Culture Inspires Artistic Journey Through River Nile

Mohammad Omar Khalil, Oum Kalthoum 1, oil & collage on canvas, 170x185 cm 2015. Image courtesy of Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art

Mohammad Omar Khalil, Oum Kalthoum 1, oil & collage on canvas,   170×185 cm 2015. Culture. Image courtesy of Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art


Sudanese American contemporary artist traces culture and links between Egypt and Sudan down the Nile


Mohammad Omar Khalil, Sallow 2, oil & collage on wood culture, 115.5×230.5cm 2013. Image courtesy of Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art

CAIRO, EGYPT- Presently at the Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art in Egypt is an exhibition by eminent Sudanese American contemporary artist Mohammad Omar Khalil. The first solo exhibition by the artist in Egypt, the show is in celebration of Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art’s seventh year anniversary. Titled The Nile: A River of Continuous Inspiration, the exhibition focuses on the dual role of the Nile as a unifying and dividing element between Sudan and Egypt.

It is fitting that Omar Khalil will pick the Nile as the major source of inspiration for this show. Born in Bumi, near Kahatoum in 1936, the artist grew up in Sudan at a time when the Nile was at the center of everyday life.   Beyond serving as a major source of irrigation for farmers, the Nile River was also a trade route that helped Sudan economy and relationship with the outside world flourish.

Regarded as the longest river in the world running through 11 nations, the River Nile has had major impact on many civilizations including Egypt. The Nile was central to the development of Egyptian civilization. Beyond serving as a major source of irrigation and drinking water, the river was also an important part of ancient Egyptian spiritual life where it represented the circle of life. Great Pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza near Cairo located near the Nile River are reminders of the impact of the Nile on Egyptian civilization.

The Nile River forms a central connection between Sudan and Egypt. Flowing almost entirely through the desert, the river runs through Sudan and blends into Lake Nasser (Known in Sudan as Lake Nubia). For decades, the Nile engendered intimate and long lasting relationship between the two nations. Connected by various cultural ties, Sudan and Egypt had shared political aspirations.

The cultural ties and political aspiration between Egypt and Sudan has a deep historical significance. Sudan’s history which extends from antiquity is deeply intertwined with that of Egypt culturally and politically. Egypt and Sudan (previously known as the Egyptian Kingdome of Egypt & Sudan) were overseen by one ruler.

The last notable King to rule Egypt & Sudan was King Farouk. Referred to as the “King of Egypt & Sudan,” King Farouk was a ruler well-respected during his time. He was at the fore front of the fight against British occupation, royal corruption and incompetence, and the disastrous 1948 Arab-Israeli War. King Farouk’s push against what he considered ills of his time led to his downfall during the Revolution of 1952. He was replaced by his infant son Ahmed-Fuad, who became King Fuad II.

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Two major themes transcend this exhibition: “Oum Kolthoum” and “Sallow”. Both themes focus on the deep relationship between Sudan and Egypt.   Many of the works in Oum Kolthoum pay tribute to Egyptian artists and musicians. In Oum Kolthoum the artist combines traditional Arabian motifs with images of late Egyptian Diva singing in Sudan at different occasions.   The oil and collage painting not only show the relationship between Sudan and Egypt but also the cultural cross fertilization inherent in that relationship.

The second dominant theme touches on the concept of dislocation. There is particular reference to the experience of the artist who left Sudan in 1975 to further his artistic career in the United States. Titled Sallow, a Sudanese word which means the old tree branches when it falls to the ground leaving the mother older tree, this section of the exhibition examines nostalgia and fracturing on the individual and group level.

On the individual level, this section attempts to answer the question of what happens when an artist like Mohammad Omar Khalil leaves his homeland to live in another country. Does he jettison his culture as he tries to imbibe the new one? The answer to this question is an obvious one. Many of the paintings in this section of the show point to the fact that Omar Khalil continues to hold on to his culture even as he embraced Western ideals.

