Ayyam Gallery London presents an exhibition of paintings by pioneering Palestinian artist Samia Halaby, who is widely credited with inspiring the new school of abstraction in contemporary Arab art. Parallel to her artistic career, Halaby is an active political campaigner for Palestine, as well as a scholar who has been instrumental to the documentation of Palestinian art, publishing her landmark text Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century in 2002.

Over the past fifty years, Halaby has built upon historical abstraction in painting, such as that of the Russian Constructivists, merging this with traditional Arabic arts and Islamic architecture. Her rich and varied oeuvre is characterised by a compelling energy and an unceasing commitment to experimentation; in the mid 1980s, Halaby taught herself computer programming in order to create a series of digital kinetic paintings with sound later using her programmes to perform live with percussionists. At the age of 77, she continues to produce work that challenges conventional approaches to painting and this latest exhibition at Ayyam Gallery London displays new abstraction emblematic of her innovative approach.

The artist cites the inspiration of her paintings as the rich visual material which surrounds her in everyday life; she explains, “When I see something beautiful, I always stop and memorise it…I watch things change relative to each other in shape, size, and colour and these memories become the subject of my paintings.” New work Clouds and Trees (2013) is rooted in her memories of the distinctive clouds and landscape of Indiana, which she admired as a student at Indiana University in the early 1960s. The light-filled abstraction, with its subtle gradation of colour, captures the vibrancy of green trees growing upwards to a sky scattered with cumulus clouds.

Though stemming from her own experience of the visual world, Halaby believes the nature of abstraction allows viewers to recognise their own memories and experiences within her work. She states, “Abstraction is not about the artist or his or her individualism, but rather about the far more difficult and thus more satisfying ambition to invent a visual language capable of containing exchangeable knowledge. Of course, the uniqueness of painting is that this shared knowledge is a visual one.” Within the show, Takheel I and Takheel 2 (both works 2013) were titled after a friend highlighted the fact that she had unconsciously used the colours and formal qualities of embroidery made in the mountain villages of Palestine, a style which is referred to as ‘Takheel’.

Informing her approach is a strong awareness of painting’s history, with Halaby naming both the Renaissance and Impressionist periods as epochs which have influenced her production. The only work in the exhibition which has been shown previously, Homage to Leonardo (2012), draws upon Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–1498), a work which captivated the artist when she first encountered it in 1964. Halaby reimagines the space of da Vinci’s famous work in a kaleidoscope of vivid colour, using bold brush marks to indicate regions of movement and light. Four vertical blue lines cross the length of the picture plane, emulating the diagonal hatching employed by da Vinci in original sketches, whilst suggesting a new notion of infinite space.