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For Sudanese Artist Mohammad Omar Khalil, Black Is All Color

The Sudanese artist Mohammad Omar Khalil has been making art for over 50 years in a career that has taken him from his early training in Sudan to Italy in the 1960s and, since the early 1970s, New York.

Homeland Under My Nails, an exhibition of Khalil’s work that serves as a retrospective of his printmaking practice, opened in January at London’s Mosaic Rooms.

Unfortunately, the exhibition can’t be seen at the present time because the gallery has closed until further notice due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Until the lockdown in London is lifted, videos of Khalil speaking about his career and the works exhibited can be viewed on the gallery’s website and Vimeo page.

One of the videos shows Khalil at work in his studio in Queens, New York, and demonstrates not only his skill but also his obvious love of his craft. “Now, magic,” Khalil says at one point after meticulously applying ink to a plate he has etched. He lays a piece of paper over the plate and turns a wheel on the press slowly and assuredly so that neither the plate nor the paper slips as they pass under a roller applying heavy pressure. After a few tense minutes, Khalil gingerly grabs the paper and lays it out on the table: a print has been made, the ink expertly transferred from plate to paper to reveal patterns and outlines.

‘My Homeland Exists in My Nails’

The London exhibition pays homage to Khalil’s origins but also denies strict categorization of his work as being art of the Arab world by an Arab artist. Khalil notes that he has lived and worked in New York longer than anywhere else, but he also observes, “My homeland exists in my nails, it expresses itself whenever I create an artwork.”

The exhibition was curated by Abed Al Kadiri, an independent curator based in Beirut who is also a co-founder of Dongola Limited Editions, a publishing house dedicated to limited-edition art books created in collaboration with artists.

“He is an artist who tackles contemporary issues—life and culture, travel, music, the city—and he presents this as a valid expression of the times.”

Abed Al Kadiri
 an independent curator

Al Kadiri’s considered approach in the exhibition helps show how Khalil strove to explore the limitations of printmaking to reveal its limitless possibilities for articulating how he viewed the world, from his home country to the streets of Florence, where he studied, to the people and buildings of New York City.

Besides curating the London exhibition, Al Kadiri has also collaborated with Khalil on an artist’s book, which takes its title from and pays tribute to Season of Migration to the North, a novel by the late Sudanese author Tayeb Salih. The publisher, Dongola, describes the artist’s book as a dialogue between Salih’s novel and Khalil’s etchings.

“Publishing has as much to do with printing as it does exploring different techniques in print,” Al Kadiri said in an interview of his decision to collaborate with Khalil on the artist’s book. “Mohammad, as a master printmaker, came to mind for that reason. He has over 50 years of experience with the practice and he expressed interest in working on Tayeb Salih’s novel.

“He has a deep intellectual and personal understanding of the book and so, as publishers, it was natural to bring them together in an artist’s book. It was the first in our series, but not the first book we published. The artist’s book was over two years in the making because Dongola really strives to highlight loyalty to technique, and Mohammad is an artist who has dedicated his life to this practice.”

Printmaking as a Tool of Exploration

The London exhibition is broken down into three major themes: Early Works, 1964-1967; Metaphor of Blackness, 1968-2019; and Sounds Within Me, 1975-2016.

Only a few works from Khalil’s early period survive. In 1988, a flood hit the city of Khartoum, destroying the artist’s home there and hundreds of stored paintings and prints that Khalil created while in Italy. The early works on display in London had traveled beforehand to New York and were thus safe.

They show a great deal of Khalil’s days of student experimentation while he attended the Academy of Florence. A small stamp-sized self-portrait captures one’s breath with its ability to contain all the elements of good portraiture: likeness, personality and emotive expression from the subject’s eyes. Other works from this period reveal what would become Khalil’s artistic focus: the color black.

“He positions printmaking as a comprehensive tool of exploration that touches the most intimate parts of his life,” says Al Kadiri. “He is an artist who tackles contemporary issues—life and culture, travel, music, the city—and he presents this as a valid expression of the times. But there’s one thing that I share with Mohammad and it is

“My homeland exists in mynails, it expresses itself whenever I create an artwork.”

Mohammad Omar Khalil
 Sudanese artist

the belief that I don’t think art, his especially, can be confined to a single movement or region.”

Thus, Khalil’s work is not “Arab” or “European,” but rather an oeuvre of global travel and points of inspiration.

Using Black as a Medium to Express Color

In a large gallery space, works of varying sizes show his extended experimentation with etching and printing technique. His prints often appear like a carefully sketched drawing, and it’s clear that for Khalil, the medium of etching and prints did not limit his ability to work on various topics and themes.

Subjects vary from colored prints with a collage-effect of layered subjects, words and items to a large black work honoring Petra, the ancient kingdom ruins in Jordan. Executed wholly in black ink, light and shadow come through to reveal grainy texture and smooth surfaces. Black is not a color but a medium in and of itself to express a range of color.

The third gallery space includes larger prints dedicated to the subject of music. Printing these works was trickier, requiring the artist to layer various colors such as blues, pinks and reds separately on one another. To repeatedly work on one print over time to build the final image would require patience and careful calculation—just like composing a piece of music. Umm Kulthum, Bob Dylan and John Coltrane all feature as subjects.

Homeland Under My Nails is a must-see exhibition. It was scheduled to run through April 26. One can only hope that it remains on view once the coronavirus lockdown is lifted.


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