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Michelle Mlati: 2023 Curatorial Research Fellow

Mar 21, 2023

During her Curatorial Research Fellowship under the Marian Goodman Gallery Initiative in honor of the late Okwui Enwezor, Michelle Mlati furthered her ongoing research into Sudanese and East African artists associated with The Forest and Desert School. This movement of literature, poetry, and visual art emerged from Sudan in the 1960s and influenced artistic practices of multiple generations in East Africa and in the Diaspora, with independent practices and experiments that continue today. In 2022-23, Mlati curated The Forest and Desert School Revisited, a group exhibition of 13 artists exhibited at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi and presented in collaboration with Borderlands Art based in Uganda and Galerie Polaris in Paris.

During the Fellowship, Mlati advanced her work documenting, translating, and archiving works produced by affiliated artists in the complex network of artists, poets, writers, and creatives who shaped and have been shaped by the School, many of whose works remain untranslated and under-studied. In December 2023, she traveled to Sharjah, UAE to conduct a studio visit with artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

The following interview originally appeared in GLEAN magazine in March 2024.

Planting the Studio from Sudan to Sharjah

A cradle of bougainvillea amongst a variety of potted understory plants greets you as you enter modernist and contemporary artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag’s high-rise apartment in Sharjah, where she has set up her new studio. In December 2023, I caught up with the artist and her plants while Ishag transitions from her beloved home country of Sudan to the UAE following the war that broke out in Khartoum in April 2023. Ishag has been based in Sharjah since May 2023. It’s a place she has maintained a working relationship to throughout her six-decade career.

Like many other artists who fled the war, she was only able to take with her the bare minimum of work that was dear to her when she left Sudan. When recalling her brief time in Egypt, where she stayed before coming to Sharjah, we reminisce about the likes of Reem Aljeally and Salah Elmur, a younger generation of Sudanese artists she has mentored, and the Egyptian artist Souad Abdelrassoul, all currently based in Cairo. She humorously notes how some people liken Abdelrassoul’s work to her own, and quickly adds that it’s not true; Abdelrassoul "has different work and beautiful." In fact, it is both artists’ deep relationship to plants and humans that is the source of my affinity with their separate practices, each unique in its own way. The reference to plants in Kamala’s own work makes her remember the beautiful garden that she left behind in Sudan. She expresses: 

"It’s not a very large garden, just plants, like flowers. I have so many colors of flowers. Sometimes when I look at them, I almost cry because I miss them. I say, 'are you still alive?’ I know they are not because there is no watering… One of my assistants said, no, this is winter and when the rainy season comes they’ll be alive. I said no, that will harm them because it’s very hard rain. The flowers, they won’t be alive."

Although it is currently winter in Sudan, she notes that the winters there are the same as in Emirates, a gentler warmth of 20°C in comparison to the extreme summers.

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag with pink bougainvillea, Sharjah, 2023. (Photo: Michelle Mlati)

Kamala's Garden, Sharjah, 2023. (Photo: Michelle Mlati)

Michelle Mlati: It was heartbreaking to learn that you had to abandon your studio in Sudan. I wanted to understand more about the Forest and Desert School, the literary school. But I also wanted to understand its connection to art. That’s the reason I wanted to come and learn from you and about how you have been working with it in your art. Was your connection to the school direct or indirect?

Kamala Ishag: It’s more indirect because when I worked in my practice, I wasn’t always in Sudan. The work got classified as if it were part of this group…It’s not that we would always gather and start working together even when I was there.

MM: I understand that, because this whole exhibition [The Forest and Desert School Revisited] was a way for me to revisit the school and understand its conceptual elements, but also to elaborate and add more to it through experimentation. So, you had your own ideas?

KI: Yes, everyone had their own ideas that he or she liked…but people classified them all into one group.

MM: But how come, then, that the group associated with the visual arts was called the Khartoum School and the group associated with literature the Forest and Desert School?

KI: This is different. Khartoum School was the name when I was a student, that was in the late 60s. We had a teacher for history, he was British or British American or something like that, he used to come to the school and he worked in Sudan for some time in the history department. When he was leaving, he called it the Khartoum School. This is how it got the name. And he said that this was for our teachers, the older generation, I mean older than me.

MM: This was Ahmed Shibrain, among others?

KI: Yes, Shibrain, El Salahi, Rabbah—this group—he said that this was the Khartoum School. Because I was almost the first. There were some teachers from the Ministry of Education who came to the college just for training. They did art for the secondary school and taught. But as a student, I was one of the first to go to the art school in Khartoum. He called me along with the group of El Salahi, Shibrain, and Rabbah, the old generation, he called us the Khartoum School. Not because they all worked the same, although most of them did, like the old Arabic calligraphy—have you seen some of the work? Except me.

