01 March, 2012 - 01 April, 2012

A Bridge Between Two Worlds

Mohammad Omer Khalil

A world of contrasts unveils itself in Mohamed Omar Khalil’s new paintings, starting with Paolo Uccello in Italy then going to Marrakech and Fez, stopping in the ‘Souk’, near the ‘Hand of Fatima, watching the ‘Snake Charmers of Jamaa al Fanaa’, talking to the ‘One eyed Camel’, and reaching finally the United States with a film show entitled ‘The birdman of Alcatraz’… What is the link between Uccello, the 15th century painter and the famed movie of 1962 in which Burt Lancaster played the role of a convicted murderer who redeems himself when he becomes a renowned bird expert in the prison of Alcatraz? What is the link to Fez, Marrakech and all the Moroccan symbols? A patchwork of images put together in a masterly manner to create scenes that relay the artist’s inspiration, his nostalgia and his dreams.


Forming a bridge between past and present, the well-constructed paintings of Mohamed Omar Khalil reveal the deep search for forgotten memories and the longing for an imaginary world. “Reality is harsh and difficult” he says. “This is why I always look back to the past.” His fascination with Paolo Uccello led him two years ago to revisit the Florentine artist’s most famous paintings: the three panels depicting the Battle of San Romano, exhibited today in three museums – the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in London and the Uffizi in Florence. At the time, Khalil produced three diptychs, using the same dimensions as Uccello’s panels (323 x 182 cm; 313 x 182 cm; 310 x 182 cm) and six watercolors. Today, in the new series of paintings, he goes back to the Battle of San Romano with six art works entitled ‘Paulo’. Using one size of canvas, 102 x 127 cm, Mohamed Omar Khalil integrates in his oil paintings sketches of the battle he had produced earlier, when he was working on the big project, but never used. This time, however, his return is more intimate. He is no longer focusing on the paintings but addressing the painter directly and calling him in a friendly, warm, manner ‘Paulo’. One feels that the relationship between the two men has now been established and the difficult frontier between past and present surmounted. For Khalil, an unfinished part of the previous work was still holding him back. He had to look at Uccello’s masterpiece one last time, before saying he was “over with it all.” The fascination, which dates back to 1963 when he first saw the painting in the Uffizi and was haunted by it since then, had to be exorcised. Morocco has another dimension in his work. A country close to his heart, he visits it regularly since 1978 when he started directing etching workshops at Assilah during the cultural and artistic season.

The workshops stopped in 2005 but he still loves to go there where he has a small house and many friends. He also travels around and walks the streets, looking for all sorts of things. For him, the streets are a source of permanent inspiration. This is where he finds images, textures, and pieces of wood, of paper, of metal… that he later integrates in the etchings and paintings according to his needs. All the bits and pieces (big and small) are transformed by his hands to find their right place in the larger context and the effect of the collage technique is important in the construction of Mohamed Omar Khalil’s works. Some of his surfaces include areas of patterned commercial fabric, and at times, reproductions appear in a work… In his recent paintings, the collage is still very present but he seems to be working more on a one piece rather than producing diptychs and triptychs as he used to do in the past. Working his canvases on different levels, he creates various layers where he introduces photographs and a variety of images. Covering the collages with oil painting, he then plays with the colors to produce well-structured pieces that carry the perfect light. The interesting pieces are the two ‘tondos’ on Marrakech, a city he portrays (in his own way) for the first time. Once again, the Italian connection appears as ‘tondo’ is a Renaissance term for a circular work of art and the word derives from the Italian rotondo meaning “round.” Symbolically, the circle, the sphere or the disk refers to perfection. Was Marrakech, in his eyes, the perfect place that needed to be depicted in the most ideal form? As for Italy, no wonder that the reference to it is always present in his work. After finishing his studies at the School of Fine and Applied Arts in Khartoum, he travelled to study fresco painting and advanced printmaking techniques at the Academia del Arte in Florence and then spent a year in Ravenna studying mosaics. In 1967, he moved to the United States where he settled in New York. Mosaics and frescoes can be still depicted in his art sphere, creating the bridge between his interior, deep world and the “real”, outside world; a bridge nonetheless filled with colors, fabrics, images, and free birds…

Roula El Zein