Queens of Africa
By Alexander Sudheim
Paul Bowles, that inimitable poet of the desolate desert realms of North Africa, captured the stark beauty of the landscape most vividly in his great novel, “The Sheltering Sky”.
In this grand, sparse narrative, the vast expanse of the deserts served as a metaphor for the barren stretches of the soul that are nevertheless illuminated with the magic glow of life at the most crucial instances.
In one of the book’s most memorable passages the narrator asks: “How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Sudanese-born artist Hussein Salim similarly captures that elusive juncture between the fleeting and the eternal in the radiant dreamscapes of his paintings. Having grown up under the same sheltering sky of Bowles’ novel, his work resonates with a similar intuitive understanding that, in the coruscating flatlands of the deserts, it is in the rare moments of soft, effulgent light that the most indelible impressions and lasting memories are made.
Although Hussein has lived in many parts of the world and currently resides in Pietermaritzburg with his wife and two children, it is his early years in Karima, Sudan, that forged the experiences enduringly carved into his being. As he revisits these defining moments in his art, Hussein’s paintings become oneiric paeans to the past and mesmerising visual poems about those deeply affecting moments that mould our identities. In a manner that brings to mind a North African incarnation of Chagall, Hussein’s canvases swirl with magic, mystery, melancholy and majesty as he negotiates the fractured beauty of his roots.
One of the most solid of these roots connecting Hussein to his past is that of his mother, a tower of strength who was more than equal to the formidable task of raising 13 children by herself. “That she managed to do this on her own, in a Third World country, under very difficult conditions, is a source of constant inspiration,” says Hussein. “And despite the hardships, she nevertheless gave all her children the love and attention and the education they needed to succeed in the world.”
In his new exhibition, African Queens, through a series of strikingly virtuosic impressionistic paintings, Hussein extends the love and respect he feels for his mother to all African women.
“African Queens,” says Hussein, “is not only a celebration of, but a monument to, the African woman, the African mother, and the strength and power she represents in her home, her domain and her kingdom.”
Art expert Professor Terence King, who calls Salim’s work “at once spare and welcoming”, has observed that “Hussein is an ideal chronicler of the look and feel of the place where he is from, because he is such a dedicated observer”. The artist himself has “used colours that are what I feel to be traditionally African. Although they are different colours – some bright, some dull – they harmoniously blend into one image, and that image is of the indomitableness of African women”.
His exhibition is at the Elizabeth Gordon Gallery in Florida Road, Durban, until November 28
Independent on Saturday