Tag Archives: Sudan

Self-critique through Sudanese Art

While staying in Khartoum last year the lobby of my hotel was liberally sprinkled with very nice oil paintings, all floor-mounted like some sort of temporary bazaar, though without the artist there personally hawking his wares.

The particular piece below intrigued me more than any other and I stopped in front of it at least four or five separate times, contemplating it as a purchase — how to ship it back to Oman, whether the meagre price of $300 justified it (certainly, in retrospect, the price seems right!) — and contemplating also, at the same time, though more subliminally, the reasons I felt so drawn to it.  In the end I merely took a picture of it, wanting to look at it again in the future, like now.  Perhaps, during this coming summer, I’ll try my hand at painting a version of it myself (though in acrylics rather than the touchier, more drawn-out oils).  For now, I find it interesting to once more look at it and, having gained a bit of time and distance for self-study and for processing the experience of Sudan, I’d like to list the reasons (some of them NQR) that this particular image engrosses me.

Oil painting of a Sudanese market.

Reasons I like this painting:

1.  Color scheme — First, and most obvious from a distance, the color-scheme is a cooling one.  It contrasts markedly against the actual experience of Sudan, which is (or was for me) one of incredible bustle, dust, noise, and heat.  As such, this scene reveals the artist’s fantasy of what Sudan should be, not what it actually is.  Perhaps that is the primary attraction for me, a romanticized, Oriental idea of what Sudan might be.  On the other hand, just maybe on some perfect spring or winter evening with the light diminished, slanting through massed urbanity, a person might actually witness these shades.  Also, beneath the purples and blues and blacks, a latent heat remains, or I am reminded of this heat’s presence by the very fact of its absence, like a heart grown suddenly fond of what it would, when subjected to full and direct confrontation, undoubtedly consider a blinding and hurtful truth.

2.  Perspective — The thoroughfare in the foreground spreads horizontally while the maze of the market, the depths of the market, open with the single focus of a grade-schooler’s first attempts at perspective art, buildings getting smaller, smaller, as they recede toward a central vanishing point, people reduced in the crowd to heads and shoulders and shapes that subjectively might mean ‘human’ or ’emptiness’ or ‘wall’ depending on the way the eye sees each particular blotch of color, each shape and thrust of flattened object.  This again brings me toward the Orientalist fantasy of standing outside yet being permitted to gaze at the interior, to wander the maze, to drown oneself in the thriving exotica of a place ultimately foreign.  It is voyeurism taken to a second remove, the first being the situation of the canvas vis-a-vis the captured scene, outside the market; the second being the even more comfortable distance between viewing art and standing in actual living reality in such a scene, having that scene transformed, robbed of its grosser sounds and visions, simplified, idealized.

3.  Homogeneity / Anonymity — The people are faceless.  The buidlings largely nondescript.  And each of these, building or human, seems constructed on a theme, of one part, one mold, variation but only within defined parameters.  In truth, Sudan (and Khartoum especially) vibrate with advertising, with striving, with differentiation, everything from Bob Marley t-shirts to traditional dishdashas like those the people in this market painting wear.  Does such a market actually exist, still devoid (or ever devoid) of the capitalist slogan, the Coca-Cola sign, the Marlboro horseman, the vendor calling out to each pedestrian so that he might sell his kebabs, his falafel, his magazines, his boxes of cheap tissue?  With the self so foremost in every Western mind, the idea of this anonymity is yet another fantasy:  who am I to think myself different, unique, and better?

4.  Shadow — This might have been the first thing to draw me to the photo.  The short shadows at the feet of the marketgoers.  They speak to a noonday business, to heat, betraying heat despite the change of the color to purple and black.  The shadows quaver on the ground.  They seem to move, illusions, mirages.  And the dusty ground drinks each shadow into itself, not letting it spill further than a few feet, not letting it spread a black and definite edge to the height of the shadow-maker’s head.  A sense of comfort hides in these shadows, so different than the Western mentality, which wants nothing to be left mysterious, everything to be exposed to the glare of science.   The Arabic expression itself, which is — contrary to our version of “Shed some light on the subject” — usually rendered “In the shade of that . . .” speaks to this altered perception of shade=good, sun=bad; secrets=good, too-much-truth=bad, dangerous, and absent of the very stuff that makes life worth living — surprise, serendipity, mystery, awe, love, abode.

5.  Texture — The whole paiting has a smoothness to it, empty planes, empty shapes that slide one into another.  Yet there is another texture at work too, on the edges, the faces of the buildings.  This texture nods toward Klimt, enlivening while also reducing the buildings to abstractions, to canvasses themselves, to dreams.  These textures capture dirt, graffiti, mildew, and decay and turn them into art, which is, I believe, a higher purpose for the artist, to ennoble sight, to turn sight into a better seeing.  It makes me take a step back, when I recoil at an old and worn-out metropolitan’ filth, to see in it the marks of so many people, incessantly worrying, hurrying, to-ing and fro-ing, but in art made still and made to behave as if each mark of passage has become a hieroglyph, a telltale sign, a signature, a sweetness.  These textures occur on the edges of the painting, leaving the inside, the maze, pure and empty, an unwritten page for the mind’s eye.

