Addressing the status of women, the comparison of religious beliefs with social and political realities, and looking at local landscapes touched by history, Samah Shihadi becomes a force to notice as she develops her art practice. Shihadi is of Palestinian origins, she holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Haifa, has won multiple awards for her practice, and has been acquired by the permanent collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The featured images in this text are provided by the author through the artist.
Maha Al Mansouri leads the interview with artist Samah Shihadi
Tell us about your career as an artist. When and where did you start to paint?
I’ve been drawing all my life. As a 5-year-old in kindergarten, my teacher always encouraged me and told me that my drawings were very beautiful, she used to hang my works on the walls. I remember her telling my parents that I’m talented and that my drawings were unique. I continued to draw and noticed that I draw in a different way than the rest of my friends at school.
By the age of 20, I started attending art classes in college in order to develop techniques and research in the field of art. Since then, I have been working towards the international exhibition of my art. There have been many years of hard work from the completion of my master’s degree to the beginnings of my artistic career that have seen me displaying my artworks in exhibitions.
Where are you from and how does that affect your work?
I’m a Palestinian artist, from Shaab village, Galilee. I live and work in Haifa.
In general, we live in a conservative society rooted in customs and traditions. It is difficult to live in a “free” way. This applies to everyone, but those who suffer the most are women being part of our traditional society. There is always gender discrimination. There are no human rights for women in our society to live in a free and independent manner. So, I reflect upon this issue in my artwork.
Contemporary Palestinian art is rooted in folk art and traditional art of Islamic and Christian painting. After the Nakba in 1948, the nationalistic themes have become dominant, since Palestinian artists needed a way of expressing and exploring their connections to their identity and to their homeland. However, even though the struggle of the Palestinian people does serve as a source of inspiration for a great number of artists, Palestinian art is not solely defined by the political turmoils of the region. The modern Palestinian artists offer a unique and insightful glimpse into the heritage and the culture of the area, redefining and reshaping the traditional view of Palestinian art. Also, it’s important to mention that young Palestinian artists do not only criticize the occupation they are under but also criticize their own society.
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marina Abramović and Shirin Neshat.
In particular, I would like to mention my mentor, the artist Michael Halak, who guided me in refining my talent, both technically and intellectually.
Tell us about your favorite medium.
During my studies, I experimented with many materials and mediums in art. Pencil and charcoal remain the most important materials that I have ever felt. These are the materials that I express myself with. The pencil has accompanied me throughout my life. In my youth, I drew as a hobby, from a little girl aged 5 until a high school student – I grew older and my skills in using the pencil, grew with me.
Where do you find inspiration?
Inspiration is absorbed from everywhere – in nature, flowers, trees, music, movies, and exhibitions of course. For me, everything that goes on around me is an inspiration. But most of all, reading is the source of my greatest inspiration, especially the books that introduce me to new concepts of spirituality. It is here that I begin to understand and to feel what is going on around me, from this research I can absorb energy from the world. From this point of departure, I can think clearly. For example, now I am reading a book (Secrets Of Divine Love by A. Helwa) which talks about how much God loves us, in different ways, and how he is watching over you.
When is your favorite time of day to create?
I work in my studio every day from 9:00 AM until 19:00 PM.
Describe the importance of art to society and the community.
The Palestinian society is considered a traditionally conservative society, but in the last decade, we have seen a change in the status of women in society as a result of their access to academic education and the possibility of independence and self-reliance, which leads to “liberation” from the restrictions of male society and traditional beliefs. As I mentioned, art is a way of expressing opinions and criticism. If you use it wisely, you can influence others and make a change.
What motivates you to create and to keep progressing in the art world?
Art is a mirror of society and reflects the course of events within society at all political, social, and cultural levels. As a Palestinian artist, I try to use my art as a mirror in order to reflect my Palestinian community and my Palestinian identity and reality.
I think art is a reaction to what happens in your environment. We note that the world is going through a period of great change (due to technology and many other factors) and therefore our societies are affected by these changes. It is our responsibility as artists to monitor and respond to these changes objectively and professionally through our art.
Besides that, there are many female artists who take my work as inspiration. Many art students choose to write about my works. They also teach about it in lectures at universities, so this is a success for me, and it’s given me the desire to continue.
Where have you exhibited your artwork?
