Alia Derouiche Cherif – Nahla Ink Artist of the Season (Autumn 2021)

Nahla Ink is so happy to feature the works of Alia Derouiche Cherif for the duration of the Autumn Season 2021. It has been a privilege to get to know the artist online and see her pieces digitally. The happy timing coincides with Cherif’s latest solo show at the Musk & Amber Gallery in the capital city of Tunis under the theme of ‘Tarab’, running from 14 October to 4 November, 2021.

Born and brought up in Tunisia, the 52-year-old versatile creative has several specialties under her belt, including: a Masters in Interior Design, a Masters in Sociology of Art and Doctorate in Science Techniques in the Arts (1997) from the Technological Institute of Art, Architecture and Urbanism of Tunis (ITAAUT). As a Professor of Fashion Design, she has been teaching at a training state college in the northern suburbs of Tunis for the past twenty years. She tells me this college is just a three-minute walk from the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Already exhibited widely in her home country, she even caused controversy at the Bardo National Museum back in 2019 when the Minister of Culture intervened to back and support her work to the surprise of the then Director who wanted to censor it! The image above was taken of the artist at the Bardo with the artwork in question behind her. It had led to the uproar because the text on it says: “The government does not like love”!

When it comes to her artwork, I was firstly drawn to Cherif’s project in relation to the depiction of Middle Eastern and North African women as found on old Colonial postcards. Originally taken by the colonisers during a certain time and age – when the art of Western photography was just blossoming and being experimented with – the shots portray the female subjects in a certain exoticized, romanticized and even fetishised way. A big question mark remains over how these individual women agreed to be pictured or how they were coerced into taking part.

Bint Abou Nawas (2018)

So Cherif took the photographic images she found of these women and gave them a new aesthetic, a fresh interpretation and a current dimension, so that the male Orientalist gaze of the photographer is interrupted and replaced by that of an Arab woman fully in possession of her identity, gender and core human being.

There is, of course, extensive analysis regarding these Colonial photographs, the cameramen behind them and the general treatment of the indigenous populations; as well as the fact that these images are still in popular circulation today, mainly through the purchase and exchange of postcards by avid collectors and others interested in their historical value. Still for others, these images are proof of the arrogant Colonialist and his abuse, that again pertains to much academic debate and robust discussion.

Dance with the moon (2021)

About the postcards’ project, Cherif has said: “I always wanted to explore personal themes and the original idea was to do something creative with photos of my grandmother, but somehow it felt too close to heart and mind and I was blocked! So I looked for her beauty in other women as I found them in the photographs of a similar time.”

In particular, Cherif researched the works of the French-Swiss photographer Jean Geiser (1848-1923), the photos developed by the Lehnert & Landrock Studio as well as those taken by Nathan Boumendi, who were all active in North Africa, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, roughly between the late 1850s to the late 1940s.

She said: “I was led to a new reading of these Orientalist portraits and began to make my version of the old postcards, blended with my memories and with a wink to the contemporary art sphere, so far removed from the universe of these women. I wanted to give the anonymous faces, who used to be photographed without informed consent, a new life that would allow them to proudly identify and become the beloved queens and shining icons that they truly are, whom I also cover with gold. Naming these women too who have no name is to revive them!”

A star is born (2021)

Based on photomontages printed on paper or canvas, Cherif usually employs a mixed technique with acrylics, felt pens, inks, watercolours, pencils and gold leaf for her paintings. Her dual training as an interior designer and stylist also allows her to incorporate draped zelliges, the colourful handcrafted clay tiles best known for their Moorish geometric patterns and found throughout North Africa. Added to this is use of Arabic calligraphy, that usually denotes words of love, though other times the words have no meaning, they just stand for the beauty of the letters as they flow.

Shine and blues (2021)

Cherif’s paintings are continuously evolving and her latest project ‘Tarab’ is truly to die for, as her figures embody heady feminine power and beauty with the light, the gold and shades of blue. In this she still draws upon her personal memories and reaches out to the collective female psyche, incorporating her Arab Islamic inheritance, as well as the local North African culture with its ornaments and motifs.

She explained to Nahla Ink: “The Tarab in Arabic means an aesthetic emotion of great intensity, an ecstasy caused by a dance, or to vocal and instrumental music. I wanted to find this emotion in my paintings, with the mix of some of the old work and current references. I also want to create the sense that space and time do not exist with the zelliges, as they remain the same from centuries ago, and finally there is a nod to celebrating love itself!”

