ARTIST STATEMENT

The primary focus of my work over the past three decades can be summarized as an ongoing reflection on the frailty and resilience of the human condition and our persistent search for self-realization in the face of personal, cultural and political self-delusion.

As an artist of Palestinian descent I investigate through my drawings, photographs, films and paintings, cycles of repression and displacement, as well as the personal and political relationships between desire, denial and instability.  One of the objectives of my creative practice, is to firmly place the experiences of Palestinian displacement in the international discourse on human rights, forced migration and the right of return of indigenous refugees.  When looking at my art, or watching my documentaries, it is my hope that as viewers learn from and reflect on the personal narratives of a few Palestinian refugees, they will gain greater insights into our moral responsibilities to all refugees.

It has been my goal throughout my career to avoid creating works of art that are overt in the treatment of the topics I am engaged with. Instead, I try to create images that are factual yet poetic in the conclusions they propose. I also endeavor to create works of art that are delicate and beautiful in their form, and to produce images that engage viewers visually, emotionally and intellectually. When successful, my artwork should invite viewers to look carefully, to feel deeply and to think broadly about the content of the images.  It should also leave them with numerous questions to reflect on regarding their relationships to the issues presented.

I generally work on series of related images and have developed several large projects over the past three decades. The following is a list of some of the projects that I have so far completed. Clicking on the title of the series below, will take you to some of the images from that project.

Portraits of Denial & Desire (2012 - Present)
Landscapes of Desire (2009 - 2013)
Mapping Repression (2007 - Present)
Fragmented Visions (2001 - Present)
Whispers & Echoes (1997 - 2001)
Relics: Meditations on Decay & Renewal - Drawings (1995 - 1997)
Relics: Meditations on Decay & Renewal - Paintings ( 1995 - 1997)
Only Human (1994 - 1995)
Remember to Forget (1993 - 1995)
Witness (1989 - 1991)
Passage in Exile (1989 - 1991)
Forgotten Survivors (1987 - 2003)
Heroes of the Stone (1988 -1989)
Dancing in the Dark (1984 - 1987)
Desire & Denial (1988)
Prelude to a Pacifist Revolution (1985 -1986)
Watching the Peasants Vanish (1983 - 1984)
Learn to Die (1982 - Present)
• Memories of Dying Friend (1978 - 1983)

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"Portraits of Denial & Desire" (2012 - Present)

Indigenous Palestinians have faced an ongoing cultural genocide over the past seven decades and continue to experience a forced odyssey that has been characterized by repeated cycles of catastrophic displacement, debilitating deprivation, tenacious resistance and admirable resilience.

Whether living in exile or under occupation, Palestinians refugees have become the forgotten survivors of the world. They exist, unseen and unheard, in the margins of the marginalized, while their experiences in exile continue to be deliberately ignored and their voices repeatedly silenced.  Although Palestinians continue to be reduced to an absence in their native homeland, the continuity of their stories and images ensure their presence and survival.

My photographs are part of a multi-disciplinary project that preserves and presents the personal stories of three generations of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes and homeland. Preserving the stories of indigenous Palestinians puts a human face, a living name and unique sets of experiences on their ongoing refugee crisis.  It humanizes and personalizes the abstract notion of the displaced masses, making the experiences of the refugees infinitely more real, comprehensible and unforgettable. It individualizes Palestinian narratives of displacement, survival and resistance making them tangible and irrefutable. Recording the experiences and narratives of Palestinians is a declaration, that in the face of looming cultural annihilation, the persistence of memory is a crucial act of cultural survival and political resistance.  Presenting the faces and personal narratives of Palestinian survivors through art, literature and film, is part of a critical effort to make the unseen seen, and the unheard heard, so we can never say, “I didn’t know.”   The Art and literature of survival and resistance are the antidotes to forgetting.  They help to insure that experiences are preserved and that current and future generations are informed. They implore us to “never forget.”

For Palestinians living in exile as well as those living under occupation, memory is the engine of their return.  Memory allows the Palestinians to envision and to seek the denied security of their homeland; it enables them to creatively design the re-construction of their shattered society. Memory inspires the Palestinians to visualize processes to re-assemble the hundreds of thousands of families that have been dismembered and globally scattered in repeated cycles of forced exile, occupation and repression.  

