OCEANSIDE — San Diego artist John Halaka draws attention to the frequently ignored experiences of people who, over time, have faced colonial erasure and forced displacement in a new Oceanside Museum of Art exhibit.
Appropriately titled “Listening to the Unheard/Drawing the Unseen: Meditations on Presence and Absence in Native Lands,” the exhibit features Halaka’s drawings from two related, previous projects that “observe and creatively visualize the tensions between the emotional presence and physical absence of populations whose cultures have been devastated by the violent intrusions of settler-colonialism.”
The bulk of Halaka’s work reflects on the experiences of displaced Palestinian men and women who have been exiled from their homes and homeland since the 1948 partition of Palestine that created the nation of Israel in the aftermath of World War II.
According to Britannica.com, the birth of Israel led to a significant displacement of the Arab population in the region, who were either driven out by Zionist military forces before Israel declared independence and the start of the Arab-Israeli War on May 15, 1948, by the Israeli army after that date or who fled in fear of the violence that ensued.
Many of Halaka’s artworks are directly informed by stories he recorded during interviews with refugees and displaced individuals during trips to Palestine and the Middle East over the last few decades.
Years ago, when Halaka developed his interest in the Palestinian conflict, he began his research by reading books on the subject. Once he started visiting and listening to stories of survivors, his perception changed considerably.
“It all became much more complex than all of the books I had read,” he said.
His research on the subject has influenced his artwork over the years.
“Being on the ground and allowing the narratives of the culture, the experiences and the process of surviving a cultural genocide shape my work,” he said. “As an informed outsider, my job is not to manipulate the culture but to learn and absorb it through personal stories.”
Halaka was born in Egypt and immigrated to New York at 12 with his family. He moved to San Diego in 1991 to accept a professor position at the University of San Diego, where he teaches painting and drawing. His father is of Palestinian descent.
Other drawings of his honor the work of Native American and African American activists and scholars, as well as migrant farmers and laborers.
“While my research primarily focuses on the struggles of Palestinians, I try to identify links to those struggles here in African American and indigenous populations that continue to be erased and forgotten,” he said.
Halaka noted that the plights of these populations are often unnoticed, ignored and forgotten by the rest of the world.
“It’s convenient to look the other way,” he said. “We all benefit in the culture of colonialism, but the folks who have been erased from the cultures, the nations of people who have been pushed deep into the margins, and those who have been victims of genocide – their struggles are not invisible, they’re not mute – we’ve just always chosen to ignore them.”
Halaka explained that the title of the exhibit, pieced together by independent curator Vallo Riberto, acknowledges that those voices are still present despite being unseen and unheard by many.
He uses various methods to tell the subjects’ stories in his drawings, like overlaying drawings on top of photographs he has taken to underscore the subjects’ emotional presence and physical absence. Also featured in the exhibit are his portraits of survivors drawn on commercially produced maps that suggest the resurgence of erased cultures and a series of refugee portraits made using burning tools on wood substrates to offer the millions of cuts and burns that shape their lives.
Halaka hopes that people who see his exhibit look and listen carefully to the stories being told.
“Make an effort to listen, look and acknowledge those stories,” he said. “We have that responsibility as beneficiaries of the culture of colonization.”
Halaka’s exhibit will be displayed from Sept. 2 to Feb. 18, 2024.