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My country is the Nile
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2017

As a major component of Africa's beautiful landscape, the Nile river has always been a source of inspiration for visual artists and poets. Images of feluccas and flooding and of the moon reflected on the water are part and parcel of the world's visual heritage. Artists have largely abandoned landscape painting since the emergence of such trends as conceptual art, but Mumtza Elemam's extraordinary work – a collection of which, curated by Mai Yanni, was displayed at the Ubuntu Gallery under the title “And the Nile keeps flowing” – bears testimony to the incredible expressionist and abstract possibilities of the genre. Like Samir Fouad's bird's eye views of the Egyptian landscape, “Ramifications” – exhibited at the Picasso Gallery last year – this work celebrates the landscape in an entirely refreshing way.
“Nature is a great source of inspiration,” Elemam says. “For ten years or more, nature, as a subject has lost its zeal in the contemporary visual arts market and was replaced by philosophical concepts such as the collective memory and other abstract themes…” Roaming the gallery halls was like a Nile cruise accompanied by strolls around the surrounding scenery. Taking pictures and notes, I lost all sense of time, yet I still had to return for a second visit – when I arranged to meet with Elemam, whose presence only intensified the experience. Acrylic allows the artist to communicate levels of wetness, as in one 100 x 100 cm painting made up of layers of green, grey and purple across a variable horizon, with thin lines suggesting trees in the distance. At first sight it's a flat surface, but on closer inspection it reveals depth.
Born in 1979, in the beautiful city of Kassala in the eastern region of Sudan, close to the border with Eriteria, known for its green meadows and surrounded by great mountains, Elemam graduated from the College of Fine and Applied Arts, Sudan University of Science and Technology, Khartoum. But by the time he went to Khartoum the images of Kassala were already part of him.
“My city is a very special place,” he says. “It combines different elements of nature together, starting from very small bushes along the sides of the road, the beautiful Gash River, fruit gardens, swamps, to the Tawteen and Taka mountain ranges surrounding the whole city from south to northeast. Houses are located right at the foot of the mountains over which the sun rises, creating amazing, unforgettable scenes. This very individual scenery created a perfect atmosphere for poets, musicians and artists. It helped to develop my sense of beauty and eternal love of nature, although sometimes I took it for granted.”
And that was probably why he started painting at a young age. As a child, he used to send his drawings by mail to the children's TV show Jannat Al-Atfal, or “Children's Paradise”. When he was a primary school student, he got his first assignment to paint a mural for one of his neighbours, whose mother was returning from the Hajj. It was not the mural itself that marked a shift in his life, but the financial reward he got for this small work. It was also the reaction of passersby, whose appreciation gave him a push forward.
His college studies marked another shift, as it opened the door to a world of arts, and gave him a chance to see the work of all the pioneering artists of Sudan. Fully devoted to art, Elemam dedicates all his time to painting, listening to music and reading books. How does he achieve such a level of spontaneity, however?
“This is a focal question for each artist,” he said, adding that each artist prepares himself in his own way, by listening to music, or looking at other artworks. “Getting prepared for painting is itself a creative process, which leads to more successful artworks. For me, good preparation starts with a good cup of coffee and listening to good music,” his dark face beams with a warm smile. “I love to listen even to silent music, I mean the lightest musical tunes played in a symphony. And I usually yearn for African music, the rhythms that I heard in my childhood in Kassala. I'm also in love of other musical styles, namely Moroccan, Mauritanian, and Algerian Hawwara. They all reflect one culture, and one history.
“To make a good painting, the painter has to be a good human being in the first place. And at a certain point in the day, with such positive energy, honesty and an awareness of what art is all about, the artist can start an honest conversation with the canvas, and produce a wonderful work of art. I work on a daily basis, at least 10 hours a day. I am a professional artist. But I never work with a specific theme in mind. After a year or two, I review my paintings, and then arrange for an event or an exhibition or a collection of paintings.”
“Radio”, held in 2013 at Gallery Misr in Zamalek, was an interesting exhibition by Elemam. The unique theme reflected the artist's keenness on listening to the radio during painting the collection. The acrylic paintings were like visual translations of what he described as “audio stimuli”, which recalled memories of the past and a strong sense of nostalgia. “I used to listen to many radio stations from Sudan, Tunisia, Oman, and even some European radio stations, which broadcast in foreign languages that I never understood,” he explains.
Most of the paintings in the recently held exhibition deal with the geography of the Nile, with a few smaller paintings featuring still life and people of the river. In 2010, Elemam ended his frequent travels to all eleven countries along the Nile River, and he fell in love with different cultural aspects of the African countries. By the end of that year, Elemam was exhibiting a 20 square meters mural painting, “The Nile”.
“I did not want to paint separate paintings of different sizes. Instead, believing in the Nile as one great source of life, and in the common environmental and cultural features of the African countries that share the Nile, I painted this huge mural as one piece,” he explains, adding that as a child he had always dreamt of the Great Nile Republic, a dream he finds naïve nowadays. After holding many solo exhibitions in Cairo and Alexandria, and participating in group exhibitions in Germany, Qatar, Lebanon, China and Sharjah, the artist unconsciously gravitated back to the Nile, however. There has been a noticeable change in the technique, though.
The colours of the new paintings are less condensed. The palette of colours is different: more grey and purple can be seen. Hot colours have diminished and even the strokes of the brush are less violent. It is as if the traveller in him has become more experienced, better acquainted with the Nile neighbourhood and environment. Elemam's visual perspective is unique: the minute I stepped into the gallery I was overwhelmed with love for the African landscapes where the scene is pure, without intervention by human, bird, animal or any other player. It is just the botanical view unified with water and sky.
“I did not happen to see any object or living species emerging from any painting. I did not plan on that, it just happened like this: pure landscape. I never plan for the painting. I am an easy tool in the hands of my brush.”
The collection represents the artist's own philosophy at this specific point in his career. One fascinating painting features layers of hot colours. It feels like they are layers beneath the earth, but the painting produces a very relaxing scene with different degrees of green and then a red spot in its depth, suggesting a warm target or a home. Here as in many other paintings, spots and stains provide space for the imagination. Do these spots resemble people, homes, or trees? It is up to the viewer to figure that out.
Another fantastic painting features a close-up shot of a bundle of intersecting tree trunks. It feels like an invitation to stop wandering aimlessly in the beautiful landscape and start to meditate or ask questions. With fascinating degrees of brown and green the painting makes you stop to meditate on the beauty of the composition and the remote source of light. Another brilliant close-up scene shows huge green leaves touching the surface of the Nile; some leaves are just on the surface, while others are submerged. The painting features a meeting point, a romantic conversation between grass and river, like listening to a short musical piece on the piano. The scene is repeated in three other paintings, with different spiritual imports, and different ranges of colour.
In this particular scene, light comes from the back of the leaves, giving the painting a peerless warmth and intimacy. Generally, light is a decisive element in Elemam's collection, as the selected visual scenes are portrayed at different times of day, making a symphony of its own. This variation on the impact of light in each painting reflects the extent of the artist's travels through different places and at different times of day along the Nile, revealing a passion for nature: an emotional light.
“Light,” Elemam says, “is a crucial element in determining how we receive the concept of a certain painting; the more the light is diminished, the more it moves the viewer's imagination to create further meanings and compositions. While painting this collection, I felt I was in perfect harmony with nature. I did not want to finish painting,” he said, adding. “And I might return to landscape after five or ten years, who knows!”


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