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Maie Yanni in conversation with artist Hassaan Ali
Hassaan Ali, The nightmare of displacement, 2010. Oil on canvas. 60 x 80 cm.

CAIRO.- How long can you keeping singing a song in your own ancient language for fear that it might soon be forgotten ?

How long can you keep recounting stories of your ancestors in the hope of keeping the history of a nation alive?

And where do you start to tell the tragic story of a people and a nation that has been displaced and transplanted within the same country without their own consent?

In December 1959, Egypt and the Sudan signed the Nile Water Agreement* which allowed the Egyptian Government to construct the famous High Dam at Aswan . The building of the dam caused the flooding of large areas along the Nile in both countries , and some 100,00 people, mainly Nubians , were displaced as the lake behind the dam submerged all village communities between Aswan and the Dal Cataract in Northern Sudan.

Hassaan Ali was ten years old when his family was involuntarily displaced to New Halfa , a settlement site in the desert constructed to house tens of thousands of uprooted Nubians from the Nile valley to the desert.

A man of quiet asides and a gentle nature, a serious artist toiling away regardless of gallery exhibition deadlines or not , churning out the work with painstaking dedication and assiduity.

We met at Gallery Grant in Downtown Cairo to discuss his current and 26th solo exhibition “Things Fall Apart”; a body of twenty six works from 2010 to 2013 that deals with human fragmentation and displacement.

Maie Yanni: Why did you choose this title for an exhibition and why this art gallery which is only sporadically accessible in the current volatile Egyptian political climate?
Hassaan Ali: My choice of gallery is a tribute to its owner, the late Mr. Grant , a dear friend whose memory I wanted to honour and the choice of title is to pay homage to the greatest writer that Africa has known, Chinua Achebe , who passed away in March and whose 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” captured the world’s attention; I read it when I was eighteen years old and it marked me like no other book had done before.

The novel is set in pre-colonial Nigeria and tells the story of a farmer who struggles to preserve his customs despite pressure from British colonizers.

On the other hand , Achebe is also known to have criticized corruption and poor governance in Africa and has rejected numerous awards bestowed on him by the Nigerian government as an act of protest of political problems.

Of all the writers of his time he should have been awarded the Nobel Prize but he never was.

M.Y : How great would you say is the influence of the “environment” on an artist’s work and is it easy to remain impartial or detached from it?
H.A: The environment in every sense of the word affects an artist and his work , there is no escaping from it , our lives are inextricably entwined with it.

Like any other artist , my entire artistic output is informed by the social , political and geographical climate I grew up in.

In my case it is displacement , dislocation and all the ramifications that those experiences bear on the soul .

In my artistic practice I experiment and move from one medium to another exploring the limits and potentialities inherent in each medium , my work has developed and matured over the years in the same way that the natural world works. However , the only constant and recurrent thread throughout is my preoccupation with my homeland ; Nubia is my obsession!

Much has happened in the region around us in the last three years from uprisings to revolutions to massacres and genocides and this has consequently shaped the work of artists working here ; some have become more engaged politically others have felt creatively “blocked” while the rest have experienced a creative “enlightenment” like never before.

The power of art is hard to quantify but one thing is certain ; often the message conveyed through art could be far stronger than the spoken or written word.

M.Y: You qualified from the University of Khartoum with a degree in Politics and Anthropology in 1976, how did you come to be an artist?
H.A: I am a self-taught and lifelong artist, I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember, it was always the most natural way of self-expression for me ,the way some people write or danse or perform...

Just before graduating the head of the Fine Arts Faculty at college suggested I have an art exhibition , it was a great success and that spurred me to take it more seriously.
Later on I got interested in illustrating children’s books , something I enjoy deeply and that gives the child in me a voice to be heard.

M.Y: A lot of African and Pharaonic symbols, masks and “naïf” drawings are found throughout your work, is there any particular explanation for that?
H.A: As a child I witnessed the extensive excavation of the Nubian Faras Church by the Polish archeological expedition and I vividly remember how they removed all the mural frescoes by transferring them on ,what looked like in the mind of a child, “cloths” that they applied over the walls. That experience deeply marked me and a lot of the motifs that I use in my work come from that memory.

The family “exodus” was like a line of demarcation for me , a young life that was suddenly severed from everything else that ensued , so how can you not but produce art that is engaged and in the voice of the child who is still looking for a lost childhood ?
A work of art needs to tell people what they need to know, we cannot forget history and we cannot forget where we came from nor where we belong.

As for the masks , they have a two-fold meaning for me; partly because ritual and ceremonial masks are an essential feature of the traditional culture and art of the African continent and partly because masks are a metaphor for the façade and the front we put on for the world in order to protect ourselves.

M.Y: Your work varies from mixed media to oils and acrylics , often incorporating collages and crumpled silk paper that adds an organic texture to a painting, do you sketch or do studies before the definitive work?
H.A: I only do sketches and studies with works on paper. However, works on canvas and board are preceeded by long periods of deliberation, research and mental visualization but once my brush hits the canvas I work as if my head is decapitated and the painting starts to take shape as it progresses. Sometimes it takes me months to complete a painting, I would leave it for a moment and then pick it up again and rework it until I am finally satisfied. It is reaching that point when you know you should not overwork a painting that is critical because if you go beyond that point you may ruin the work completely by overloading it. Most of them are untitled and are left to the interpretation of the onlooker.

I use very saturated colours sometimes in a very graphic way as in “Untitled-3” to show the horrors of war and displacement, sometimes in a more shrouded or subliminal way as in “Mask-2” or stippled and blended as in “Mask-1”.

M.Y: On a final note , what in your opinion are the most important “ingredients” that make a good artist?
H.A: Seriousness I would say is the most important ingredient ; taking your work seriously and the responsibility of delivering the truth as opposed to insulting people’s intelligence and sensibilities by dishing out work that is complacent , superficial and hastily done.

Art must have a lasting relevance and must have the ability to change those who see it.

Art must be spiritual , enchanting , elating and surprising and it must be dissociated from materialism which only reduces it to a mere tradable commodity.

Never has the question of rootedness and belonging been as pressing and needed to be addressed , and in the face of all the geo-political and demographic flux that is taking place around us , this exhibition could not have happened at a more critical time than now.

Hassaan Ali was born fifty eight years ago in the lush and paradisiac town of Wadi Halfa along the banks of the river Nile, today it is a city submerged under water.

*Tenants & Nomads in Eastern Sudan –Gunnar M. Sorbo. Scandinavian Institute of African Studies ,Uppsala.

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