In our active journey towards peace, the persistence of memory leads to acknowledgement; acknowledgment guides us toward justice; justice will carry us to reconciliation; and reconciliation will deliver us to forgiveness.

John Halaka
May 2015

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"Landscapes of Desire" (2009 - 2013)

My drawings from the series Landscapes of Desire are inspired by the ruins of Palestinian villages and homes that have been destroyed during the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.  

The images allow me to reflect on an enduring effort to annihilate a Palestinian culture that refuses to disappear and an indigenous people that refuse to go away.  Drawings of the ruins of stone homes from devastated Palestinian villages such as Kafr Bir’im, Lifta, Al-Bassa, A’mka and Kuikat, are a declaration that in the face of looming cultural annihilation, the persistence of memory is a crucial act of political resistance and cultural survival.

The images are rendered with ink and rubber stamped words.  The repeated stamping of the words defines the forms, textures and tones of the landscapes. Most importantly, the repeated words employed to construct the drawings become a visual mantra, compelling us to “remember,” “resist,” “return,” and “rebuild” while preparing to “forgive.”

I view forgiveness as one of the most challenging, yet most critical final stage of a successful non-violent resistance campaign waged by the Palestinians against their occupiers.  History teaches all who have suffered or continue to suffer under the tyranny of an oppressor, that without cultivating an emotional state of forgiveness the victims risk becoming the monster they wish to destroy.

Inspired by lessons of forgiveness preached by Jesus of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, I invite the viewer to reflect on the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I am paraphrasing here: Without forgiveness, there can be no tomorrow.

John Halaka
July 2013

Additional Thoughts about the Work:

One of my intentions in creating this series is to make drawings that feel like ghostly apparitions. The forms in each drawing are modeled with one or two stamped words that have been repeated thousands of times on the page to create a rhythmic pulsating texture. The resulting landscapes appear to exist in a transitional state between vanishing and becoming visible, suggesting a reality on the verge of disappearing or re-emerging before our eyes.

The images are deliberately devoid of overt political and cultural references to Palestine. By avoiding images that are culturally specific, I hope to underscore the parallels between the struggle of the Palestinians and other persecuted people. The emotional and psychological impact of the drawings lay in their universal reference to surviving political and cultural traumas; the yearning to reclaim shattered pasts; and the desire to create a future that is free of persecution. The repeated words I employ to construct the images can be applied to most historical and contemporary political tragedies.

My work bears witness to a tragic history of Palestinian displacement, and invites each viewer to reflect on their moral responsibility to ending a seemingly perpetual cycle of violence. The children of Palestine and Israel deserve our honesty and moral courage to guide them away from a future of hatred and vengeance.

Truth is the non-violent path to justice, and only justice can lead to sustainable reconciliation.

Justice is my religion. Truth is my temple.

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"Mapping Repression" (2007 - Present)

Maps are graphic representations of geopolitical spaces that are often charged with the mythologies of exceptionalism; personal memories; cultural attachments; spiritual belonging; and political ownership. Maps represent contested spaces with hidden histories of repression, denial and exclusion.

The drawings in this series unveil the tensions of desire and denial in the contested spaces of Palestine/Israel as well as the United States of America. The images address the cultures of psychological and physical violence that engulfs both the victims and perpetrators. The images function as portraits of the hearts and minds of the oppressed and their oppressor.

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"Fragmented Visions" (2001 - Present)

In 2002, I began to develop a series of images that are loosely clustered under the title “Fragmented Visions.” The initial phase of this project was informed by the work of the Irish author Samuel Beckett. The images investigate themes of isolation, disintegration, resilience and the ongoing search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. The process of loosing oneself to the world around you, of breaking down, of becoming invisible, yet refusing to disappear, is central to the images in this series. Many of the paintings allude to our frailties as humans and to the illusionary shields of stability and permanence we create to conceal those frailties.

