There is a photograph, one of four, that hangs on a small strip of white hallway leading from one exhibit space to another. In the picture, a man in a loose white shirt and dark slacks stands over a brightly lit desk with a paint pot in one hand and a brush in another.
He tilts forward slightly and the shelved objects above the desk are shrouded in darkness. An inky black that matches the arch of the afro that halos the man’s head. Above thick lips, a bushy moustache dates the photo.
In him, there is a lounging breathlessness. Wonder fills the room as he stares at what he has created. A misshapen skull covered in faint images, as if backlit by a projector, stands in the other room.
The man, Mohammad Omar Khalil, has all the markings of recently-arrived Sudani diaspora, with his slow smile and hungry eyes.
In another photo, he is staring off camera, his full-face blooms brown and we see shadows of his homeland in the contrast of his dark visage against the bleached room. He proclaims, “my homeland exists under my nails, it expresses itself whenever I create an artwork.”
The gallery is ghostly empty. A quick look around reveals no one so I take some hand sanitiser and make my way into the exhibit. The familiarity of art against blank walls reminds me why consuming art and self-care is key to limiting burn out for me.
In the largest room, one of his art books is splayed out showing prints inspired by Sudanese giant Tayeb Salih’s novel The Season of Migration to the North. I love this novel and was pleased to find that Khalil also connected to Salih’s work.
One piece, inspired by the 1966 novel, shows a jagged curved white V in an otherwise black print. Inside the V are sections that mimic storeys in a tightly compacted building. Tiny dashes between each level resemble staircases and you are reminded of the close quarters of an upright shanty town.
I imagine when Khalil migrated to New York, similar to how Mustafa Saeed from Salih’s novel arrived in London, a city he had always seen was reimagined. For Khalil, New York gained a complexity that was larger than the postcard dream of a hopeful artist.
As I pass through the exhibit, from the picture of Khalil’s family to the art he created in New York to his exploration of Blackness: “In Blackness I see degrees and shades of rich, complicated colour” the caption reads, I began to see the life’s work of a man, now 84, who carried the complexities of Afro-Arabness on his skin as he explored the world.
Yet despite the bald head and the wan smile in the film that plays in a loop at the end of the exhibit, I still see the carefree lean figure in a white shirt, eyes lowered and lips parted as he stares.
Below him, shimmering memories of women in white toubs and men smoking in front of wide low cars and a reflexive sense of pride, because he has found a way to express, again and again, the Sudan that his fingers itch for and that tingle under his nails.
Source of Image – The Arab British Centre