12 January, 2016 - 04 February, 2016

Suakin, a homecoming


Mohamad Omer Khalil’s relationship with his native Sudan is a complicated one and the large, colourful mixed media paintings that comprise his latest body of work, Suakin, are a visual expression of one aspect of this complexity.


At the outset, Suakin strikes a celebratory tone, bursting out in bold reds, greens, yellows, purples, black and lots and lots of blue. ‘I’ve never used so much blue in my life,’ admits Omer Khalil. But as the viewer moves in closer to examine the details, glimpses of the northeastern Sudanese seaport for which his exhibition is named, reveal themselves in photos deeply collaged - but not entirely buried - amid the works’ rampant textures: barefoot children riding mule carts; the mosques, old and tired; the city in ruins, its once majestic coral buildings hollow and decrepit. This begs the question: What exactly does this exhibition celebrate?


Suakin has a rich and storied past that goes as far back as pharaonic times. Its sheltered harbour was once described as the finest anchorage on the African Red Sea coast between Egypt and Eritrea, and as such, Suakin thrived as a primary port city. While its fortunes rose and fell over the centuries, it seemed to always find a way to rise to prominence again under its various rulers. By the 1330s, it came under the rule of al-Sharif Zaid ibn Abi Nummay ibn ‘Ajlan, son of the Amir of Mecca at the time, a position that al-Sharif Zaid inherited from his mother’s side of the family, originally a Bejawi herself.


It was during his rule that Islam was introduced to the city. Consequently, it became the departure port for African pilgrims to Mecca, and it was the connection to the Holy Land that brought with it a distinctive style of architecture. The new inhabitants from Jeddah constructed two- and three-storey buildings with blocks cut from white coral and plastered with white stucco. Their windows were covered with mashrabbiyas, intricate woodwork shutters that kept out the glare of the desert sun and its heat. The new architecture imbued the city with an aura of opulence, and until the 1700s, Suakin was Jeddah’s sister port city. Today, it is the ruins of these very buildings that are symbolic of the city’s ghostly near-emptiness. It is photographs depicting the remains of these once grand structures that feature in Omar Khalil’s paintings, poignantly peeking through his cacophony of colour.


Suakin continued to be a backdrop against which history played out until the early twentieth century when coral reefs made its harbour unnavigable for the large modern ships. At that point, everything seemed to cease. The traders, armies and colonizers all left, but what struck Mohamad Omer Khalil as truly remarkable was that Suakin was ‘abandoned’ by its own citizens who closed their homes and moved away.


However, Omer Khalil’s paintings are not an ode to an ancient city’s glorious past. After all, it is photos of the city in its present state of neglect that he embeds in his paintings. His art is far more personal, emblematic of a complex bond which was forged with the city in the late 1950s. As a young art student at Khartoum’s School of Fine and Applied Art, he visited Suakin on one of his school’s drawing and painting excursions where he spent his time working in the open air.


Omer Khalil has spent most of his eighty years outside Sudan, first studying in Italy in the 1960s before moving permanently to New York in 1967. He is not celebrating history nor is he celebrating his memory of Suakin itself. Their encounter, though obviously significant, was brief. He is celebrating his primal bond with his homeland. Like most immigrants, his relationship with his country of origin is a complex one, multi-layered and multifaceted, replete with nostalgia and often tinged with some guilt.


Through Suakin, Mohamad Omer Khalil revisits his home country, not physically but in his memory. He does it over and over – Suakin is a prolific body of work – and reworks the details, as one often does in one’s personal recollections of places and events, through colour and texture, layering reference over reference. In that respect, Suakin represents a homecoming, and though the ‘home’ may be old and tired, the homecoming is a joyous event.