I dedicated the largest painting in this series to the late American artist Gregory Gillespie. The process of working on this painting enabled me to reflect on the gradual, yet persistent psychological disintegration that privately occurs under the seemingly placid surface of an individual’s public facade. The image explores questions about the erratic relationship between ambition and honesty, as well as the cultural decay that occurs in the shadows of an individual’s public identity. Additionally, working on that painting, as well as on the works that followed it, provided an arena where I could reflect on the struggle between the equally powerful engines of desire and delusion.

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"Whispers & Echoes" (1997 - 2001)

I started working on the paintings for the series “Whispers and Echoes” in early 1998. When I began my research for this project, my intentions were to develop a group of images that would compel the viewer to reflect on a few pressing, but inconspicuous, social problems. I also wanted the narrative for the images to be informed by the morals of selected folk tales and myth. I planned to achieve my goals without creating images that were either illustrative in their forms or didactic and moralistic in their message. My proposed objectives and methods were natural outgrowths of my previous work, the majority of which has been politically inspired and socially engaged.

Preliminary research and studies for the paintings brought me to the awareness that my initial objectives for the project were misdirected. My research on myths and the social function of mythology made me realize that I did not wish to create images that analyzed and critiqued external problems and conditions. My readings, reflections and early sketches refocused my analysis, and by extension, the content of my images. A focus on the personal manifestations of certain psychological and emotional conditions gained primacy in my work. Although it took some time to accept and embrace this change, it became very clear to me that my re-aligned concerns echoed broader and endemic social problems.

“Whispers & Echoes” is a visual meditation on doubt, delusion, obsession and desire. The series can be characterized as an inward journey of rediscovery. The images for this series have been emotionally challenging to create because they bring to expression, and in the public light, personal issues that have been ignored, or dealt with covertly. To the attentive viewer, the images may whisper some of my interior monologues while simultaneously echoing a few of our common, albeit private struggles.

Will the images only be viewed as a window into my consciousness? Will they serve as a mirror of the viewer’s consciousness? Can they act as both a window and mirror that unsentimentally reveal glimpses of the human condition? Since the issues I explore in the paintings are certainly not unique to me. I am confident that the content of the paintings will strike a familiar, although potentially uncomfortable, cord with many viewers. The paintings may also compel a few of the viewers to begin to confront the same issues overtly.

I have long felt that the most meaningful artwork originates from personal experiences and concerns. After three years of working on this project I became only slightly more comfortable with the public presentation of the private inquiries inherent in the work. On the other hand, I have become more secure in the potential social functions that the series may serve. I am also growing comfortable with the realization that the series is not a dramatic departure from my previous work and from the original intentions of the project.

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"Relics: Meditations on Decay & Renewal" (1995 - 1997)

My work on the series "Relics: Meditations on Decay and Renewal” began in 1995 as a reflection on the frailty, resiliency, and self-destructive character of human nature. My relationship to the images gradually evolved into a visual meditation on cycles of nature: birth, development, death, decay and rebirth. The forms in many of these images are nature based, but represent unnatural, defensive, and extremely frail fragments of a subverted creation. The forms imply a state of flux. They appear to be simultaneously in the process of disintegrating and materializing. Some of the images suggest a nature at war with itself for its very survival, a nature in the process of self-extermination, yet struggling to sustain and reinvent itself, a nature on the verge of collapse, yet containing within its decaying corpse the seeds of its resurrection, reconstruction and re-destruction.

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"Only Human" (1994 - 1995)

We say “never again”, again and again and again, and then excuse our actions because we are “only human”.

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"Remember to Forget" (1993 - 1995)

This body of work is a meditation on the sociology of martyrdom. One of my objectives in this series is to engage the viewer in a reflection on the representation of beauty as well as the underlying horrors that are conveyed in the depiction of personal sacrifice for nationalist causes. I want the work to raise questions in the viewer’s mind about his/her psychological and political relationship to the images of martyrs glorified in public monuments. Are martyrs simply heroes? Are they not also villains? Are the images of terrorist who are vilified in the public discourse a distorted representation of another culture’s martyrs?

I hope that the works will engage the viewer to reflect on the benign acceptance of a mythology of martyrdom, created through the institutional promotion of personal sacrifice and collective suffering. Is the depiction of martyrs and the culture of sacrifice, (miss-re)presented through public memorials and monuments, little more than a vehicle for justifying and perpetuating additional violence?

