By Clare Patrick
Hussein Salim has become a firm favorite from travelers to collectors and students alike. His work is multiple in nature, with varying forms and colours to heavy impasto mark making and delicate detailing that elicits matter and subject. The layers of meaning to be discovered and explored in the work of Hussein Salim are as rich and complex as his work is dense and thickly painted.
The multitude of work that Hussein Salim consistently presents makes us wonder about the story of the man behind these intricate artworks. As an artist represented by the Eclectica Galleries in Cape Town, it is certainly true that he upholds their ambitions of magnifying the narratives and imagery from and of the African continent, elevating the understandings of contemporary art while also unpacking social climates with a global perspective. To feel out these aspects of Hussein Salim, in this feature, we will delve into the journey of the artist and consider his different contexts that prompt his mysterious and wondrous creations which so seamlessly fall into step with the Eclectica Galleries.
Hussein Salim was born in Karima, Sudan in 1966 where he developed a passion for the arts at an early age. In 1994 he opened an artist studio in Khartoum which aimed to engage critically with the significance of the artistic heritage of the country in producing a new model for contemporary art. In 1994, he also graduated from the University of Sudan for Science and Technology, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Science in Fine and Applied Arts. Amongst a strong cohort of Sudanese artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Hussein Salim established himself as an artist engaged in unpacking and exploring notions of heritage and identity in Sudan.
In 2000 he was forced to flee Sudan because of the conflicts, so he lived for some years in the UK, Germany and Egypt before finally coming to South Africa, where he now lives with his family in Pitermaritzburg, KZN. When speaking of his experiences and the impact on his work as an artist, Hussein says, “As a Sudanese, my past and present are marred with memories of loss, isolation, migration, exile and forgotten heritage. I was a witness, if not a participant, in this exciting, stimulating period in Sudanese intellectual life which in turn significantly influenced my identity and style of work today.”
Mediating through identity and history, religion has played a formative role in shaping the technique and approach of imagery in Salim’s work. Influenced and inspired by calligraphy and graphic writing systems, the line work in each of his artworks is heavily layered with meaning and symbolism – often described as bringing out a lyrical quality. Holding a Master’s degree, Hussein Salim’s work is dense and fluid and full of imagination. Articulating the possibility and interrogation of identity – pondering archives and images that recur as motifs in his work and allude to landscapes and histories that can be archived. While it is easy to rattle off milestones and highlights of biographical anecdotes, the reality of each event and the lived experience is worth reconsidering when interacting with the work of Hussein Salim. Stop to marvel at the intricacy paired with narrative, juxtaposed against subtle colours recalling the landscapes and spaces of time past. “He paints literal and sometimes very clear signs of where he comes from”, Prof. Terence King highlighted at the opening of Salim’s solo in 2006, “These might include the colours of fabrics and of sands, (and even physically incorporate sand), and the styles of the architecture. The expansiveness and the evenness of the terrain and the intensity of the light are all there.” So, when encountering the work of Hussein Salim, stop to think about the layers of paint as meditations on history, on place, on loneliness within a world turning away, on the vibrancy of artistic heritage overlaid with negation, appropriation and ignorance. Consider, conversely, the community, the family, the stories of celebration and the burgeoning new narratives and customs explored by reinforcing the aesthetics and imagery of artistic traditions.
The figures matter, the abstraction matters, the working and reworking of motif and symbolism matters and the work speaks of the journeys and histories that Hussein Salim has borne witness to. Hussein Salim embodies the directive of a global understanding of individualized specificity. The work he creates speaks across borders and boundaries, it translates through languages and instincts. The narrative created in the body of work Hussein continuously sends out world is one of wonder at the world and of reinforcing the importance of contemporary art of and from Africa.