Dynamics of flight across the border

In Summary Legendary Sudanese painter Rashid Diab creates a strong sense of place in a beguiling and sun-struck exhibition that shows people fleeing their country because of what he says are restrictions on their freedom of expression.

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First Morning of Creation III, and right, Tomorrow’s Tangle of the Wind, by Rashid Diab. PHOTO CREDIT | FRANK WHALLEY | NMG

An important but sometimes overlooked aspect of art is a sense of place.

Yet examples abound where the artist and his surroundings are inextricably linked.

Think of Cezanne and Mont Sainte Victoire, a mountain he painted more than 60 times, or Constable and the Stour Valley and Van Gogh and Provence.

Nearer home we have Timothy Brooke with Mt Kenya and the dry country north of Nanyuki, and then there’s Patrick Kinuthia and Lake Naivasha and the winding green lanes around Wangige to the west of Nairobi.

It’s not all the great outdoors either.

Thom Ogonga and Michael Soi give us sharp insights into the pubs and clubs of the Kenyan capital, while in their unique styles Kivutha Mbuno and Ancent Soi create fantasy worlds from the landscapes of Ukambani.

Then in the distant north, in Sudan, we have the remorseless sun hammering the desert sand. And with his dishdashahand loosely wound white turban, we have Rashid Diab.

Diab, who has almost rock star status in his native Khartoum, is currently showing some 40 paintings at the One-Off gallery in Rosslyn, to the west of Nairobi.

The show is called One Moment in the Well of Life, a tribute to Diab’s love of the musicality of language, with titles including A Noose of Light, First Summer Month that Brings the Rose, and Phantom of a False Morning.

This exhibition is a coup for curator Carol Lees, long an admirer of this highly professional and courageous artist.

Diab’s professionalism stares back at us from every work; there is an inevitability about his paintings that roots them in timeless certainty while they exemplify excellence in colour, composition and form.

His courage can be understood both by picking out the trend in this recent work — that of migration and escape — and overtly from the catalogue in which he states, “When you have no freedom of expression, you can’t say anything: You have to speak through painting.”

It says a great deal both for Diab’s determination and for the respect in which he is held that he can write so openly. For with a doctorate from Madrid, where he taught fine art for eight years, and showered with international honours, it would not be hard for him to become an angry exile railing against the regime from outside.

Instead he has stayed put for the love of his country and set out his stall in the heart of the Sudanese capital. He opened the Dara art Gallery in 2000, and nearby is his Rashid Diab Arts Centre where there are weekly fora considering social and political issues, workshops and residencies, plus art lessons for eager children.

Renowned for his large expressionist watercolours often featuring storms on the Nile (a message hidden not so well) and for densely worked etchings that glow richly as they bite into the paper, Diab at the One-Off is showing purely figurative paintings, and those all of women.

“Men like looking at women,” he told me with a twinkle. I think he’s right.

Diab’s women huddle in their buibuis, colourful as a flock of parrots, or move with ease across the canvas; some planted in the foreground, others vanishing into the desert haze.

The designs are strong, with background squares as severely delineated as hard-edge abstracts; stage-sets for the figures who ebb and flow.

Detractors argue that these paintings, typical of his recent work, are formulaic and repetitive. And to some extent I agree…. that extent being that, say, Monet’s haystacks and 30-odd views of the façade of Rouen Cathedral are open to similar criticism.

Monet was ringing the changes on the play of light at different times of the day: Diab is offering a variety of takes on his subtle critique of a state in which free speech is at a premium.

For what is remarkable about these paintings — mixed media on paper and acrylic on canvas — in addition to the swagger of their formal qualities, is the way his subjects spill from the paper out onto the cardboard mounts.

In this they echo many of the canvases in which the central square is intensely coloured — mostly saturated blue or a vivid red — surrounded by a broad painted border that acts both as an internal frame and in its colour as a symbol of the desert sands.

When his figures colonise these borders, either painted on canvases or mounts, they occupy areas previously part only of the presentation. Thus they become unifying factors that blur the artifice of a painting by moving into “our” space, creating a new dynamic reality.

But there is another even more important motive underpinning this movement. These refugees from the picture plane are Diab’s symbol of migration or, if you prefer, people escaping the restrictions of freedom of expression of which he complains in the catalogue.

The paintings then are, as Diab states, of life in Sudan — and they include those who are quite literally getting themselves out of the picture.

The exhibition is therefore a subtle yet powerful political statement, presented with intense, sun-stunned colour that also gives Diab’s work that unmistakable sense of place.