In January 2014, I recommended his retrospective in Bahrain by Albareh Art Gallery as “Top Destination” and honestly felt disappointed that I couldn’t attend it. When I ran into Albareh Art Gallery Director Hayfa Aljishi in Art Dubai last March she told me “CAP Kuwait is bringing Khalil’s retrospective in April, so make sure you are in town!”… What A delight! I thought to myself and included it in April’s Top Destination. Was I or my readers disappointed?! Not at all! Contemporary Art Platform (CAP Kuwait) put together the biggest retrospective for the artist by far, as on the opening night, I was certain of my Top Destination selections are highly worth seeing!
The exhibition, curated by Contemporary Art Platform Director Abed Al Kadiri, was remarkable! Over 100 artworks by pioneer Sudanese artist depicted his journey in a unique form of art that requires consistency, hardworking and endless experimentation… “let yourself fall for it to the extreme, allow it to go beyond boundaries and keep challenging it… It is a magical universe the deeper you go, the more attached and addicted you get.” explained Mohammed Omar Khalil to Al Mahha Art.
Born just a few kilometers from Khartoum, Mohammed Omar Khalil remained in his homeland until 1963 where he studied and later taught at the School of Fine and Applied Arts. He pursued further studies in fresco painting and printmaking at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, before moving to Ravenna to focus on mosaics. By 1967, Khalil had moved to New York City, USA, and after flitting between carpentry and lithography, he joined The Printmaking Workshop producing limited edition sets. He later returned to teaching, albeit part time, at New School University and the Parsons School of Design.
Khalil’s work comprises paintings, prints and artist books. His work has been included in numerous exhibitions worldwide, including ‘Perspective on Contemporary Art – The Kinda Foundation Collective’ at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, France (2002) and Kunsthalle, Darmstadt, Germany (2003). Khalil has received several awards, among them the first prize at the 1993 International Cairo Biennial, and first prize in printmaking at the 2003 National Academy Awards in New York. (Source: Albareh Art Gallery)
The works in (50 Years of Printmaking), many of which had never been exhibited before, present an alternative reading of the artist’s entire career from 1960s – 2000s, not only as a traveller between cultures and epochs, but as re-interpreter of the meaning of visual culture in general: He attempts to re-locate sensorial experience elsewhere than with the pure colors that characterize the postmodern, hereby searching in the black, for a warmer place where his book of art and life meets the viewer. I had the chance for a quick chat with Khalil at the opening in CAP – Kuwait – one of most spontaneous interviews I have ever done! – about his journey, challenges, his take on Printmaking in Middle East and untold stories shared for the first time…
Al Mahha Art (MA): 50 years of printmaking is a long dedicated journey… how will you describe it?
Mohammed Khalil: Its an adventure, you live it to the fullest no beginning, end or limits. a path you walk in that evolves with consistent practice, resulting a continuous change in form of work as you can see the differences between early works in Italy and later on NYC. But it is not only practice, it is influence of the place – or places you live in – and whether you allow yourself to merge within, a process that will definitely leave its marks on your work. For example, when I was in rome, no one was doing similar things to what you see and it was not allowed
MA: Not allowed??
Mohammed Khalil: Well yes! Because instructor in Italy are more conservatives in a way they control their students and traditional in teaching where if you don’t do it Rafaello or Michel Angelo way, you won’t succeed! Plus the technique of etching itself you have to only use equating and etching, and using soft ground was considered cheating! Whereas in NYC, two word: Absolute Freedom! Freedom to express yourself in art, using any medium which were available everywhere you go… As a result, your work change!
MA: Did you choose printmaking or did it choose you? How did it start?
Mohammed Khalil (sighs): I was fascinated by etching because there was no etching in Sudan. Actually, I saw etching for the first time in Italy by my Canadian friend and couldn’t get over them… I asked her “how did you do this?” and she said “come tomorrow with me to the studio and I will show you how”. and my first etching is “ROMA” which you can see how terrified I was! but I love it because of its simplicity and the journey started with experimenting and experimenting more, it didn’t matter if it will work or not… what matters is not to stop and keep trying new techniques and tools. Throwing yourself fully into the experience and enjoy it!
II work on things and ideas that influence me: music, literature, places I went to see, people I met… I Try to capture that priceless emotion of the moment, transfer and transform it into a piece of art.
MA: How do you see printmaking now in Middle East from where you started 50 years ago?
Mohammed Khalil: It is more accepted and valued! Back in the days we used to do etchings and giveaway to our friends and loved ones as gifts on different occasions and in facts all the early etchings I don’t have some of them because I gave them to my friends! And I used to make less editions like 4 or 6 but later on I decided to stop it (laugh) can’t do an artwork and gift it to my friends… That was in Rome, but when I arrived in NYC the same story happened again! So I thought to myself okay I’ll make 12 editions but they all disappeared quickly! Gosh that’s when I finally decided to make 25 edition of each etching. 15 minimum
MA: This may be a weird question but I can’t stop wondering, with every edition of a particular artwork does it carry along different feelings? I mean sentimentally…
Mohammed Khalil: First of all, it is not a weird question… Secondly, every plate is different than the other as I work on things and ideas that influence me: music, literature, places I went to see, people I met… I try to capture that priceless emotion of the moment, transfer and transform it into a piece of art. Once it is executed and I want to make editions of it, I can’t change the feeling… What I am trying to say is, you can’t change the details but each edition has a deeper emotions.
MA: There is a particular artwork I want to ask about “Trail Proof” I have a feeling there is a story behind it…
Mohammed Khalil: It is one of the closest to my heart! It is an american poet Joanna Feather Stone, she was reading a poetry in California which I was fascinated by it and I didn’t know who she was before then! Later on, a friend wanted to do a portfolio of printmaking artist, each selects a character to depict in his / her work, and I chose to do Joanna after reading her poetries and falling in love with it. The one you see is the first edition which I didn’t give to my friend, it was intimate and I wanted to keep to myself! He never saw this edition because I gave him a larger one, I couldn’t give it away…
MA: Do you miss New York whenever you travel for exhibitions and shows far away?
Mohammed Khalil: New York is a magical addictive place that’s why I am based there. Although I travel a lot and yes I enjoy and don’t mind it because I know I will come back to New York City.
MA: That Big Apple… What about the Middle East?
Mohammed Khalil: I love coming to this region and visiting I travel to Sudan a lot, my hometown, Nostalgia! (takes a deep breath) You know… I wish there are more places for Arabs to do etching because it is kind of neglected medium, i am trying to do workshops in Khartoum as many as I can because I want them to learn and I am determined to establish a learning center of etching there.
One of the most important things I learnt during this short chat is what makes an artist a pioneer is not only his talent and art but also the will to unconditionally & openly share his experience with others… Fascinating. To see opening photos at Contemporary Art Platform click here. The exhibition is running until June 15, 2014.