By | Jessica Tana
The dappled light catches in the dark crevices zigzagging across the old man’s face. He looks out with a curious gaze neither malicious nor inviting. A play of blues, yellows and browns have been used to capture his skin tone, the pattern on his shirt falling away drawing the eye to the painted shadow behind him. He is just one of the many faces of Sudan captured in Hussein Merghani’s watercolour paintings. “I love Sudani life,” Merghani says, his face framed by a large cheerful smile and thoughtful eyes often wandering off to study the changing light amongst the trees.
“I paint because I enjoy it, to express what is inside, but people often tell me I paint the ‘real’ Sudan.” From tea ladies, fruit sellers and street scenes of Khartoum to carts carrying water on sandy tracks of land, Merghani’s work undoubtedly captures a part of Sudan. Unsurprisingly what drew me to his fluid and colourful works was this idea of the ‘real’ Sudan as well.
Perhaps it is because he tries to find an undercurrent in the lives of the people he paints. A painting of a young woman in a shiny yellow tobe shows more than her age and dress; she wears her life on her face. Her expression is weary, her stance calm and confident. She is beautiful without meaning to be. “I love to sit and watch people’s faces,” Merghani elaborated. “I like to think what they are thinking about. Sometimes I imagine a whole story there; a sad story perhaps. Then I see them staring at me and getting angry ‘Why are you staring at me!’ they say and I have to turn the page and apologise!”
Merghani, 48, graduated from Khartoum College of Fine and Applied Art in 1998, back when it was a polytechnic school. He did not, however, study Fine Art. “My uncles told me I would not survive as an artist,” he said. Merghani was pressured to study Graphic Design, but his mother always supported her son’s ambitions to become an artist. As a child she bought him crayons, paints and different types of paper to experiment on. “She definitely inspired me,” he said. Now a resident artist at Khartoum International Community School, Merghani sells his work at Shams gallery in Khartoum 2, although his prints and paintings are available at Mojo and Dabonga galleries too.
This is not to say that life as an artist in Sudan is easy though. “You can hardly live off it,” Merghani said. “Still artists are struggling.”Most graduates, he explained, leave Khartoum when they discover they cannot make enough money to survive. There are some, however, who will never give up.
Shams is a small art and framing store in Khartoum 2 owned and run by Misbah, and shared with his brother Mutaz, Afifi and Hussein. Although the gallery struggles the group of friends meet every day to show new work, discuss ideas and give each support. All four paint and show their different styles of work there. From Afifi’s loud and imposing abstract paintings to Mutaz’s delicate pastels Merghani, however, sticks solidly to watercolours.
“Watercolour is the perfect medium to capture Sudan. Watercolour captures light and there is enough light all year round in Sudan,” he said with a laugh. “I love the medium. I can bring my whole studio with me. All I need is a place to put [the paints and paper] out in front of me.”