BEIRUT: A naked woman tucks herself into the Arabic letter seen. Two angels frame a likeness of Titian's portrayal of St. Sebastian. A rendering of St. George appears as a stand-in for the US heading off to slay a dragon that is a stand-in for Saddam Hussein in Iraq, trampling a country and a people along the way. The latest exhibition at the Agial Art Galley in Hamra provides an excellent primer on the work of Sudanese artist Hassan Musa, touching on three major, ongoing series that have occupied the painter's time and energy for a decade or more.
Musa was born in 1951 in Sudan and began painting as a child, for no other memorable reason than to ape what his elder brothers were doing at the time. But when they stopped painting a few years later, Musa continued and eventually enrolled at an art school in Khartoum.
By the time he graduated, the political situation in Sudan was becoming unbearably chaotic. As his friends were being thrown in jail or worse, Musa was desperately trying to secure a scholarship to continue his studies abroad.
"I had the intention to go to the US or Europe," he recalls, "but it was really complicated. If you don't have a scholarship you just can't go. I tried the States, I tried Germany, I tried England and all that and it was just impossible. It just so happened that I had a friend who was living in France at that time and he said to me: 'Well, it might just be possible that you could come and stay in France for a little while.' So that was it, I went to France.
"It could have been anywhere. I just wanted to get out of Sudan," he says. "And at first I just wanted to do a diploma and go back to teach in Sudan. But each year I found that the situation was becoming more and more disastrous. There was a time when I decided, well, I think it's better to organize myself in France, and with Sudan, we'll see."
Some 25 years later, Musa continues to organize himself in France, where he lives and works outside Montpellier. From there, he has slowly and patiently risen to international acclaim. His work is currently touring as part of two high-profile exhibitions.
The first is the blockbuster "Africa Remix" show, curated by Simon Njami, which opened in Dusseldorf in 2004 and, after stops at London's Hayward Gallery and Paris's Pompidou Center, is now on view at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo through August 31. "Africa Remix" includes some 75 artists from 23 countries, including Cameroon-born photographer Samual Fosso, Kenyan collage master Wangechi Mutu and British-Nigerian multimedia art star Yinka Shoninare.
The second is "Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora," a far more intimate (though no less noteworthy) exhibition featuring just 12 artists, including Ghada Amer, Zibeb Sedira and Kendell Greers.
Musa's Agial outing, then, is something a fortuitous local catch. There are nine works on view (the 10th - a canvas deemed too sexy for overt public viewing - has been ferreted away to Agial's lower floor). They suffer a touch from the conditions of their installation. Musa works on large swatches of printed fabrics that he nails directly to the wall to paint on. His pieces might have worked better here had they had been hung in the same way, rather than being stretched roughly onto minimal wood supports at the top and, in some cases, the bottom. But these are logistical details.
Against one wall is Musa's "Seen for Shahrazade," one in a series of paintings based on the Arabic alphabet. Into each letter the artist has worked out a way to seat a female nude. He has presented the full spread as ink drawings in a published monograph, but he hasn't yet finished the series as paintings (in addition to the seen on view, the racy work in Agial's basement is the waw).
"The idea was to tell the story of Shahrazade and the Arabian Nights," explains Musa. "Everybody knows the story of the Arabian Nights because Shahrazade told all these tales in a very fantastic way. But everybody seems to ignore the beginning of the story. I mean, once the prince discovers that his wife is in love with another man, he just goes crazy and decides to kill all the women because he can't trust them. So he takes a woman, marries her and kills her the next day. This part of the story nobody likes to tell. I mean, it's the story of a crime. The Arabian Nights is based on a crime. You just can't ignore the fact that the prince killed almost all the women in the kingdom before Shahrazade came along."
Musa's series endeavors to imagine who all those women were, and by working them into the very letters of the alphabet, suggests that their ghosts haunt the Arabic language itself.
Elsewhere in Musa's work one detects clear references to Titian, the Italian mannerist painter Parmigianino, Paul Gauguin's Tahitian odalisques and Andrea Mantegna's "The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ." What, one is tempted to ask, is up with the biblical subjects and the notably Western art historical references?
"It's all part of a project I've been working on for the last 10 years," Musa says. "I've been working on the Bible - in the artistic sense. If you are to understand the European tradition of painting you have to read the Bible, otherwise it's impossible to understand what's going on. But when I read the Bible, I mean I come from a Muslim family, I am Muslim, and I when I read I do so after having read the Koran and Karl Marx. I read with all my memory and all my intellectual tools." He pauses, then smiles slowly. "With my political tools, too."
Succinctly trouncing the idea that globalization is new, the anxiety of influence and the notion of resistance to the West at once, he adds: "We are a part of the European tradition of painting. We have been studying the European version of the history of art. We have been trained to paint in the European way. So once you know that you are a part of it, I think that it is better to dig inside and understand things as they are. You just can't keep saying, 'We'll stay here for a while and then we'll return to our thing.' We never had our own thing."
This brings Musa's show to its third and arguably most powerful component -what he himself describes as his propaganda pieces.
"St. Georges Terrassant le Dragon et le Musee de Baghdad" is unquestionably an anti-war painting. Many people have suggested to Musa that it's also a bit anti-American, a label he doesn't especially mind being tagged with (his contribution to "Africa Remix" includes a version of 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher's once-scandalous portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy as a buxom, leg-splayed nude, only in Musa's painting she has the head of Osama bin Laden).
"There is a tradition of being anti-American in the Arab world and in the Third world," he says. "But I think somehow it's actually part of the American tradition. Anti-Americanism is just another part of it because you are inside the American way of thinking. You construct your discourse, your argument, within the frame of Americanism."
And Musa's first memorable encounters with American culture were the following - one, sneaking into a cinema to watch Elvis movies; two, going to his first political demonstration staged for the purposes of protesting a visit to Sudan by then-president Richard Nixon around the time of the Vietnam War; and three, seeing Stokely Carmichael and other leading figures with the Black Panthers in Khartoum in the late 1960s. To Musa, Elvis, the Black Panthers, they all are American heroes who could be deemed anti-American but only in a distinctly American vein. He extends the logic to Che Guevara and even to bin Laden.
"We live under propaganda every day. There is commercial, political, religious propaganda. So why not me?" Musa breaks into an easy laugh. "For me, this is my personal propaganda. But it's also out of fun. I know I will never change the world. I know I can't change the world, and I don't want to world to change me. So I will just make fun of it and whenever people stand in front of my work, I am really satisfied when they laugh."
Hassan Musa's paintings are on view at the Agial Art Gallery in Hamra through July 22. For more information, please call +961 1 345 213