MM: Yes, like the work of Mohamed Otaybi?

KI: Yes, but I was the first to just do relatively modernist painting, if you can call it that. I didn’t use the Arabic calligraphy in the way they used to, most of the older generation. But because I was one of the first painters in the school, they needed to find someone among them. That is how they just put me in the Khartoum School. I wasn’t in the Khartoum School because they have another stream of painting. I just didn’t use the Arabic calligraphy in my paintings, which they did. I just painted modernist-like paintings. Like when I came to England, I got so possessed by William Blake in the Tate gallery while studying at the Royal Academy of Art in the 60s. I used to go every weekend and spend the day there.

MM: And from that collection, was there something that inspired you in your work?

KI: Everything inspired me in England...I really loved England very much.

MM: Would you want to go back and live there?

KI: Live? No. I already live in Sudan. Now, I’m staying here in the United Arab Emirates, but I won’t live here forever. I hope not.

MM: Sudan is your home?

KI: Sudan is my country. It isn’t only my country, and my area, and my house, it is where I would like to be living when I go. Inshallah.

MM: I hope that you will go back.

KI: Sometimes I remember the house.

MM: Can you describe some of the works that you left behind?

KI: I left them in the studio, I think about them every minute of the day.

MM: And do you remember the last thing you painted before you left?

KI: I had like six or seven works, murals if I remember, different sizes. They start from 2.5 meters by 2 meters, as the canvas I cut is 2 meters wide, and then I painted on it and then stretched it. I had six or seven; I had to put them all around the studio. The largest painting was 4.5 meters by 2 meters. I vaguely remember it when I was there because I wanted to do some touches, every time I remember what I had to do.

MM: What was the subject matter of these works?

KI: It’s always abstract. Figurative abstraction, that’s what I do. It’s very sad. I can lose everything you know, but not my work.

Michelle Mlati, Kamala's Garden (Sharjah, 2023), 2023.

MM: The whole exhibition that I curated at Circle Art Gallery in Nairobi in 2022 was a way for me to deepen my understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of the Forest and Desert School, while expanding the idea of what the School was and could be. I wanted to resist the conventional associations of the forest with African identity and the desert with Arab identity that the first poets had established...Like others, I thought, 'No, it can be both,' but it can also be that the African component is the desert and the Arab component is the forest, and that these associations could be mixed in the poetry of the School.

KI: Yes, it was associated more with poetry in literature than with art. But nowadays, most of the poets are associating it with art. Actually, before, there was one group of artists and literary people, as one union. Then, for some time I went to England and when I came back, I found that the artists and the writers had separated into their own groups, into a union of artists and a union of writers. So, in response I asked why they had separated, what happened?

I understood that those who were part of the literary union used different ways of expressing themselves, and I mean different from the artists. This is because artists don’t necessarily use written language, they make actual work in different mediums beyond the written form. That’s why I think they each had their own union. But the relation between the artists and the writers continued to exist because all the very famous poets were friends of ours, and I remember they used to come to the college when I was teaching there, in my studio or in my office. It was a large office, but they all gathered in there, and they would start talking and arguing...We discussed art and literature, what brings them together, discussions about all our work and everything.

MM: Were there ever any discussions about color with the poets?

KI: They spoke about literature, and we spoke about color and composition and things like that. But they offered their own ideas about our work, and we gave our ideas about their work. It was always a good friendship between the union of artists and writers when it was one union, as it was for some time. I said that it is very strange that the unions separated. I had a friend in Sudan and I asked, Why are you separating your living—

MM: Yes, like separating the functions or making departments, compartmentalizing everything into different fields...But I think what you are saying, perhaps, also goes back to how they started to define the Forest and Desert School as a school of literature and the Khartoum School as an art school.

KI: Yes.

MM: But then, it was actually difficult to know which ideas in literature influenced the painting, and in which way, and how ideas in painting maybe even influenced the poets.

KI: Like who affected whom …

MM: Yes, exactly, it’s not clear in both Schools’ evolutions...and perhaps it goes back to what you said about the artists and the literature union as a single entity. I was also trying to analyse this in relation to the different concepts that exist in your own practice as it is articulated through Crystalism, the postmodern style that you developed with the Crystalist group, which included some of your students. The group also included the students who signed the 1976 Crystalist Manifesto, which advocated an aesthetic of transparency amongst other elements of it discussing poetry. 

KI: You won’t find a clear answer because we think we affected them. Because for us, you can see and not only read because we paint the words of art. You can see it if you put it on the wall or in an exhibition. But with writing, you have to go and find a book and you have to read it. But seeing is more effective, sight is more effective. You don’t forget somebody you saw.

