“Photos of Cotton Factory Workers” is an odd title for an exhibition — currently on show at the new premises of Mashrabiya Gallery, downtown – but the Cairo-based Sudanese artist Salah Elmur’s new collection of paintings and sculptures is an accessible and powerful testimony to the power of art.
There are more than 20 canvases as well as Memorial Picture of the Cotton Factory Workers, a wood and bronze sculpture featuring workers in different sizes, each with their own distinctive head, while the bodies are either wood planks or bronze skeletons. Inspired, I nonetheless asked Elmur who they were and where they came from. “Most of my paintings are inspired by real or fictional stories,” he said, “and this one has a tragic story behind it.”
Known as the Anbar Jouda incident, it took place in 1956. The police of the newly independent government, having locked striking cotton factory workers into a small hangar (anbar), shooting nearly 150 male and female workers dead. The incident inspired many Sudanese poets and drama writers.
Born in 1966 in a village near Khartoum, Elmur grew up immersed in art. His father had one of a handful of photography studios in the capital, and his mother produced embroidery. A whole wall is dedicated to black-framed family portraits Elmur, himself also a photographer, found in boxes at the family home shortly after graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Khartoum. Together, the small black and white pictures looks like a mural which, from a distance, implies a map of Sudan.
“A large part of this exhibited collection of pictures was the private collection of my father’s studio. The other part is my own collection; I became a collector of photos from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as this, I feel, is one of the very meaningful and decisive eras in contemporary history. It was during this period that people in Sudan, Egypt, and other parts of Africa used to have their pictures taken at studios. It is fantastic to see how they would chose to be photographed holding a vase full of flowers or an old radio.”
Most of the paintings are inspired by the studio pictures and strips of negatives ElMur found there too. Like studio portraits, they are characterised by stillness; movement is scarce.
Just beside the mural of pictures, a huge painting features a lone man standing still in the middle, surrounded by a creeping plant, with a yellow flower, and holding a small pipe in his palm. He looks calm, almost dissociated from the world.
Another feature of El Mur’s work is its celebration of living species. Oxen, fish and plants appear very frequently. In one painting, a vase of sunflowers is seen between two helpless women in black. In another, a man in yellow rides a horse sitting backwards while while two heads stem out of his bald pate. The ride is taking place in a narrow room, painted yellow. The horse, usually a symbol of power, reluctantly looks at the rider, who is obviously in a state of deep reflection.
“I grew up in a Al-Jreef, a small village on the west bank of the Blue Nile. My family members are peasants and fishermen, so I was normally affected by such beautiful and vivid scenes.”
The vividness of the scenes featured in the artist’s paintings reflects his strong passion for Sudan.
“In Sudan you can find all images of beauty and all degrees of colour. My country has 150 different tribes, which means different religions, races, colours, music and languages.”
ElMur comes from the union of two prominent tribes Al-Mahas and Al-Jomhuriya in north Sudan. Therefore, he has a deep knowledge of the ethnic variety of his country, which, together with his nonstop travels to African countries and around the world, comes through in his exotic paintings.
Another significant characteristic of both sculptures and paintings is a clear division in the characters’ faces. An illusory line divides faces into two unequal parts. It is as if ElMur is redesigning the human face as a space for conflicting emotional expressions. The divisions not only evokes duplicity, they also stimulate humor and gesture towards freedom.
“I believe this is largely inspired by the haziness of some unqualified studio pictures that I found. Out-of-focus pictures inspired the double faces, a main feature of this collection.”
Another is the presence of women. “In addition to the great role women play in society, I personally see women as a changing colourful picture, and I like women’s endeavors to make changes in their appearances.”
One wonderful painting shows a group of women in black gowns, holding a stretcher on which a dead boy in green uniform lies helplessly. The painting is based on a real accident that took place in a small village in north Sudan, where some 120 young students were drowned in the Nile on their way home from school aboard a wooden boat.
The faces of the mothers reflect a deep sorrow, as if they are mourning life as a whole, not just their kids, and although they are supposedly moving, they look as if they are suddenly posing for a picture.
The painting resonates with a fantastic scene in a novel entitled Drowning by the Sudanese novelist Hamour Ziyada, published recently by Al Ain in Cairo, in which a dramatic, recurrent scene depicts a hopeless mother who goes nightly to the river bank hoping to find the corpse of her lost daughter floating on the surface.
In general, most paintings reflect a notion, a story or a dramatic event. Viewers will no doubt invent their own stories on looking at the paintings too; they are easy to relate to.
Pink Circles, a huge mural, depicts two rows of dwarf-like males: in the upper row they wear only white underwear; in the lower row they wear green jackets similar to military uniforms, with their legs exposed. One man in the lower row holds a small mirror, in which the face of a woman appears. The painting evokes the prevalent presence of policemen in our lives, however desperately they conceal themselves, with the woman in the mirror serving as a witness.
“The woman here is a symbol of the normal citizen who knows,” Elmur says, “who is bothered by the extensive presence of police authorities in modern life.”
The exhibition is on show until 4 July.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Phantasmagoria
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