The Sharjah Art Foundation presents three exhibitions of Sudanese art until 12 January 2017.
From the Khartoum School to influential Sudanese female artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq and a retrospective of Amir Nour’s work, the Sharjah Art Foundation offers a prismatic view of Sudanese art history.
Movements towards modernity emerge from a complex matrix of social, economic and political forces that allow for cultural shifts to coalesce. In the 1960s and 1970s, the newly independent nation of Sudan became a site for this shift towards modernism in the art world, with a number of key artists who are still practicing today establishing the groundwork for a cultural transformation that took into consideration the ethnic, tribal and religious complexity of the nation in addressing the politics of the time.
Three exhibitions at the Sharjah Art Foundation running from 12 November 2016 to 12 January 2017 offer a prismatic view of Sudanese art history as it relates to the project of modernism. Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, President and Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Salah M. Hassan, renowned art historian and Goldwin Smith Professor and Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University, the exhibitions offer the perspectives of two individual artists as well as the legacy of an artistic movement, contextualising the work in the scope of political and social history. These exhibitions suggest that establishing a cohesive national cultural tradition is hardly an easy task, nor is it a desired goal.
In the years following independence from Britain, the Sudanese people entered a phase of redefinition and flux: in shedding its colonial past, the nation now needed a firm source of collective identification. The Khartoum School, founded by the painters Ibrahim El-Salahi, Ahmed Shibrain and Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq in 1960, became the cultural force to cohere the new strands of modernity into a national movement.
Distinctive characteristics of the paintings by the Khartoum School were the amalgamation of Islamic tradition and primitive imagery, and the use of the hurifiyya aesthetic, wherein Arabic calligraphy was abstracted into symbolic shapes. The exhibition at Sharjah incorporates such works and includes photography, film and video, as well as archival material to situate the influence of the Khartoum School on contemporary practice from Sudan.
Photography by Gadalla Gubara, whose monochrome photographs Portrait of a Man (ca. 1950-60) captures subjects whose gazes are averted from the viewers, hang alongside calligraphic works by Osman Waqialla, establishing a dynamism between the plane of the lived, secular world and the more abstract dimensions of faith and spirituality of the heavenly. In this same vein, Sun Lady by the Studio Mwahib, elevates the ordinary sitter to a regal position, the sun behind her hair mimicking the halos painted to indicate sainthood in the Christian artistic tradition.
Similarly, Ahmed Shibrain’s watercolour Untitled Composition from the early 1960s achieves sacredness through sparseness. The stark black form reverberates with gravity and grace against a gold background that too, recalls the backgrounds of early Christian iconography.
Largely, the effect of organising the exhibition of the Khartoum School as a chronological journey from pre-independence to the contemporary political context serves to elucidate the necessity for cataloguing the history of any artistic movement. Though the Khartoum School disbanded in 1975 following the imprisonment and subsequent self-exile of Ibrahim El-Salahi, its cohesion during the early years of post-independence shaped the course of modernisms in Sudan immeasurably.
Following the disbanding of the Khartoum School, Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq, along with her students Muhammad Hamid Shaddad and Nayla El Tayib, founded the Crystalist Group in 1971 in a conceptual effort towards dismantling the masculine-oriented art of their time. Based at the College of Fine Art in Khartoum, the Crystalist Group published a manifesto in 1978 that established their vision of the universe as transparent and subject to change according to the viewers’ position in the world. Ishaq and her students adopted a multidisciplinary approach that combined performance, painting and installation art.
Ishaq’s exhibition at Sharjah is a display of paintings that includes early work, as well as work on earthenware and ceramics, and panel paintings. Recurrent in her oeuvre are figurative paintings of grouped women, often inhabiting fictive spaces in the visual plane that recall the iconography of saints and religious figures. However, for Ishaq, such representation is less a veneration than it is an emphasis on community ties between women and the solidarity of femininity in the face of structural and societal dominance by men.
Ishaq’s paintings show a distinctive bent toward the African Modernism that she helped pioneer, with echoes of global influence. Like many prominent members of her cohort at the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum, Ishaq continued her studies abroad in London, studying mural painting at the Royal College of Art. Upon her return to Sudan, she worked as a lecturer and later head of the department of painting at the College of Fine and Applied Art, Khartoum. She has participated in many exhibitions across the globe including at the National Museum of Women in Art, Washington, D.C. (1994), Whitechapel Gallery (1995), and the Sharjah Art Museum (1995), and completed a residency at the Sudan National Museum in the 1970s. She lives and works in Khartoum.
Amir Nour’s work emerges from the milieu of 1960s minimalism with distinct references to his Sudanese roots. Born in the town of Shendi in the north of Sudan in 1939, Nour studied at the College of Fine and Applied Arts in Khartoum and upon graduating at the age of 24, became the head of the sculpture department from 1963-5 before being awarded a grant to study at the Slade School of Fine Art and then the Royal College of Art, both in London. In 1969, he received a Rockefeller Grant to study for an MA at the Yale School of Art and Architecture, eventually moving to Chicago in the early 1970s, where he currently is an associate professor of art at Truman College.
“Brevity is the Soul of Wit” comprises drawings, photographs and the signature sculptures that have pronounced Nour’s fame, in a variety of materials ranging from bronze, stainless steel, plaster and wood. In his sculptures, Nour trades in a studied appreciation for the attenuated forms championed by American and British minimalist artists, but draws from his background in the African landscape to recall distinctive shapes and formulations of space: arches, domes, and hills that populate the desert and landscape of Sudan.
His 1969 work Grazing at Shendi, for instance, consists of 202 pieces of brushed steel that are shaped in arches of various sizes. They are arranged in such a way as to seem haphazard, but closer inspection reveals that if viewed from a distance, they recall the pattern of a herd scattered across hills, offering various perspectival views that modulate across a flat plane.
New works commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation take as their challenge the dual forces of scale and depth: large scale fiberglass and wood sculptures call forth viewers to interrogate the spatial relationship between roundness and depth as functions of light and shadow. Here, Nour exemplifies a new form of minimalism that is as much informed by form as it is by context. The exhibition offers yet another glimpse at the multifaceted nature of African modernism in the context of a space that celebrates both national and pan-African ties.
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