I could look at this painting all day, which is a criterion for greatness in my book.  All its portions of NQR — the fantasy, the unreality, the untruth — add up to a whole for me far greater than any one individual lie.


Reblogging this post 1) Because it was a cool one and 2) Because it is now cited on a Wiki as evidence that the French explorer Pierre-Constant Letorzec visited Merowe (the link in the footnotes for Merowe leads to my Un-American Graffiti webpage! Hot-diggity dog.)

Not Quite Right

In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti.  While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.

Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced.  What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization?  What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must…

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Equal Opportunity Slaughter

Male pharoah at Merowe, Sudan, slaying his prisoners.

While the record is certainly not blank with regard to a history of powerful and influential women — Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra — nowhere does a graphical depiction of absolute equality between the sexes exist with such profudity as that which still stands at the Temple Complex of Merowe in Northern Sudan.

Here, on the left hand wall of a massive, 20-ft high bas relief, a male pharoah raises his sceptre to smite the knot of enemy heads he grasps by the hair.  In traditional Egyptian iconography, the pharoah stands three or four times the size of those he is about to kill, a statement of his superiority and a nice artistic touch to allow the masses in their domination to be better portrayed, often literally, under foot.  The pharoah’s dog waits, teeth bared, between his legs to feast on the carcasses of the slain.

Female pharaoh, partaking in the slaughter with apparent gusto.

This bas relief itself really doesn’t depart too widely from many of the other Egyptian retellings of war conquest.  What sets it apart is the matching right-hand panel of this same wall.  Here, the queen partakes in a very equal-opportunity sort of slaughter, with an equal number of enemy prisoners gathered by their locks in her hand while her other arm — this time with sword rather than with sceptre — hovers menacingly above them.

The best part of all of this, the part that stands in such stark contrast (an almost ‘Not Quite Right‘ sort of contrast) when compared to the lithe images of other female Egyptian rulers like Nefertiti, is this woman’s stylized yet very full, very womanly figure.  It is nice to see power displayed in such a way:  equal, unsparing, and devoid of the expectation that a woman in power rules through guile or charm rather than through the sort of brute physicality this long-gone pair of pharoahs demonstrated.


Un-American Graffiti

In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti.  While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.

Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced.  What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization?  What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must stop and surreptitiously carve his bit of history into history?  Have none of those who have immortalized themselves considered how they whittle down the artifacts until, someday, nothing will remain?

I became fascinated, in the same way a motorist is fascinated by a car wreck on the roadside, with the scribblings on Sudan’s monuments.  Looking more closely, what I started to notice is that some of the graffiti itself has aged to the point where it is a new archeological record of its own:  French, Polish, British, Arabic names (and dates!) stretching back through several hundred years.  Looking even deeper, I realized that a good portion of the original hierogylphics were, themselves, graffiti.  Pharoahs had erased previous pharoahs’ names, carving their own glyphs over older glyphs.  So, perhaps graffiti is more of a continuation of a time-honored tradition than a new and destructive pestilence.

Yet, one can’t help but think that Mr. Letorzec’s knife, working over a fresher surface back in 1820, was Not Quite Right.

Graffiti over hieroglyphs, Merowe, Sudan.



Strange Pyramids

One of the pyramids at Merowe, northern Sudan.

Who can think of the Middle East without forming a mental image of pyramids?

Despite ideas of golden sarcophaguses and huge temples, it is important to note that not all pyramids are created equal.  My visit to Sudan included a stop at the Kushite (25th Dynasty) site of Merowe, near the 6th Cataract of the River Nile.  Here the pyramids are much, much less massive than the more famous Giza pyramids outside Cairo.  And they’re thinner, pointier, different.  Not quite right.

But, these pyramids are famous in their own right . . . they’re featured on the back of the US $1 bill with the all-seeing eye floating above!

Why?

A lot of speculation exists, conspiracy theories that label George Washington and the other founding fathers of the United States as having planned world domination and planted secret guiding symbols in plain sight.

Seeing the pyramids at Merowe, drifted over in red sand, crumbling, covered with graffiti, it is hard to imagine that any particular intent, any forethought, went into the choice of an obscure, skinny tomb for the Great Seal of the United States.  Yet I wonder, what artist decided on this particular type of pyramid for the dollar bill?  How did he know its dimensions, its form and tilt?  Did he visit Merowe?  And, why, why are all these little pyramids decapitated, flattened at the top . . . just as if the eye was meant to float there?

It’s a mystery that will probably never be answered, a little piece of not quite right that I’ve carried around in my wallet, never wondering, for far too long.