Selected solo and group exhibitions include:
2023, MORE Museum, Netherlands (forthcoming)
2022, Venice Biennial (forthcoming)
2020, Terra (Un)firma, Tabari Artspace, Dubai, UAE
2018, Hungry for Home, Tabari Artspace, Dubai, UAE
2019 Objects of imagination, Jordan national gallery, Jordan
2019 Family stories, Kunstmuseum Bochum, Bochum, Germany
2019 Beyond the veil, Memoire de L’avenir gallery, Paris, France
2019 Our permanent guardian, Yasser Arafat museum, Ramallah
2019 Belonging, Dubai design district, Dubai
2019 “1948”, Haifa city museum, Haifa
2019 Limitless, The gallery at the Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem
2018, Art Dubai 2018, Dubai
2018, House…..Houses, The gallery at the Walled Off Hotel, Bethlehem
2017, Third Identity, CAP Kuwait, Kuwait
Tell us about an art exhibition of yours that was a turning point in your career.
2018, Hungry for Home, Tabari Artspace, Dubai, UAE
This exhibition was my first major international solo show. The body of work took Palestinian food as a platform from which to explore deep-rooted cultural codes and memories and was accompanied by text from Ranya Tabari Idliby, Palestinian author, based in New York. For me, Palestine’s dishes and communal eating practices communicate the collective experience of lost identity, displacement, and ultimately the artist’s aspiration to return home. The exhibition was transformative not only because I was able to present my work to Dubai’s international audience, but also because I was able to collaborate with two empowered Palestinian women – my gallerist Maliha Tabari and the author Ranya Tabari Idliby.
What are you trying to communicate through your artwork?
As I mentioned before, we live in a conservative society, living on customs and traditions. Because of that, women suffer. There are no human rights for women in our society. To live in a free and independent manner as a woman myself, I’m constantly challenged fighting for progress in my life. And as a female artist, it’s my duty to talk about these issues.
My handling of this topic (land works) stems from two reasons, personal and general factors. As for personal factors, my work is a documentation of the story and memory of my displaced family, which was uprooted from its land and home in 1948 by the Zionist occupation. As for the general worker, it reflects the relationship of man with his lands and his country. It is therefore a message of appeal to the world to remember the Palestinian cause.
What are you currently working on?
Recently, my art has been increasingly engaged with themes surrounding spirituality, mythologies, mysticism, and legends. This kind of world, handed down by the written and spoken word from generation to generation fascinates me. I’m inspired by the multitude of religions that I’m exposed to from Islam to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism as well as the Greek and Roman mythologies that I love to read. Roman goddesses are particularly inspiring to me. I’m preoccupied with the role of women in these cultures, stories, and societies. I’m inspired by different iterations of femininity and female power. In my compositions, I often remove the male figures, replacing them with an empowered female figure.
What is your view on the Middle Eastern art scene?
Middle Eastern art has been greatly underrepresented internationally. It’s difficult to discuss a scene in general terms as this varies greatly according to the context from Beirut to Cairo and the UAE.
If we are to consider the UAE specifically there are multiple touchpoints through which to encounter and understand the art of the region. From the galleries like the one that I’m represented by, Tabari Artspace, which exhibits modern and contemporary Middle Eastern masters, to initiatives like Jameel art center with its prize exhibition spaces and library and Tashkeel studios that offer emerging talents a space to develop as well as social spaces like the newly opened Arts Club. Then there are also cultural hubs with their own programming such as Alserkal and fairs such as Art Dubai, AD Art, and the Sharjah Biennial that draws in international audiences. Recently the UAE government has also supported artists and creatives with residency visas to support their presence in the region. Abu Dhabi aims to create 15,000 jobs in its cultural sector by 2025.
Previously audiences that wanted to engage with international art from prominent collections would be required to travel to Europe or the US, the establishment of institutions such as Guggenheim and Louvre provides an unprecedented opportunity to encounter a plethora of artworks and antiquities from across the world in the UAE, this marks out the UAE as a cultural center in the Middle East and subsequently attracts key individuals from the global art scene – curators, academics, artists and thinkers thus expanding the local cultural scene and connecting it to the global.
On the whole, I think Middle Eastern art, Islamic art, and Arab art and art from various countries in the SWANA region are attracting increasing attention from international audiences. This is paired with an increasing number of initiatives to support emerging artists and interest from international institutions. There’s also dynamic art being produced in new spaces by Middle Eastern artists in the diaspora that forges new connections with the worlds and audiences.
What is next for you?
I’ve been approached for a solo museum exhibition in the Netherlands that I’m currently producing a new body of work for as well as the forthcoming biennial in Venice. Through opportunities to present artwork in international and institutional contexts, I’m able to spark new conversations surrounding the identities and realities that I reflect upon in my art which, feels progressive to me.