Whitehot Magazine

Lebanese Rome-based Gilbert Halaby Debuts Paintings in Miami, the United States, with “Apogee of Light”

Gazing. 2023. Oil on canvas. 80x120cm. 


Bright splashes of paint on numerous canvases beam from Casa Branca’s new atelier in Palm Beach, Miami. They portray the various encounters of a rich range of characters within the historic center of the city of Rome by Gilbert Halaby, an artist originally from Lebanon who has lived in the Eternal City for nearly two decades. The works on show form part of Apogee of Light, Halaby’s debut exhibition in the United States. 

The show, which runs until April 7, has been staged as a pop-up by Roman gallery Maja Arte Contemporanea, to celebrate the gallery’s tenth anniversary. The gallery also staged Halaby’s debut art exhibition in April 2023. 

While scenes of priests on bicycles, passersby on cobblestone streets and artistic personalities seated within dreamy Italian restaurants burst from Halaby’s canvases as if in real life, other paintings focus deeply on the idea of the home, both conceptually and physically, the olive trees found around Halaby’s Roman home and a series of portraits, including the artist’s own. 


 Messaging for a Counsel. 2023. Oil on canvas applied on cardboard. 30 x 40 cm.

The show presents 35 paintings on canvas by Halaby ranging across four series. The works on view, painted over the last year, are being shown after three exhibitions of Halaby’s work: his debut exhibition at Beit Beirut Museum, in the Lebanese capital (titled Domus Berytus), which took place in March 2023; Une Comédie Romaine, his sell-out solo show at Maja Arte Contemporanea (Rome, June 2023); and Will You Wait For Me Under That Pine Tree?, his current solo show at Artbooth Abu Dhabi (produced in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute UAE). 

Halaby was born in Lebanon and studied in Beirut at the end of the Civil War. He has drawn and painted since he was a child, long captivated by the beauty of the natural landscape in Mount Lebanon, surrounded by the forests, olive and pine trees. 

His aesthetic eye however first drew him to fashion. After studying archaeology at the Lebanese University in Beirut, he went to Rome and was immediately captivated by the beauty of the Eternal City. In 2003, he moved to Rome and opened a jewelry and handbag store near the Pantheon. In 2010, his Maison Halaby brand launched its first women’s collection; and in 2016 Halaby opened his accessories boutique of specially made leather handbags on Via di Monserrato, 21. The boutique serves as a store as much as it does a cultural salon, where friends and clients can converse over a range of subjects. 

Now, Halaby has turned his attention to his first love: painting. 

Of note in his Miami show are new works dedicated to the subject of the olive tree, focusing on its graceful natural forms and its metaphorical significance as a bearer of life and beauty.

 Roots. 2023. Oil on canvas. 60x50cm.

“After my partner and I bought our own olive grove in the Roman countryside, and had our first harvest last autumn, I wanted to express the joy of that experience; it was always a dream to own my own olive grove, having grown up playing in the one belonging to my aunt in the north of Lebanon,” Halaby said in a statement. 

“The singular peace of picking the fruit, being so close to the trees and to nature, entirely away from human noise and hustle, our vistas felt wider, the sun brighter. Our freedom felt somehow larger than before; I wanted to capture that with these paintings,” he added. 

The form of the olive tree in these works offers rich metaphorical symbolism. In many works, the trunk is split, with one side painted in red, which states, Halaby, represents the shared connected individuals have with the earth through trees. 

In many of the canvas, the trunk is depicted chromatically split, often with one side rendered in red — representing the shared connection we have with the earth, through the trees.

“The series was born in October 2023 when we had our first harvest,” Halaby told Whitehot. “After harvesting our olive trees and making our first olive oil, our first olive oil, I came back to the studio, and I couldn't stop painting them. I divided the roots and the trunk of the tree, and it represents us: me and my husband and how we are rooted in the land.”


 Sunset on My Island. 2023. Oil on canvas applied on cardboard. 50x60cm.

But the works go beyond to encompass the greater collective. 

“The trees symbolize everyone,” says Halaby. “All of the farmers that have olive trees, they are rooted, they are one with these trees, and they’re rooted in the land that they take care of. The red is the blood that we share with these trees by taking care of them, pruning them, and harvesting them.”

In a series of delicately painted portraits, often found in a three-quarter view stance, Halaby captures his subjects, largely prominent figures from the Italian cultural realm, such as artist Enzo Cucchi, within shapes that resemble that of a home. 

“I am attracted to the faces of the people I paint and when I see a movement in the face, I freeze it and try to take a picture, or I paint from a picture, or I paint from a memory,” explains Halaby. 


Mother. 2023. Oil on canvas. 150x150cm.


 Enzo II. 2023. Oil on canvas. 120x80cm.

Behind the portraits the background features of a decomposition of form into colors—"color blocks as elements,” says Halaby. These color blocks also represent the natural world which Halaby states is “always our eternal home.” 

There is also a silhouette marking Halaby’s first self-portrait. In it the artist is depicted gazing towards what he calls “two cardinal ideas of his work, and life: the home, and the tree—the two most elemental forms of safe harbor.”

In another series the home takes center stage. Always a pivotal subject of Halaby’s art, and one he would draw as a child growing up in Lebanon, the paintings also capture an evolution of Halaby’s formal style, with canvases filled with rich hues and geometric shapes. 


A Good Neighbor. 2023. Oil on canvas applied on cardboard. 40x40cm.


Serenity. 2023. Oil on canvas. 100x150.cm.

 Seaside. 2023. Oil on canvas. 30x40cm. 

Halaby’s houses are set within the context of the paysage or landscape yet one that is deconstructed into color blocks to represent the myriad elements in nature. 

As the artist states: “Everything is reduced but also amplified: the blue of the water—a brook, or lake; the yellow of the sun; the warm amber-russet tones of earth; the green that is the perennial shade of nature.” Like Halaby’s other works on view, the paintings in the series on home, are heightened by their attention to detail, their sumptuous background forms and colors—all of which serve to uplift the central subject, enrich the painting and mesmerize the viewer their depth of thought process and gentle, simplistic aesthetic. WM 

Rebecca Anne Proctor

Rebecca Anne Proctor is a journalist based in Dubai. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she held since January 2015. Her writing has been published in The New York Times Style MagazineBloomberg BusinessweekArchitectural DigestVogue ArabiaArtnet NewsFriezeBBCThe ForwardArab NewsGalerieOculaThe National, ArtNews and The Business of Fashion. She is an international consultant for Rizzoli Books and also regularly writes texts for books and catalogues on Middle Eastern and African art and culture.

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