Photo Source: hassanmusa.com
[A]n image, deep down, is like a bottle thrown into the sea. I write a message that I put into a bottle, that I throw to the sea. It may reach someone who cannot read my writing or someone who reads me but cannot understand a thing that I’m saying to people.
- Hassan Musa
World-renowned thanks to his participation in prestigious international exhibits, such as Africa Remix or the Venice Bienniale, Hassan Musa practices numerous art forms, from performance, calligraphy, painting and tapestry, to illustration and watercolors, while always remaining true to his style and principles. Born in El Nuhud (Sudan) in 1951, this transnational artist reworks the great “classics” of Western art history by layering them with the contemporary vision that they may inspire in those from postcolonial countries. The figures in these images adopt essentially two postures: some struggle, standing, against invisible forces—namely, the imposition of monolithic ideologies from the West and the objectification of marketing—while others lie beneath words that transform stereotypes and conventional beliefs about those forces into mirrors reflecting an incisive critique.
Never does Musa lose sight of the necessity of artistic engagement in a world undermined by the greed of unbridled international capitalism, as well as the violence that it prompts through multi-faceted manifestations of faith—not only religious faith, but also the naiveté of certain political convictions, the cult of the art market, and the rule of conformism. Indeed, he often borrows in quotation the famous sentence from Kateb Yacine, “the French language is war bounty,” yet he adds that the wealth gleaned from cultural domination also encompasses, for him, the entirety of the Western tradition, including symbolic markers and historical references in the visual arts. Art is therefore violent for Musa because it inevitably inherits a violent past.
This keen practitioner of objets détournés first studied at the Khartoum School of Fine Arts from 1970 to 1974 before obtaining his doctorate in 1989 from the University of Montpellier. After having worked for a Sudanese television station and the Khartoum University Presses, he taught Arabic and the visual arts in France. Up to the present day, he continues occasionally to offer calligraphy workshops for youth and adults.
Alongside Chéri Samba, Rachid Koraïchi and Ousmane Sow, Hassan Musa is today among the most well-known contemporary artists in the Francophone world. If art is first and foremost a form of action for him, it never stops him from wielding words with rare literary and philosophical finesse. In his extended metaphor cited in the epigraph above, the image, like a bottle at sea, progressively becomes a text, a message, and speech. The questions that follow therefore take Musa’s penchant for visual texts as an inroad to understanding his artistic practices.
Alisa Belanger: You describe yourself as an ‘image creator’ or, sometimes, an ‘image maker.’ Obviously these two descriptors are better able to convey the range of your many artistic practices than more specific terms, such as ‘painter’ or ‘calligrapher,’ but why not simply call yourself an ‘artist,’ and leave it at that?
Hassan Musa: In the expression ‘image maker,’ there is the principle of making which anchors artistic (read: spiritual) reflection in the dimensions of reality. When I designate myself as an image maker, I place myself in a long line of ‘makers’ who manage relationships with concrete space (volume, emptiness, color, textures…). They are the ones who reflect on matter in order to see the invisible.
I find that ‘image maker’ has a more precise quality than ‘Artist.’ To my mind, artists are novelistic characters. They are those extraordinary beings (read: prophets or shamans!) who populate European Literature. Joseph Beuys, Che Guevara, Antonin Artaud, Vincent Van Gogh, are prophets. Me, I see myself alongside Antonio Tapies, Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Edward Manet, C. Monet, Rembrandt, Vermeer up through Hokusai, but also John Ford, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, or, yet again, Tex Avery and Walt Disney.
AB: You have always favored the tactile knowledge of the artist, meaning hands-on work with materials. Would you one day be likely to try out digital arts, as well? For you, are they more closely related to ‘materialist’ or ‘conceptual’ art trends?
HM: I have always had a hard time accepting the opposition between ‘conceptual art’ and other art that is ‘hand-made,’ because, on the one hand, I believe that the category of ‘conceptual art’ (“Art as idea as idea”) is only possible in opposition/comparison with ‘hand-made,’ ‘materialist,’ ‘concrete’ or ‘tactile’ art; and because, on the other hand, art is by definition only possible as a conceptual practice.
However, I see your question as a thought about the notion of the medium. The presence of the medium belongs to the domain of the ‘non-verbal’ and what escapes the grasp of words, without being itself limited to concrete objects. I think that what is non-verbal constitutes the profound meaning of my artwork. What I mean by ‘non-verbal’ comes from the visual dimension that the concrete, visible matter and the imaginable matter (the hors-champ) impose upon observation.
The physical work of art is an object offered for observation. The presence of sound objects in certain contemporary creative works bothers me because I see a methodological peculiarity in it, a needless supplement. It comes perhaps from my so-called ‘modernist’ experience with painting. In my studies of painting, I appreciated the methodological rigor of ‘pure (?)’ painting according to Clement Greenberg’s principles. But this ‘pure’ painting that assures the flawless continuity in the history of European painting (from Monet to Pollock) is just a utopia of ‘aesthetic purification’ (if you will pardon me the expression). A utopia distorted by the gaze that, depending on the quality of the ‘onlooker,’ leads to doubt and suspicion, perhaps even the rejection of the initial idea.