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"Witness" (1989 -1991)

In a world seduced by violence and hatred those of us who refuse to close our eyes to our inhumanity continue to witness with horror, yet so few of us dare to scream. My images are witness to, and echoes of, humanity's screams.

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"Passage in Exile" (1989 - 1991)

The images in this series address the burden and rage of exile and the persistant struggle to return. The canoe like forms serve as vehicles of self-determination, yet without oars, their destiny is mostly defined by external forces and currents. The forms also represent seedpods that contain the memories of the displaced and their fertile hope of return. Driven by the currents of exile, those seeds are destined to germinate in new lands, extending the history of the dispossessed and complicating their desire to return.

“Exile is difficult, but the return is even worse.” Michel Khleifa, Canticle of the Stone

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"Forgotten Survivors" (1987 - 2003)

I worked on the series “Forgotten Survivors” between the years of 1987 and 1993. This large body of work is made up of several smaller series of paintings and drawings that represent, in part, the theme of people dispossessed of their land. Many of the images in the series depict nameless and stateless individuals, stripped of their identity, traveling in exile, having been denied the stability and the dignity of existing peacefully in their homeland.

Although none of the images in this series directly or literally refer to any specific group, I regard "Forgotten Survivors" as an homage to the Palestinians. By deliberately avoiding images that are culturally specific, I hoped to underscore the parallels between the struggle of the Palestinians and other persecuted people. I feel that the emotional and psychological impact of the images in this series lay in their universal reference to survivors. Whether it is the indigenous people of the Americas, Africa, Australia, the Bosnians and Croatians, the Jews, the Palestinians, the Kurds or another group, the paintings and drawings that make up the series "Forgotten Survivors" permit each viewer to project his/her experiences and concerns on my images.

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"Heroes of the Stone " (1988 - 1989)

The drawings in this series are an homage to the courage and tenacity of the Palestinian youth of the First Intifada. By representing the stone throwers in the guise of Greco/Roman athletes, I attempt to link the defiant actions of Palestinian resistance, with the classical Western image of the heroic warrior.

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"Dancing in the Dark" (1984 - 1987)

This series consists of a number of paintings and drawings that employ the motif of the chair as a surrogate for the human body. The animated forms of the chair refer to the contemplative, restless and ever changing nature of the mind.

Reflection and action / action and reflection, are the "two-step" dance of life.

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"Desire & Denial" (1988)

Desire is the engine of creativity. Denial is the cause of paralysis.

We struggle with demons of repression, alternatively, taking the lead and then being led, in a macabre dance of suffering.

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"Prelude to a Pacifist Revolution" (1985 - 1986)

The drawings and paintings in this series are a meditation on political and familial cycles of deception and violence that result from and lead to social revolution. The images call for an honest acknowledgement of the repressive nature of humanity, where with a reversal of fortune, the oppressed often become the oppressors, perpetuating a seemingly eternal cycle of violence. Are there sustainable alternatives to the cycles of bloodletting that have historically defined major political/social changes?

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"Watching the Peasants Vanish" (1983 - 1984)

This series of paintings was inspired by a collection of essays written by the British author John Berger. Published under the title “Pig Earth”, Berger's text reflects on work, social relationships and the priorities of life in a small traditional farming community in southern France. My images serve as a meditation on the disappearance of the family farmer in the global economy. By appropriating and altering iconic French Realist paintings of laborers and farmers, I hoped to engage the viewer in a reflection on their relationship to agricultural production and sustainability.

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"Learn to Die" (1982 - Present)

Artmaking is primarily a form of active meditation; a way of living mindfully in a fleeting world propelled by desire, illusions and delusions. Life is short and finite. If we don't think of death at least once a day, then we're probably not paying much attention to life.
Learning to die is a process of learning to live.

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"Memories of Dying Friend" (1978 - 1983)

This body of work consist of a broad cycle of non-representational paintings and drawings. Although the concerns in this series may appear to be primarily formal, the images served as a private meditation on the metamorphosis of identity; on the temporary and cyclical nature of our existence; on human patterns of measuring and recording; and on the fleeting nature of intellectual and spiritual epiphanies.