunate pattern of leaves stirred by a brief windstorm.
It is only upon a closer inspection of the works that the activism in the art becomes apparent. Within the texture of each work are subtly stamped words – “resist,” “desire,” “genocide” and even “forgive.”
“They are these words that get you to kind of question political intentions or the political history of the landscape,” Halaka says, but in “my drawings there is absolutely nothing that says Palestine. They are images of displacement, images of ruins, of refugees. [Each] person has to make connections as to his or her relationship to that history, and then hopefully question what is this artist’s intention.
“I want the work to engage the viewer visually ... to enjoy that looking. And [then] in that process of looking you’re engaged emotionally and in that emotional process you are also engaged intellectually. So it’s triple-layered: visually, emotionally, intellectually – and hopefully viewers carry the work home in their mind.”
Marrying his documentary films with his provocative drawings, Halaka says that while he has “many audiences in mind,” for the work “the primary one is Westerners because the goal is to educate and inform.
“I want to make beautiful work that nags [viewers], that haunts them, that all of a sudden appears in their dreams and gets them to question,” he continues. “And in that questioning process, there’s the potential for transformation, the potential for transformation that can lead to action.”
While Halaka feels little progress has been made furthering his cause – U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, he points out, recently described Palestinians as an “invented people” – he’s also noticed a genuine increase in the level of consciousness among U.S. college students.
“I’ve been teaching for 31 years,” he says. “I don’t teach history. I don’t teach Palestine, but I am aware of my students’ political activism and they are aware of the work that I do. And in the last seven years or so, there has been an increase in the interest ... an increase in the understanding, an increase in the questioning of that idea of Palestine. While before Palestine was dismissed, was ignored, was not even heard of, or when it was heard of it was ... with these labels of terrorism.
“Now I am optimistic that college-age kids across America from various settings are becoming active in learning about Palestine. And that gives me tremendous hope because in 10 years, in 12 years, they’re going to be in positions of responsibility, positions of power, positions of influence and I think that then a change will happen.”
Halaka’s work in Lebanon has not been without challenges. He’d intended to spend his first four or five months here recording interviews within the country’s Palestinian refugee camps, but last October he received a communication from the U.S. Embassy requesting he not enter the camps for security reasons. Given that such a request was “potentially crippling” to his work, he objected. In response the State Department, which funds his fellowship, threatened to cut off his grant.
Determining that, whatever challenges it presented, he was better off agreeing “to their terms until the security issue has been relieved,” Halaka has been forced to focus his research on those Palestinians he can meet outside the camps. In some ways this has proved beneficial, taking him to Palestinian communities he may not have been so quick to visit otherwise, but it has made meeting older members of the community, who don’t regularly leave the camps, more difficult.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 09, 2012, on page 16.