Sudanese artist expresses political concerns in London exhibit

Musa’s exhibition of 23 multimedia works carries strong political messages on timely topics such as racism, poverty and migration.
Sunday 28/10/2018
“Janjaweed Application,” ink on paper. (Gallery of African Art in London)
A take on a conflict. “Janjaweed Application,” ink on paper. (Gallery of African Art in London)

LONDON - Sudanese artist Hassan Musa’s exhibition of 23 multimedia works, including painting, drawing, sewing fabrics, collage, wood cut and calligraphy, carries strong political messages on timely topics such as racism, poverty and migration.

Titled “The Chicken Conspiracy,” the show at the Gallery of African Art in London was named after one of Musa’s paintings that symbolises the struggles of artists of his generation — he is 67 — as they came to grips with the assimilation of Africa’s local and regional cultural diversities into a new genre of Western-imposed and market-driven global African art, the exhibition’s synopsis stated.

“In ‘The Chicken Conspiracy’ painting, the economically disadvantaged and their artistic brethren are depicted as chickens controlled by the standards of the global marketplace and the quest for the almighty dollar,” it said.

The artist’s messages are displayed alongside his works.

“Negro Attacked by a Jaguar” draws its inspiration from a 1910 painting by French artist Henri Rousseau. “(Former US President Barack) Obama was not only an American president, he was a black president. Being black was partly an electoral advantage but it was also a political handicap in a society that still defined people according to the colour of their skin,” Musa says.

“Gazelle Goes Crazy” refers both to the animal and to the French military Gazelle helicopter, which costs $8.1 million — the price of 35 combined harvests.

In “The Multiplication of Cupcakes in Lampedusa Sea,” Musa refers to the refugee crisis. “All over the world, poor people are systematically classified as illegal by those who stole their territories,” he says. “The title refers to the miracle of Jesus’s multiplying of bread and fish. In the present world, only a miracle can solve the problem of refugees around the globe.”

“The Art of Healing” was inspired by the “Arabian Nights.”

“My image refers to Scheherazade, the fabulous storyteller of the ‘Arabian Nights,’” Musa says. “Scheherazade managed to have absolute control over her husband, the sultan of Baghdad. She was in position to find justice for all the women slaughtered by the inconsolable broken-hearted sultan.

“Unfortunately for the victims, Scheherazade preferred to turn the page and protect her own family business. Modern readers of the ‘Arabian Nights’ also keep turning the pages of this fantastic tale and pretend not to notice the victims who crowd the thousand and one stories.”

While refusing to identify himself as a political artist, Musa said: “I am a politically conscious artist.”

“I try to challenge well-established ideas and concepts. The overall theme that motivates me is the fact that I am living in this world and that I am concerned by what is happening around me,” Musa said. “I know I cannot change the world in one lifetime but I don’t want the world to change me. So my art practice is a kind of self-defence action.”

The beautiful and diverse calligraphy works in the basement gallery include abstract landscapes, bird studies and an exotic nude.

One of the most powerful works is “Janjaweed Application,” a reference to the armed militia in Darfur. “The fact that the central government is using ethnic groups against each other is an old practice in Sudanese politics,” Musa said. “During the colonial period, the British used the same methods to dominate. That is why I refer to ‘Janjaweed’ as an ‘application’ to dominate.

“I decided to use calligraphy because the actual conflict in Darfur is presented by the local and international media as a conflict between Arabs and Africans. This is a total misunderstanding of the situation. All the ethnic groups involved in this conflict are African. Some of them pretend to be Arab.”

Born in El Nuhud, Western Sudan in 1951, Musa lives in Nimes, France. He graduated from the Khartoum Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1974 and earned a doctorate in the history of art from Montpellier University in 1989. His engagement with calligraphy can be traced to his teen years working on his school’s mural newspaper in Western Sudan.

Musa’s many exhibitions include “Modernities and Memories” at the Venice Biennale in 1997; “New Premises: Three Decades,” at the Museum for African Art in New York in 2012; an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Japan; and the Biennale de la Calligraphie in the United Arab Emirates. His works have been exhibited at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and can be found in many permanent and private collections.

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