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MSU wants the public's help to find missing painting by well-known alum Samia Halaby

Samia Halaby's painting "Men" featuring blobs of green, yellow, blue, orange and gray on a canvas.
Samia Halaby
Men by Samia Halaby

Renowned Palestinian artist and Michigan State University alumna, Samia Halaby is making a highly anticipated return to the university in 2024 to exhibit her artwork.

The retrospective will feature pieces from across her career, but the university is still looking for one painting it sold from its collection more than two decades ago.

Samia Halaby stands in front of her piece titled "Men". The photo was taken at her senior exhibit in 1960.
Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections, 143 085 THS.
Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
MSU alumna and artist Samia Halaby gifted Men (pictured here) to the university in 1960.

Halaby graduated from MSU in the early sixties, and since then, she’s become known worldwide for abstract art tied to her Palestinian heritage. Rachel Winter, an assistant curator at the university’s Broad Art Museum, says Halaby's art has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the world.

“She is probably the most important Palestinian painter of her generation. She is an incredibly prolific artist. She paints so much, it's really incredible, and she really lives in her work," she said. "Her art is everywhere.”

Though she was born in Jerusalem, Halaby and her family fled their homeland when the country of Israel was created in 1948. They were refugees in Lebanon before immigrating to the United States when Halaby was a teenager.

She is probably the most important Palestinian painter of her generation.

Winter says Halaby's disconnection from her place of origin manifests subtly within her work, taking on abstract forms.

“You will rarely find her painting realistic representations like in the form of still life or figural paintings. Things are always a little bit different than what they seem," Winter said. "There's often these really broad fields of color or intersecting geometric shapes, often like overlapping colors and shapes.”

It was at MSU that Halaby began developing her skills as an artist. One of the works she created as a student was a painting titled Men.

It’s a three by two foot abstract piece with blob-like shapes painted in orange, green, yellow and red.

“I would say if you look at it, you're seeing figures almost as though you're seeing them through a textured glass. You know that textured glass that they put on windows in private offices where you can see shadows, but you don't see clearly," Halaby said.

She adds that the piece looks as if there are two or three figures standing next to each other and behind them light and color.

“It was dark on dark, shadows on light. A lot of luminosity, a lot of sense of color. Not shading but just colors next to each other," Halaby said.

She says it was displayed as part of her senior exhibit at MSU.

“When you graduated and you had your MFA ... or MA exhibition in order to graduate, instead of an exam, you passed an exhibition. You did a show of your work that had consistency," she said. "It was the tradition that the university would keep a painting of their choice.

Four paintings done by Samia Halaby. The photo depicts part of Halaby's senior exhibit at MSU.
Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections, 143 085 THS.
Samia Halaby's senior exhibit at MSU. Men is pictured on the far left.

Men was that piece the university kept, and it’s likely the painting stayed in MSU’s collection for 40 years until the early 2000s.

At that point, Winter says the university decided to liquidate part of the art department’s collection. Winter believes that Halaby’s work along with a number of others were given to MSU Surplus to be sold.

“I've looked high and low at museum collections and haven't come across it. So, I tend to think it's right under our noses, so to speak," she said.

From what she knows, Winter says the painting was last seen around 2006 at an estate sale in the East Lansing area.

“My guess is that it's still somewhere in the Lansing or the East Lansing area, but I can’t confirm that. I have talked to a lot of different private collectors who know Samia and her work, and they haven't seen it.”

The MSU Surplus Store doesn’t have any record of the painting’s sale. Now that Halaby is returning to MSU for the exhibit next year, the effort to locate the sold painting has become increasingly urgent.

Winter says finding the piece would allow the university to showcase the full scope of Halaby’s art throughout the years. The exhibit featuring Halaby at the Broad will be titled "Samia Halaby: Eye Witness."

I would love to be able to talk to someone who might have found the painting and hung it and hear how their reaction has been over the years of living with that painting.
Samia Halaby

“What the exhibition is really focused on is bringing the paintings that Samia made in Michigan back to Michigan for the first time ever," Winters added.

Halaby is certain someone has the painting on the wall somewhere but may be unaware of its origin.

“I would love to be able to talk to someone who might have found the painting and hung it and hear how their reaction has been over the years of living with that painting, what they think," Halaby said.

Broad Art Museum staff says anyone with information about the painting should reach out.

The exhibit featuring Samia Halaby is scheduled to take place next year beginning on June 28 through December 15 of 2024.

The Michigan State University Broad Art Museum is a financial supporter of WKAR.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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