Many of the paintings in this section are characterized by scenes, documents, fabrics, metals fragments, Islamic geometric patterns, and pictures of Al-Mahdi, Al-Tayeb, Al-Bashir and other celebrated Egyptian and Sudanese icons. In Sallow 1, the artist combines fabrics, found objects, Islamic art, and newspaper cuttings to tell the religious and political history of Egypt and Sudan. One of the newspaper cuttings shows Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan and the head of the National Congress Party who came to power in 1989 after a coup.

In Sallow 2, Omar Khalil pays homage to Al-Mahdi who appeared in Sudan in 1879. Muhammad Ahmed Al-Mahdi (1833-1885) was not just seen as a religious leader but also an art lover. He loved music and poetry and was very generous to many musicians and poets during his reign in Sudan. He supported musical expression and poetry across his dominion and artists received his patronage. Al-Mahdi’s love for the art is reflected in the painting. Located at the top of the oil and collage painting is the portrait of Al-Mahdi surrounded by Islamic motifs, and geometric patterns.

On the group level, this section of the exhibition attempts to provide an insight into what happens when a country becomes two just like Egypt and Sudan. It references the fracturing that led to the formation of South Sudan from Sudan. The fundamental question this section of the exhibition seeks to address is what happens when countries divide. Does the fragmentation eradicate the inherent culture nurtured by both countries and State before they were divided? The answer to this question from the artist point of view is “No”.   For Omar Khalil, the fault line that demarcates Egypt and Sudan cannot and should not destroy their shared culture heritage. Evidently, it is for this reason that the artist combines ideas from Egypt and Sudan in many of the works in this show.

The selection of Mohammad Omar Khalil to mark the  seventh anniversary celebration of the Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art is profound. Beyond articulating the vision of the gallery which is to showcase the best of  Arab artists at home and  Diaspora, it allows an insight  into the experience of the artist as a traveler. Omar Khalil is an artist who has the experience of living in different countries, and experienced dislocation. Many of the works in this show convey a sense of nostalgia. It is evident that the Sudanese culture continues to be integral to the artist.

Omar Khalil’s sense of nostalgia comes from his travels and experience in other countries.  After many years in Sudan where he studied and taught art at the School of Fine and Applied Art, he left in 1963 to further his art education and artistic career in Italy. At the Academy of  Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, he studied fresco painting and printmaking.  He later moved to  Ravenna where he focused on mosaic. In 1967, the artist moved to New York City where he began a career, first in the area of  carpentry and printmaking.   He soon after retired to teaching. He taught part time at New School  University and the Parsons School of art.

Although the artist has travelled  across the globe, his works continue to be informed by the Sudanese and Egyptian culture.  Although he finds relevance in the his experiences  of Western traditions, there is also a longing to hold on to his  tradition.  In his paintings, prints and artist books,  elements of his Sudanese tradition permeate. The Sudanese culture is combined with Western techniques of art to achieve a hybrid of Western and African culture.

The Nile: A River of Continuous Inspiration is an important exhibition as it brings attention to the dual role of the Nile. With his works, Omar Khalil brings attention to the harmony between Sudan and Egypt manifested by the natural flow of the Nile between Egypt and Sudan. The notion that culture is a bidding force between Egypt and Sudan is reinforced in many of the works in the show. They combine elements from Egypt and Sudan to create a whole. The confluence of thoughts, designs and idea borrowed from both cultures resonates with the artist’s understanding that culture is the bidding force between both countries.

While Omar Khalil laments the political conflict that led to the demarcation of Egypt and Sudan and Sudan and South Sudan, he finds reason to celebrate. The Nile, for him serves not just as a major source of artistic inspiration, but also an element that binds not divide. Although now divided by the River Nile, the artist seems to suggest that Sudan and Egypt continue to be interlinked culturally.

Mohammad Omar Khalil, Oum Kalthoum 7, oil & collage on wood 60.25cm (circle), 2013.Culture. Image courtesy of Al Masar Gallery of Contemporary Art

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