by Priyanka SachetiApr 01, 2021
As I walk into the gallery space of Tabari Art Space in Dubai and encounter Michael Halak's oil painting, The Bread Seller (2020), the first thing that immediately strikes me about it is its sheer wealth of detail, making me feel as if I am virtually there. A boy carrying a basket of bread loaves on his head in the old streets of Jerusalem foregrounds the painting but it is really the minute details which populate it with energy and momentum: a carpet seller holding a rosary of prayer beads, the text on stocking packets, rug patterns and textures, and the warmth of the sunlight. And yet, the conspicuous presence of the soldiers and flags underscores another reality, that of foreign occupation, in this vividly captured street scene, the obvious and subtle meshing together.
The painting is part of the exhibition, Terra (Un)firma, Haifa-based Halak exhibiting alongside mentee, colleague and fellow artist, Samah Shihadi. Halak and Shihadi's works are a study in juxtaposition and contrast; both employ a hyper-realist technique, conveying through a meticulous accretion of detail, the works inhabiting the border between reality and illusion. “While Shihadi's works reflects upon her internal and external worlds as an Arab woman and puts forward a very intimate and particular perspective (relating) to her experience, Halak comments on his social world more broadly,” says Laura Beaney, Tabari Art Space communications director, adding both jointly present a multifaceted lens through which to view their worlds.
Having entered a gallery space for the first time since the pandemic began, looking at these works for me reiterated the importance of engaging with the art in person. The exhibition incidentally underwent several iterations over the past few months. It was originally intended to be the solo exhibition of Shihadi, scheduled to take place at Cromwell Place, London in October last year. Like many other galleries and those in the art fields affected by the pandemic, the gallery subsequently then had to adapt once United Kingdom imposed restrictions and London moved into lockdown. The exhibition subsequently evolved in varying ways, first with a digital showcase and now with a physical exhibition in Dubai, expanding to accommodate a body of work by Halak.
“This was our first major digital exhibition and we were delighted to see the interest from an international audience across generations and demographics,” says Beaney. She mentions that it was interesting to observe how the audience engaged with the work, with some moved by the duo's undeniable talent for hyperrealism while others from Palestine and the region connected deeply with the complex messages within their works. “Whether online or in the gallery in Dubai, it's refreshing to see that such art still sparks conversation, imagination and debate in those who have encountered the show,” she says.
Halak over email said that while he and Shihadi had been collaborating for several years and often exhibited side by side in various exhibitions, this particular exhibition was unique. “On the one hand, we deal with the same topics although attitudes and perspectives differ on several levels of time, gender and interpretation,” he says.
While following western traditions of realist, illusory painting, Halak's work departs from in its subject matter in that it conflates local and global realities; the combination encourages multiple readings of his work and urges the viewer to consider more closely the way the themes and subject matters are presented. The seven paintings featured in the exhibition span from depiction of daily life for Palestinians under occupation as in The Breadseller (2020) to a still life of a potted thyme plant, Thyme (2020) both the herb and its manner of containment representing Palestinian identity.
The Breadseller is a powerful ode to the Palestinian man's struggle for survival in a city which has clear demarcations between Jews and Palestinians, unlike his home city, Haifa, where Jews and Arabs live side by side. “It was therefore important for me to visit there and document what is happening on the streets of the Old City, in a realistic and simple way without judgment or nostalgia,” he says, adding that the bread seller is a figure who metaphorically reflects the willpower and choice of life against the difficulties of life. Halak himself figures as part of the painting, the act of self-portraiture for him representing “a double act in which I as a witness about what is happening as well as belonging and identification with my people”.
In The Lost Horizon (2017), what appears to be broken white corrugated cardboard boxes are actually a combination of modern and classical technique, laser cut plywood panels painted in realistic oil colours. The boxes conjure up Halak's sense of disorientation and a literal and figurative homelessnesss. This sense of displacement and preoccupation with land emerges forth from Shihadi's body of work too. Divided into two segments, The Living and The Land, the former takes the artist’s personal narratives and feminist outlook as a starting point from which to explore issues faced by women across cultures.
The works constituting The Land turn towards the physical space and natural environment as a site of connection, displacement and contestation, which the artist overlays with notions of the home, family and collective identity. In Sticks and Stones, for example, a little girl crouches over a pile of stones while the cactus looms in the background, the plant being a recurring motif in Shihadi's work (as also seen in her Terra studies), its fruit incidentally being a disputed symbol of Israeli and Palestinian identities (sabr – patience – in Arabic and sabra in Hebrew). In the past, generations of Palestinians had used cactus hedges to form fences around their lands; however, what with many villages being conquered or destroyed during the 1948 conflict, the surviving hedges are the sole evidence that these villages ever existed in the first place. “In this work I tried to sketch a utopia of homecoming in the familiar landscape amid cactus hedges,” Shihadi says, the little girl in question being her niece. “She is playing with stones she found in the area, placing them carefully on top of the other supported only by fragile equilibrium,” she describes, the process and the cacti embodying patience and persistence as well as the delicate act of re-creating a home.
Terra firma, meaning solid land in Latin, the insertion of the bracketed 'un' indicates a disorientation, re-interpretation, and retelling of a land's tales. Halak and Shihadi strive and achieve precisely that, inviting the viewers to contemplate their land in multiple ways and beyond the surface aesthetics and signifiers.
Terra (un)Firma is on view at Tabari Art Space, Dubai, till March 15, 2021.