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Art in the Form of Resistance in Sudan – Through the Lens of Hussein Shariffe / Text Eiman Hussein

In something we Africans got issue 9

 » The real artist should be the very sensitive receptor who mirrors what goes on around him – with today’s dreadful conditions, an artist’s voice should first articulate the predicaments that disfigure a society. There must be a place where that voice can express itself in order to be heard by society.”

– Hussein Shariffe

Salah Hassan  » Hussein Shariffe « , 1984. Courtesy The Estate of Hussein

I have always been a big fan of my father. So, it is an honour to have this opportunity to introduce the life and works of the late Hussein Shariffe (1934 – 2005). He was a painter, filmmaker and poet, an artist of many talents. To write about him has not been an easy task to do, in fact it has felt quite surreal. More than 14 years have passed since he died in Cairo.  His death had been sudden, unexpected – shocking. He would always say to my mother “that people will only know about my work after I die”.  

About Hussein

Hussein Shariffe has spent the majority of his lifelong years abroad between London and Cairo, with only little time in his country of birth, the Sudan. This has largely been due to the turbulent political situation that had forced him into exile in those cities. 

His love for art and creativity goes back to his childhood, he was born in Omdurman (what is known as the cultural capital of Sudan) on the 7th July 1934. The son of an affluent and influential family in the Sudan, Hussein Shariffe was the great grandchild of the Imam Al Mahdi of the Sudan. His great grandfather fought against the Anglo-Turco-Egyptian colonialism of Sudan during the 1880’s. Sayyid Abdelrahman Al Mahdi, his grandfather, continued this legacy through diplomacy finally resulting in the historical day of independence of Sudan, in 1956. His paternal great grandfather, Hussein Shariffe, was a pioneer in Sudanese journalism, he was the first Sudanese to have founded a newspaper and become its editor (Hadarat Al Sudan). His father Dr Mamoun Hussein Sharife was a chest physician and the first to launch the Tuberculosis domiciliary programme in the Sudan. Being born into this strong and traditional religious and politically charged background has definitely influenced Hussein Shariffe’s thinking and philosophical views.

The studio/s in the three cities he used to live in – Khartoum, London and Cairo were always full of new projects and ideas, either on canvas or on paper for his film projects and personal communications. It was lively and exuberant filled with life and inspiration. 

Hussein Shariffe’s home space was never empty of colour, decorated by antiques, coloured stones, artworks, plants of different shapes and sizes and cushions. The ambience was that of warmth, comfort and elegance. The home that was created was open to everyone, family and friends. He was an exemplary cook whom chose his dishes’ and ingredients with great care.

Throughout his life, Shariffe has mentored and supported young and emerging artists. His generosity was both in material support as well as in teaching of his different techniques and methods. As a painter, he had his own unique style, when asked which school of art he subscribed to his simple response was “I am a contemporary artist, I don’t belong to any school” (Middle East Times, 2002). 

The art of Hussein Shariffe was political in expression. He had great disdain to the poverty, corruption and the lack of freedom in Sudan, he eloquently stated “the real artist should be the very sensitive receptor who mirrors what goes on around himwith today’s dreadful conditions, an artist’s voice should first articulate the predicaments that disfigure a society. There must be a place where that voice can express itself in order to be heard by society.” (Ibid).

Part II: Resistance Through
the Lens of Hussein Shariffe

Throughout his life, resistance has taken different shapes and forms for Hussein Shariffe. There have been three areas of his life and works where this has been of major influence: during his younger years and the challenges of becoming an artist when it was not seen as a socially acceptable profession; as a painter where he used colour and form to express landscape and the external environment; as a filmmaker where he further explored the use of visual and artistic form to communicate to a larger audience. 

Salah Hassan  » Hussein Shariffe « , 1984. Courtesy The Estate of Hussein

Resistance During the Early Years of His Life 

The young Hussein recollects his early years as being creative and playful. He would create clay dolls and write plays that he and his cousins would perform in front of the larger family. The family enjoyed the plays and the performances. The sketch plays were fun for Hussein to develop. But his first formal introduction to art was through the teachings of his art teacher, in Comboni school. Mr Morris was mesmerising for Hussein, “particularly that he had eyes that were coloured green”. 

In his teens, Hussein Shariffe with his close cousins went to study in the elite Victoria College, in Alexandria, Egypt. The College had a curriculum built on British based education. Its main aim was to raise and teach the elite children of the Arab region to become future leaders. It was at Victoria College that Hussein Shariffe was properly introduced to art and painting and to music, acting and the poetry of Shakespeare.  

The resistance began when Hussein Shariffe faced the reality of his desire to pursue his studies of art. This was refused adamantly by his father, Dr Mamoun Hussein Sharif and his uncle Sayyid El Siddig Al Mahdi.
« I was born in a cultural milieu where to devote oneself to art of any form was frowned upon » (Shariffe interview with Gamal Nkrumah, the Ahram Weekly).

As a form of middle ground, it was agreed that Hussein Shariffe study Modern History in Cambridge University. Not convinced after one year of studying, Hussein Shariffe ventured to study Architecture at Sheffield University, at the hope that it might be closer to his desire to learn art. Again, this did not feel right for him and with a close friend, Hussein Shariffe applied to Slade School of Art. Hussein was accepted, yet the difficulty was to convince his father about studying art. One of the lecturers from Slade School even visited Dr Mamoun when he was in London, to try and persuade him to allow his son to join the school. Dr Mamoun agreed but, on the condition, that his son return with him to Sudan. 

On Shariffe’s return to the Sudan, both Dr Mamoun and Sayyid El Siddig insisted that art was not for him. Dr Mamoun wished for his son to study something that would have a career, and not be just a hobby. The young Hussein was adamant to study what he wanted. Not giving up his family suggested that he attend a trial period of a few months in the college of Fine and Applied Art at the University of Khartoum, where Ibrahim El Salahi was teaching. His grandfather Sayyid Abdel Rahman gave him his blessing, telling him that “son, I am certain that art will not earn you a living, but if this is what you want, you have my blessing”. Seeing how determined he was and after having the blessing of Sayyid Abdel Rahman,  both his father and uncle consented and Hussein Shariffe was able to break that initial barrier of his families refusal of him to study what he wanted. 

Hussein Shariffe, « Green » Courtesy The Estate of Hussein Shariffe  & The fondation gallery
Hussein Shariffe, Film still. Courtesy The Estate of Hussein Sariffe

Resistance Through Art

In Slade school of Art, Shariffe majored in painting. One of his tutors during that time, was Lucien Freud. He enjoyed the teaching and learning about Art and its history. It was there that he started to slowly find himself. For him, an artistic piece spoke of itself without needing any sound. It was a form of expression. (…) Find the full version of the text in Something we Africans got Issue 9. Get the 272 pages.

in something we Africans got issue 9
                                                                Dr Eiman Hussein
August 2019