The Star (Nairobi)

5 February 2013

Kenya: What's in a Name?

What's in a name? There's no doubt that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Still, language is a beautiful thing and so, in spite of anticipating a rational, may be even gratifying answer from beloved Sudanese artist Ahmed Abushariaa, I ask the question: Why don't you title your work?

It was a routine enquiry, and I knew I might agree with his answer, yet I entreated him to respond in sweet English broken by delicate traces of Arabic. What words would he use to explain why he believed that words themselves, in the form of titles, were trivial? One of us longing for words; the other explaining why they were not necessary - the irony made me smile.

On Sunday, January 27, Helmuth and Erica Rossler-Musch opened their second exhibition at the Red Hill Art Gallery, a private gallery built just outside their home. Through NGO work and extensive travel throughout Africa, the intriguing couple have accumulated a large collection of African art. Settled between Banana Hill and Ngecha Village, they put up a modest gallery last year, to exhibit both their personal art collection and, every so often, the works of a different contemporary African artist.

In September 2012, they showcased the work of the late Geoffrey Musaka, who was a prominent Ugandan artist of international acclaim. This time, they are exhibiting works by Ahmed Abushariaa, a popular Sudanese artist living in Kampala. The exhibition, which will end in April, is open to the public on weekends and by appointment during the week. With over 50 paintings on show, it is a fusion of works from 1993 to 2012 - the largest showing of Abushariaa's art in Kenya to date.

"We were living in Kampala when we met Abushariaa and have been in touch ever since," says Hellmuth Rossler. "We have a large collection of his work, only a few of which are in the current show". But Abushariaa's romance with Kenya began long before this exhibition. "In 1992, I came to Nairobi on a bus. I didn't speak any English," he tells us.

"An old Mennonite couple, Bill and Betty Baumann from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) took me in and showed me how to promote my art. I worked at Paa ya Paa Gallery then". The Baumann's returned to Philadelphia and Abushariaa says he thinks about them often and still hears from them once in a while.

In 1990, Abushariaa graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts from the College of Fine and Applied Arts from Sudan University. He worked as a graphic designer for two years and left for Kenya when the military took over in Sudan. In 1994, after two years in Kenya, he moved to Cologne, Germany where he continued working as a contemporary artist. Visiting Kampala as an exhibiting artist at the AKA Gallery, he met his wife, fell in love and decided to stay.

Today, Abushariaa is a celebrated international artist who has permanent exhibitions in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and South Africa. He has exhibited in Europe, the US, Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Australia and is a member of the Sudanese Artists Association, the Drawing Society and the South African Society of Artists. An upbeat, creative soul, whose work speaks to so many people across the globe, he is the real McCoy; a successful contemporary African artist.

Abushariaa's blurred watercolours, nostalgic of his homeland, express sentiments from the 20-year war in South Sudan and the genocide of the Nubian people. At the time he fled Sudan, the authorities had banned artists from sharing such sentiments.

Today, that is exactly what Abushariaa does. With hints of old and new Sudan, distinct elements of Nubian culture, Nubian symbolism and Arabic calligraphy, Abushariaa's works indulge the senses, and are almost too much to bear when all in one room.

Each Abushariaa painting, semi-abstract and often made of several miniature paintings in one, deserves its own space. At the current exhibition, the powerful images, delightful colour and ambient form can be overwhelming. You see imagery reminiscent of rock-art; warm, organic watercolour paintings in oranges and browns; neat works in bright colours with a graphic-design feel; collages made of recycled material and newspaper, and his latest works of acrylic on canvas.

And so - Abushariaa gives me a moment of his time. "I feel when you give a painting a title, you dictate the painting," he says. He believes it is counterproductive to confine an interpretation because people will not come up with their own ideas.

"If I called a painting 'The Festival', you would look for a festival and miss everything else. I enjoy paintings where there are several stories to see. People sometimes tell me to simplify my works but I like to have many pictures and then leave my work untitled. Titles make things confusing. I want to keep my paintings free, open to interpretation, with no restrictions at all. "

From different phases in his evolution, and using a different technique in each painting, Abushariaa has two works in opposite corners of the gallery that convey a similar sentiment.

From a series of striking black and white ink works, there is an image of a stark, white silhouette, a female in Muslim dress, against a convoluted cityscape of black, grey and hints of white.

On a small wall in a corner, there is an image where a colourful townscape occupies only the top third of paper. White desert fills the rest of the space, with only a few indistinguishable figures in traditional dress scampering in the nothingness.

Composing the foreground in the first painting and almost all of second one, Abushariaa's use of negative space is profound. He feels no pressure to paint the whole picture or fill the void. It's also unclear whether the people in his paintings are moving toward or away from town. Playing with the ideas of isolation and identity, of belonging and not, many of his works look at the individual as he or she reflects upon their nation, their hometown, their culture and the doctrines propagated therein.

Using sweltering colours and sensitive imagery, Ahmed Abushariaa contemplates the things we all do. Who are we? Who am I in this context and who am I separate from it? Until either he has the answer or we do, his paintings will remain untitled.

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