Listening to the Unheard / Drawing the Unseen: Drawings by John Halaka

listening to the unheard / drawing the unseen

Meditations on Presence and Absence in Native Lands

Drawings by John Halaka

september 2, 2023–february 18, 2024

Curated by Vallo Riberto

This exhibition consists of works selected from two related projects developed by San Diego-based visual artist John Halaka. The drawings included reflect on experiences of forced displacement and indigenous survival in the face of colonial erasure. 

The artist speaks of his projects as an effort to “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.” Many of the drawings are directly informed by stories the artist recorded with Palestinian men and women who have been exiled from their homes and homeland. Other drawings honor the work of Native American, African American, and Palestinian activists, scholars, and artists. A related group of images also acknowledge the critical, yet mostly unrecognized, work of indigenous and migrant farmers and laborers. 

A variety of creative graphic strategies are utilized by the artist to construct his visual allegories. In the images selected for the exhibition, Halaka overlays drawings on top of photographs to underscore the emotional presence and physical absence of the subjects; he defines forms with layers of rubber-stamped words and ink to create imposing yet unstable figures and landscapes; he draws portraits of survivors on commercially produced maps to suggest the resurgence of erased cultures and suppressed histories; and he develops spectral portraits of refugees with burning tools on wood substrates, in order to suggest the millions of cuts and burns that shape the lives of displaced individuals. The images are dense due to their layered clusters of carefully arranged marks, yet are simultaneously delicate, fluid, and fugacious due to the subtlety of their tones and the fragmented and restless arrangement of the drawn marks

In his reflections on the title of the exhibition, Halaka argues that the stories of the dispossessed have been intentionally marginalized in the master national narrative of settler-colonial states. The experiences of those who have been stripped of their land, culture and identity have been strategically and persistently ignored while their narratives continue to be deliberately silenced. By listening to their unheard stories and drawing their unseen faces, the artist creates poetic images that bear “witness to the survivors of catastrophic patterns of forced displacement” and invites viewers to “reflect on our moral responsibilities to ongoing histories of cultural erasure.”

Select Images


Celebrate with us on Saturday, November 18, 2023


Visit the artist’s website

If you would like to learn more about the artwork, including if the artist has work available to purchase, please email

Artwork pictured at the top of the page: John Halaka, Ghosts of Presence-Bodies of Absence, Memory of Memories #8 (detail), 2021. Ink and rubber stamped ink on digital print, 22" x 30".

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