Of course, I could make these images another way than by painting (photo-montage, computer…), but, if I prefer to employ painting, it’s perhaps because painting, for me, is not limited, as one medium among others; rather, it’s The Medium that I know better than the others. It’s also the medium that allows me this specific ‘pleasure’ that consists of exercising control over the entirety of the process that leads to the work. I hold a great admiration towards those artists from the 16th and 17th centuries who, in their workshops, prepared their pigments, their canvases, and produced their images like a chefs who grow their vegetables in their garden before cooking them. The ‘hand’ of the painter is not just a tool that makes brushstrokes, but also ‘the manner’ that guarantees the uniqueness of the creative work. It’s an identity.
Painting fascinates me by its apparent simplicity and hidden complexity. The fact of thinking that, in the field of painting, combed through a thousand times over, everything has been done and that there is nothing more to glean, represents a stimulating challenge. A painter today is, by definition, a stubborn gleaner who asserts that, no, there are maybe still some hidden treasures that the others have not discovered. This figure of the gleaner rummaging through the dust makes me follow the most various paths and makes for the most surprising finds.
I think that my current work with assembled and machine-sewn fabric is a natural evolution of my research in painting. The colors and textures of the fabrics (prints, solids, transparent, opaque, or shiny fabrics…) open unexpected avenues to me in the field of material thought and allow me to create new images. Thus, I see my images composed of assembled fabrics more like variations on my paintings than as the exploration of a new medium.
AB: How do you envision the future of calligraphy and the book arts in light of cyber-texts?
HM: I hope that technology will help people to liberate themselves from the weight of the model of the exquisite writing that officially considers itself ‘calligraphy’ and that is monopolized by a group of elite artisans who identify themselves as ‘calligraphers,’ so that each person may return to writing as a free form of graphic creativity
AB: In an August 2005 interview, you said: “I always mark the title in big letters so that there is no mistake [...] In some way, putting the text is a completely desperate gesture in relationship to the images!” That said, your titles, which combine commercial or political slogans, ironic citations and lyric verses, often carry a poetic value that exceeds the simple transmission of a message. For example: L’origine du Tiers-Monde (1997), Confusion de part (2003), or I laugh you with my Ford… (2011). How do you broadly conceive of the text-image relationship, including additional words inscribed on the canvas?
HM: I think that the titles of my images seek efficiency, because the images are naturally ambivalent. The nature of the observing gaze that falls on an image could alter its moral meaning, since the gaze is not neutral. It is infiltrated by diverse ideological interests. When we look at the world that surrounds us, we are conditioned to see only the part of the world that interests us. That’s why orienting the gaze becomes an issue of power. If I manage to make you see what I see, I organize the priorities of your gaze and I prevent you, perhaps, from going to see things elsewhere that I prefer you not to see.
I’ve always been suspicious of the Chinese proverb that says: “When a wise man points to the moon, an idiot looks at his finger.” I think that, in a world where interaction is constant, it is more than necessary to look at both the moon, the finger, and the wise man himself. To respond to your question concerning the presence of words in my image, I think that, originally, I added them as a literary element intended to frame the gaze of the viewer. If the title of artworks is a literary genre in its own right, this distinctive literature allows me to create aesthetic ties and political winks that give my images a certain sense of humor. Then, I understood that words on my images cannot escape the law of images. These words are also images, and I therefore compose them in relationship to other images. Chinese painters cross the threshold between the text and image with more spontaneity than European painters. Perhaps, in the spirit of Chinese tradition, everything is text.
When I say that the title of a work represents a little known literary genre, I am thinking of the poetry that we come across in the names of people and places. In my images entitled L’origine du Tiers-Monde (1997) et Confusion de part (2003), I was seeking to present for viewing the contemporary political dimension of important images in European iconography. The misery of the Third World is the dark zone of the prosperity in the industrial world, just as the boats of shipwrecked Africans in Lampedusa are the contemporary version of the glorious shipwreck of “The Medusa.” We all belong to the same world, we all have the same origin, and we all have the same desires!
AB: Returning to artistic traditions in China, how did you come to take interest in Chinese watercolor? How did your travels to ‘the Middle Country’ enrich your artistic thought-process and practices?
HM: I was twelve. I lived in a small city in the West of Sudan, El-Obeid. It was the Cold War era. Sudan, like all of the countries in the Third World, was inundated with propaganda materials that came from the Soviet Union, China and the U.S.A. I remember a little newspaper kiosk where we used to buy Chinese illustrated magazines and comics. They were the least expensive publications. I collected “China Illustrated,” a beautiful magazine filled with images that sang the praises of the Revolution, anti-imperialist struggles and solidarity among peoples. I found stunning reproductions in them of the great masters of Chinese watercolor. It was my school.
