Sudan: Ahmed Shibrain's Art - A Marrying of Arab and African Cultures

(file photo).
6 December 2020

Khartoum — Painter Ahmed Shibrain was a luminous figure in the influential art group "The Khartoum School" he cofounded with fellow artists Kamala Ishaq and Ibrahim Alsalahi in 1960.

These Khartoum School artists had set a new trend in painting that employed African and Islamic images using abstracted Arabic calligraphy.

Shibrain had wanted to define the contemporary Sudanese identity-a blend of Arabic, African and Islamic cultures-after the country gained independence in 1956.

The name "Khartoum School" was the idea of international- Jamaican artist Dennis Williams who saw something very different in the work of these artists that made a mix of letters and human and natural images. He said this was something new he had never seen before and so he used the name "Khartoum School".

Consequently, the school went down in arts history as a modernist art movement that sought to develop a new visual vocabulary to reflect the distinctive identity of the newly independent nation, Sudan.

Shibrain's art was described as "Calligraphy and Abstraction.

Born in 1931 in Berber, northern Sudan, Shibrain attended the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum, an affiliate of the then Polytechnic Institute. For its part the Institute had emerged from the Gordon Memorial College - which was founded in 1946 during the Anglo-Egyptian condominium period.

Shibrain then went on to join the Central School of Arts and Design in London, specializing in graphic design. Then he returned to Khartoum in 1960 when he went on to establish a department of Graphic Design at the College of Fine and Applied Arts, now part of the Sudan University of Science and Technology (formerly the Polytechnic Institute).

Shibrain later on became Dean of this College.

It was during this time that Shibrain started integrating calligraphy into his painting - a technique known as hurufiyya - huruf being the word for Arabic letters. In doing so, he developed a unique blended African/Arab aesthetic art.

This creative process had also enabled Shibrain to link his Sudanese culture with linguistics. The practice of reflecting on and producing works based on this cultural diversity became known as Sudanawiyya

(Sudanism) and it guided many of the artists of that period.

According to arts critic Roubi L Roubi the bedrock of Sudan's contemporary art scene lays within the hands of the artists that made up The Khartoum School, founded in the 1960s.

Roubi is of the view that The Khartoum School is a modern art movement which endeavored to capture the diverse culture and unique identity of the newly formed nation of Sudan. The group contributed greatly to the propagation of modern art in Sudan and continues to influence contemporary artists both in the country and its Diaspora.

Members include the then expatriate artists such as Ibrahim El-Salahi, Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq and Ahmed Shibrain, all of whom returned to Khartoum to benefit from a formal syllabus at the College of Fine and Applied Art. The travels of these key members helped to shape the group's common aesthetic and embracement of the Sudanawiyya.

In Shbirain's works the huruf (the letters) appear in both compositions, defining the works without dominating them. They offer the sense that the message could be an instruction, as if there might be some sort of formal meaning. However, perhaps more importantly, we are left wondering how to decipher them and what their actual meaning might be. That, of course, may well be the point, according to Roubi.

Other critics add that Shibrain's art was not about Arabic calligraphy. They see it that the Arabic letters are just part of the overall image given in the portrait. They (the letters) can barely be noticed at the first glance. They are part of the portrait's general set up.

For critic Roubi, this technique is also equally demonstrated by the Ethiopian painter Wosene Worke Kosrof, who in turn, employs letters from the Amharic language as effective elements in his abstractions.

Roubi considers Ahmed Shibrain's- and the other Khartoum School artists-works as "distinct unto themselves and as part of a wider series of trends across the African Continent. Shibrain's work continues to inform and inspire artists in the Middle East and North Africa who seek to combine language, culture and contemporary abstraction," according to Roubi.

Critic Farouq Yousif considers the art of Ahmed Shibrain and his fellows in the Khartoum School as having "built a bridge between what is Arabic and What is African. The only difference between these artists is the style. Each one of them had his own way of expression."

So, while Salahi was close to the school of expressive realism, Shibrain

remained faithful to his hurufi style.

Yousif merits the Khartoum School for "perpetuating the elements and conditions of modern painting in Sudan."

According to Yousif, while Salahi had left Sudan to live in Oxford in Britain, Shibrain preferred to stay in Sudan as a teacher of generations of artists who acquired from him noteworthy expertise in print graphics.

Shibrain, says Yousif, has earned his spiritual energy from an "old mystic enchantment with the letters of the Koran he learned reading and writing in a religious school in his home village of Algadawab, near the town of Berber. This had later on prompted him to introduce the Arabic characters in an aesthetic maze that never reminds of the traditional Arabic letter as such, but takes that letter towards a visual memory whose image is seen in the mirror of African imagination.

Shibrain had taken from his Arabism the best it could give: the Arabic letter through which he became that African-Arab who never worries about his dual identity.

Shibrain's art and that of the Khartoum School have told us that to become a Sudanese artist means to be able to blend the two civilizations: a civilization that gave you its language (the Arabic civilization) and a civilization that is baked in the imagination of its magicians (the African civilization).

It was not easy at first-the psychological distance was too big between the two civilizations. For to accept one is to disown the other. That is because the African sphere was not prepared during the flare up of the national liberation movements in the 1960s to accept to be dragged outside Africa's cultural boundaries. The Sudanese intellectuals were not prepared, then, to bend on their Arabic culture in a clear betrayal of geography that is part of their African imaginative heritage. Though verbal this heritage might be, it still stands as a cultural reference that could not be done without.

Shibrain had given the Arabic letter an African beauty, a beauty the master of the Hurufiyya (calligraphy ) school Shakir Hassan Al-Saeed never thought of, though he always looked for it.

Shibrain's merger of the Arabic letter with the African nature was a sign of a humanization that could usher in another hurufiyya. For that, the emergence of the Khartoum School was a moment for resisting two intellectual currents which were about to collide. That moment had humanized the wildness of those currents. So, it became possible, through the approaches this School had set, for the Sudanese painting to become "Arabic from African.".

Shibrain's paintings had resiliently paved the way for that historical achievement of the man who was bewitched by the form and sound of the Arabic letters in his early childhood, had succeeded with his distinctive talent to marry the magic of those letters and sounds with images of ghostly, pagan gods.

That formal procedure was not taken on purpose, but had, rather, stemmed from the spiritual bond Shibrain had made with the Arabic letter.

It could be concluded that Shibrain had added to the Arabic Hurufi school more than he took from it. He had opened up with the Arabic letters towards a Conti

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