Sharjah exhibit traces Sudanese artist’s trajectory

Mur’s work poses many questions and takes viewers to a different plane of reality that is very much tinged with nostalgia.
Sunday 20/05/2018
“With the Local Cat,” 2017 acrylic on canvas. (Salah el-Mur)
Subtle hints. “With the Local Cat,” 2017 acrylic on canva.s (Salah el-Mur)

SHARJAH - “Fragrances of the Forest and Photos,” an exhibition by Sudanese artist Salah el-Mur at the Sharjah Art Museum, attracted much critical attention with the range and versatility of his work.

The show comprising more than 70 pieces — the largest display of artist’s work to date — was inspired by the artist’s childhood and early life.

“Salah el-Mur proved to be an accomplished and highly talented artist with skills in a range of media, including painting, illustrations and photography,” observed Manal Ataya, director-general of Sharjah Museums Authority. “By displaying the work of this prolific artist, the museum is celebrating the artistic traditions of the ethnically and culturally diverse nation of Sudan.”

Born in 1966 in a village on the western bank of the Blue Nile, Mur graduated from Khartoum’s College of Fine and Applied Art. He is an acclaimed painter, illustrator, photographer and award-winning film-maker, whose works have been displayed across Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

What inspired him when he was growing up were the crochet designs knitted by his mother and the patience with which his grandfather crafted his fishing nets. As he writes in his artist’s statement, his imagination was awakened at a young age and before him were “imaginary animals… men and women in love… circles and triangles in an endless integration with colours no one but me could see.”

With such rich influences and inspiration, it was not long before Mur turned to art, starting to scribble before even uttering his first words.

As an artist, he could summon these images at will as he stood in front of his canvas.

Mur’s work poses many questions and takes viewers to a different plane of reality that is very much tinged with nostalgia. It is also an example of the strong contemporary art coming from Sudan.

Each of the paintings and photos in “Fragrances of the Forest and Photos” has its own story associated with a memory, observation or incident from Mur’s childhood.

He depicts scenes from Al Sunut Forest, a popular barbecue spot for residents of Khartoum. His paintings show the wild beauty of the forest, which acts as a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city for people and animals alike.

His 2011 “Circus” series was inspired by scenes from a Russian circus that visited his hometown. Horses move on bright roller-skates, a man sticks his tongue out before biting into a big red slice of watermelon and a clown oddly displays a sad demeanour.

Mur’s use of colour is very distinct and makes his works stand out. The strong sunlight and the colourful clothing of his compatriots seem to have influenced his choice of colour, characterised by bold dark colours in thick strokes, occasionally balanced by lighter shades.

Although the subjects in his paintings mostly have an enigmatic expression and are mostly stationary, there are layers of emotions and manifold drama beneath the surface, which is only subtly hinted at.

When family and friends are depicted, there is proximity but no real hint of intimacy anywhere in the frame, as if posing for someone else. Examples are many, including “The Female Deer,” “The Orange Tiger,” “The Queue of Lovers,” “A Merry Day,” “The Red Forest,” “A Family Day” and “The Lovers’ Park.”

The artist said the idea for the “Perfumes” series came from a small bag filled with hundreds of old Sudanese perfume tags. He created paintings drawing on the decorative patterns and exploring a wide variety of subjects close to his heart, whether it is a family portrait, animals, scenery or social settings.

The “Perfume” series also serves to dish out satire with titles such as “Perfume of the Monkey,” “The Perfume of the Beauty of the Rose,” and “The Joker Perfume.” Characters from his other paintings appear in some of these works.

In “Perfume of the Hero,” Mur depicts a man with puffed up chest and muscled arms nestling a rabbit and a child.

In the section “Kamal Studio,” Mur takes the viewers inside the photographic studio run by his father, Kamal al-Din Mohammed. The artist delves into his rich visual memory and lets loose his skill in graphics. The paintings are inspired by the people and the many photos that filled the studio in Khartoum’s Souq al-Sajaneh.

The section “Various Stages” highlights another aspect of Mur’s skill as a decorative artist and his drawing on a minute scale exploring figures and symbols.

The exhibition is on view at at Sharjah Art Museum until June 2.