MM: And it’s also more accessible to different people in terms of understanding—

KI: Yes, and the beauty with artwork is that it’s a lot more direct than reading poetry. You can read poetry and not necessarily forget it, but it won’t be in your eyes always.

MM: True, it won’t be in your eyes, but sometimes, while reading some Sudanese poetry, I have a comparable experience. There were only two women writers included in the book Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology (2019); one of them, the poet Rugaia Warrag, once described a teardrop on the verge of freezing in a poem called A Frosted Cry. I find that the way she uses words to make us see the picture of the ice crystal through the snow in our minds, evoking the image of ice freezing through her diction, could be considered a form of "literary painting," in which she draws on her experience in the diaspora and of being in a kind of exile.

KI: Yes, I see.

MM: Right now, how would you describe your way of working here in Sharjah?

KI: It’s only acrylic and watercolors, but that’s not always my way of working. I work on big canvases; I work in oil and in acrylic sometimes, whereas usually I always work in oil. Except here I cannot work in oil because I don’t have the patience like in Sudan to wait until it is dry and to add another layer. Here, I just do everything quickly, it will dry after a few minutes, the very small ones quicker than the bigger.

MM: The pieces of yours I included in the exhibition The Forest and Desert School Revisited in Nairobi were small. Works from the 70s onwards. So I think scale and size also play an important role in your practice. 

KI: Yes, I work on all sizes, but I prefer the large ones.

MM: In some of your works on paper, the paper seems almost transparent. Is this the paper or do you paint those layers of opacity?

KI: It is paint, sometimes I make a painting this way to make it seem as if it is transparent. It is on the paper, not the paper.

MM: Do you use acrylic, watercolors or ink?

KI: Sometimes I use acrylic and ink together. I don’t remember which one I usually apply first. I still paint, but always trees. I always say I’m like a tree.

MM: You always say you’re like a tree?

KI: Yes, like a tree from its roots...

MM: I see you have some plants here on your balcony.

KI: Yes, I have to, if I didn’t have plants I wouldn’t live here.

MM: I was about to say, because the landscape here is more like desert, so there aren’t many trees.

KI: One day, as I told my grandchild, one day we drove two get these plants.

MM: That’s quite far out. Who planted this?

KI: My granddaughter. When I was in Sudan, I had seven colours of this in my garden (referring to the bougainvillea). Different colours, white, yellow, beige, pink, coral...

MM: And this round one, like the others—why do you have an affinity to paint round figures or on round surfaces

KI: Recently I started painting in that shape, I think when it was my London exhibition at Serpentine. There was a round painting.

MM: And when you use the calabash as a painting surface, like these four on the table, what kind of paint do you use?

KI: The acrylic sometimes...

MM: And you’re also working with the charcoal here?

KI: This is one drawing I started...I think it was my state of mind.

MM: There is this sort of sense of displacement in the drawing, which is a self-portrait in progress...and also a sense of loss.

KI: Yes... (somber tone)

Kamala's calabash, 2023. (Photo: Michelle Mlati)

MM: And do you see this as a kind of reflection on yourself? Do you see yourself as a subject?

KI: Yes… (again, in a somber tone) It’s like a cutting off of roots. It feels like I have been cut to pieces now.

MM: Of course, it’s your whole life. This is evident in the way that the hair waves in the picture appear as roots that have been uprooted.

KI: But now, all my paintings are with the Sharjah Foundation after the London exhibition. Then they asked me, 'Do you want us to send you all your work to Sudan?' before the war happened. I said no because, as I said already, I am still coming back to Sharjah, and then we can decide together. Thank goodness I didn’t agree to them sending the work to me because if they did, it might never have arrived.

MM: A part of your work you have been able to save, at least. And how many years has it been since you had the 100-square-meter studio in Sudan?

KI: Maybe like seven years ago—there are two neem trees (Azadirachta indica). One was in front and the other at the back of the house, so I would always say the trees are guarding us.

MM: That’s beautiful. Since you work in figurative abstraction, did your creative inspiration come from being in Sudan, or being in London, or being here in the UAE? Have these three places always influenced your work?

KI: Yes, yes, I just miss my studio. But I always say this, plants and people, they came from one source. The two things are together always. We eat plants and die and then the plants live on our remains. I mean it is a circle between plants and humans forever, because they cannot live without a source of nourishing from the ground. We’re fertilizer, and that is why I like plants and people in my paintings.

Michelle Mlati

Michelle N. Mlati is a curator, urbanist, and writer whose practice has been embedded between Brussels, Johannesburg, Madrid, and Nairobi.