Will you still love me tomorrow? (2019) 

Looking forward, Cherif is scheduled to take part in two exhibitions in 2022, one in  Paris, France and the other in London, UK. In Tunisia, her work has been shown at the Bardo National Museum (Tunis), Alain Nadaud Gallery (Gammarth, Tunis), the Musk & Amber Gallery (Tunis), Elbirou Gallery (Sousse) and the Efesto Salon des Artistes (La Marsa).

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Note: This article was first published on Nahla Ink circa October 2021

Sudan Retold: An Art Book About the History and Future of Sudan

Guest Review: Salma Ahmad Caller

In the summer of 2018 I began a journey to explore my dual identity as an Egyptian-British woman through the investigation of old postcards of supposed Egyptian women shown through the distortions of the colonial lens. This led to an artistic project to subvert the Orientalist fantasies inherent in these images still circulating today.

I didn’t expect that Sudan would be one of the places I would most need to understand, until I began to realise that many of the postcards in my collection from Egypt feature black women or women labelled as ‘Sudanese’. My recent encounter with ‘Sudan Retold: An Art Book About the History and Future of Sudan’ gave me a profound opportunity to understand more about the complexity and beauty of Sudanese culture and history.

Published in three languages, Arabic, English and German, it consists of 31 chapters each contributed by different Sudanese artists, writers, illustrators, designers, photographers and a chef. It is superbly edited and put together by Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann and Khalid Wad Albaih.

From the moment I started leafing through it, I found myself walking through an archway into the past, into the ancient port city of Suakin. This mysterious experience was created whilst looking at an image by Reem Khalafallah. An imaginary ghostly soul of a slave, or a djinn imprisoned long ago by King Solomon speaks to us from the gloom of the ruins of a spectacular and fascinating past. It could easily have been the lost voices of later humans, Greek seamen, Portuguese ‘explorers’, West Africans, Venetians, Ottomans, or the English or Egyptian voices of colonising soldiers.

Reem Khalafallah Artwork

The ‘seen’ and the ‘unseen’ abound in her unsettling work as shadowy shapes and presences. We find ourselves looking beyond intricate mashrabiyya and dark towering walls on either side into a space inhabited by a few crows in the mist, a space of lost understanding and complex power struggles in Sudan that continue today. I say lost but not really lost, pushed into the margins of history as told by a series of colonisers and intruders.

It would seem that the djinn have been causing trouble in Suakin since at least the 15th century. This idea of creating mischief and difficulty as a tactic against intruders is an important one that appeals to me personally, and is an indirect method of resistance that women and ‘others’ often need to employ against their oppressors.

In her book ‘Civilising Women: British Crusades in Colonial Sudan’, Janice Boddy quotes a character from a colonial novel about Sudan as saying: “You are fortunate enough not to know Suakin, Miss Eustace, particularly in May. No white woman can live in that town. It has a sodden intolerable heat peculiar to itself”. One wonders if perhaps the djinn made Suakin intolerable as a form of resistance.

Boddy’s book is one of several exploring the colonial presence in Sudan and the Zar ritual that have informed my own understanding of identity in radical ways. The Zar can be considered as a women’s alternative embodied archive of memories and histories of colonisation, an archive that refuses to be pinned down or ‘civilised’ by conservatives and colonials.

The rituals of the Zar are enactments of the experience and trauma of being colonised by hierarchies of dominating intruders, and they are the ongoing negotiations with those presences as spirits within using ritual, ceremony, ecstatic dance, drumming, incense and song. They are not exorcisms but ways of accommodating violent intrusions, and a way of bringing layers of histories into living presence and creating a living archive that runs contrary to the mainstream.

Sudan Retold felt to me like the Zar, a substantial volume that brings lived experiential histories into being and into active presence. It has the effect of bringing the mischief and disruption of the djinn into any easy categorisation or labelling of Sudan.

Another significant aspect of the work in this book is that it draws upon creative imagination and mythology. The killing of ‘Chinese Gordon’ by Malaz Abdallah Osman and Mawadda Kamil is a series of silent and shockingly visceral yet detached graphic art illustrations of the stages of his death. The use of art, literature and storytelling as a form of dramatic enactment designed to recreate General Gordon as a powerful mythical Christ like figure was a colonial tool used by Imperial powers. They knew only too well the potency of imagination to retell history and control the emotions and actions of others.

Osman and Kamil take this colonial mechanism of the Gordon cult and use it for new and radical means; it is as if they were both empathising with Gordon and at the same time destroying the colonial Gordon cult that facilitated future atrocities of ‘revenge’ in Sudan by Kitchener and others.

The everyday world where facts are valued above all else fails to understand the transformative role of myths, fables and the imagination and their power to reincarnate lost histories and carry cross-generational memory into the present. The images of Suakin and the stunning work of Enas Satir and Hussam Hilali for their chapter ‘The Golden Kingdom’ (inspired by the town Berenice Panchrysos meaning Berenice the all-golden, an ancient town near the gold mines of Jebel Allaqi), are very potent metaphors for the rediscovery of erased or ignored landscapes of identity and knowledge.

The fictional worlds the artists create through image and text are living landscapes that we walk through and understand through the experience created. Satir and Hilali create a sensual legend about Berenice as an ‘African Beauty’ with dark hair and eyes the colour of gold. She lived in the dry scorching lands between today’s Sudan and Egypt, where the Black Pharaohs created their kingdom and sanctuary. It was there the Blue Djinn fell in love with her and wanted to hide her and the kingdom of gold from civilisation and its greed. So he created a mirage in the heat that hid her and the whole kingdom, thus erasing them from the history books.

This seemingly simply tale is a mythology that reveals deeper truths about colonisation and resistance, working as a disruptive mode that evades the written history books of the colonisers. What we today call Sudan is too multifarious, of many voices and bodies, to be constrained and contained by any conventional telling.

The ‘Creation Story of the Nuer’ by Malaz Sami, on morality and immorality of humans, mysteriously hints at another ‘forgotten’ mythology, of the Nuer of South Sudan, the second largest ‘ethnic’ group as Google might say in that expected semi-ethnographic disembodied and ‘fact’ telling way. But Google, of course, fails to understand that mythologies are profound and complex dwelling places for the embodied knowledge of land and place. They are not just ‘stories’.

‘The City of Faras in the Christian Era’ is a poetic and mesmerising series of works by artist Dar Al Naim Mubarak that give the beautiful lost city another chance through the conduit of the imagination, her voice speaking from the future, and based on the stories of her father. We are told that a flood hid the city from the eyes of the future. This is a recurring theme, that what has been lost has actually been hidden and protected, by djinn, mirages and floods, and can be found again unsullied and alive within the people of Sudan.

Dar Al Naim Mubarak Artwork

The moving beauty of the everyday, often neglected and ignored, is also very much alive in Sudan Retold. In a chapter just called ‘Women’ Enas Ismail and Yasir Abuagla reveal sumptuous and moving photographs of older women from southern and western Sudan. Each woman is carrying her lived life and experience with dignity and grace, the folds and textures of clothing shimmering or falling softly around her strength and enduring determination.

Omer Eltigani, a chef from Khartoum, writes about ‘Aisha the Fadadia’. She is the breadwinner and the caretaker. Aisha makes merissa, one of the oldest beers in the world. She fights against government clampdowns on alcohol and the snubs of other women looking down on her. He brings to life the smell of the fermenting dough balls, the food she cooks for her patrons, the buzz and liveliness of her being and her resistance to conservatism.

It has been so hard to only pick a few examples as each chapter is a member of a ‘body’ and there are so many fine and important drawings and works of art here. This book is a tribute to the editors’ efforts to create something beautiful and radical that transcends so-called historical facts and empty representations. It brings into living bodily presence the multiplicity of Sudan, its past, present and future, through the voices, bodies, memories and imagination of the contributors. I will be revisiting these pages long into the future.

The Contributing Artists

‘Sudan Retold: An Art Book About the History and Future of Sudan’ is published by Hirnkost Verlag, and sponsored-coordinated by the Goethe-Institut Sudan (ISBN: 978-3-945398-90-6).

Salma Ahmad Caller is a British-Egyptian artist whose practice involves creating an imagery of the narratives of body that have shaped her own body and identity across profound cultural divides. It is an investigation of the painful and contradictory mythologies surrounding the female body, processes of exoticisation, and the legacy of colonialism as a cross-generational transmission of ideas, traumas, bodies and misconceptions. Her work is informed by a Masters in Art History and Theory, having studied medicine, and teaching cross-cultural perspectives at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

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