I still remember the insurmountable difficulties of copying the watercolors with rebellious gouaches that gave me a murky version of the magnificent landscapes that integrate writing and images in a remarkable way. At that time, I learned that the practice of traditional watercolor is a sort of well-coded artisanal writing where pictorial elements (trees, boulders, waterfalls) were identically reproduced from one image to the next. When I went to China for the first time in 2009, I was already rather informed about the goals and methods of Chinese graphic techniques. However, China remains an artistic continent to discover.
AB: Today, the rise of economic ties between China and Africa are increasingly drawing attention. Some even claim that these Sino-African links have lately overtaken the longstanding history of ‘la Françafrique’ [France-Africa]. How do you see your artistic production in light of these current relationships between the ‘Tiger’ and the ‘Ostrich’?
HM: Chinese society is now undergoing a great change that affects politics, the economy and cultural life. China is in the process of becoming a member of the Superpowers Club. This status represents a great moral responsibility placed before Chinese society, which must choose between devouring the week at the feast of Liberalism, or saving the world by restoring human ties with others. I think that the global version of class struggle is playing out in China as it is playing out between China and the Euro-American world. Africans therefore await the Chinese at a turning point in their humanity.
AB: Economic inequalities have continued to grow incessantly throughout the world in the last half of a century. What power does art exert against the increasing gap between the rich and the poor?
HM: If we take dominant artistic practices as a model, art can do nothing against the growing gap between the rich and poor, because that art is the art of the dominant class. Why would we expect the rich to accept an artistic practice that could threaten their privileges?
The poor of the world are in the midst of inventing a new form of artistic expression based upon the principle of contesting the established order. The protests that began in certain countries in the Near Orient frightened the rich of the entire world because they are protests of the world order that don’t correspond to tradition forms of protest (pacifist actions, without conventional leadership structures, connected, spontaneous, structured around principles of equality, Human Rights, democracy…).
Today, the media in industrialized nations continues to speak of the “Arab Spring” in a way that obliterates the disparities between popular protest movements in different countries, because the amalgamation of the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain misrepresents the specificities of each revolt and, in so doing, isolates protest in the Arab countries from the phenomenon of generalized protest against the wrongs of global liberalization of the economy. I think that the “Indignados” in Spain, the “Occupy Wall Street” in the United States, the “Revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square in Cairo and the protesters in Bahrain all desire the same thing: “Bread and Roses” (James Oppenheim).
The end of the Cold War opened a space for global protest where class struggles find previously unseen expression. Since September 11, the Muslims of the world have been redefined, by the propaganda of industrial powers (including China), as the new icon of evil. This stigmatization adds a religious “Islamic” dimension to the global social divide. When we realize that Muslims represent more than a billion of the worldwide population, we can comprehend the gravity of such a stigmatization. Imagine a force of evil that would extend across an area from Senegal to China, and from Uzbekistan to Somalia!
The “Islamic world,” in the mouths of the leaders of NATO, is a term that refers to the declared intention of the carving-up of the world between the large industrial powers. By this analysis, Muslims not defined as “moderates” are a target to eliminate, because, in a long-term perspective, they disrupt the integration of their populations into the order of global capital and, in a short-term perspective, they hinder the pillaging of the resources in their countries by industrial powers.
Within this geopolitical vision, art could become a substantial concern. However, when we observe the reaction of the art world in industrial societies, we are surprised by the lack of global perspective in relationship to the new horizons that are opening up before contemporary artists. The art world has up until now proposed only ethnic perspectives that are throwbacks to the state of the world in the 19th century. A contemporary artist who comes from the extra-European world only possesses a counter-category that expels him back to his ethnic condition as Chinese, African or Muslim.
An exhibit like Les Magiciens de la Terre (Jean Hubert Martin, 1989) attempted to enact a moral reparation by proposing an “equality of cultures” in which “every culture is exotic for another.” Thus, the culture of Europeans seemed to lose its central position and become one of the components of a worldwide whole. The problem with this concept is that it arises not from the result of a democratic deliberation among all, but rather as a suggestion from the dominant: the Euro-Americans. What can an artist do against the overly powerful sponsors capable of anything or almost, if not contest the moral grounds of the market organization?
Photo Source: hassanmusa.com
AB: You criticize the “exoticizing gaze” of Euro-Americans in the painting Great American Nude (2002) which provoked strong reactions during the Africa Remix exhibit, since it “feminized” Osama Bin Laden by laying him down like an odalisque. Almost a decade later, you returned to the figure of Bin Laden in I Love you with my Iphone (2011), an ironic take on The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David. In your opinion, did his image change in popular culture and media after his death? If so, how did you want to express this evolution through the shift from an odalisque to an assassinated political figure?
HM: Bin Laden was never anything other than an image. He’s the image that the Americans chose, after September 11, to incarnate Muslims. During the Cold War, Al Qaida was allied with the Americans and Bin Laden was then the image of the combatant for freedom. Real men die normally and get buried, but icons can resuscitate if their producers decide so. Bin Laden, as an image that will never die, because he will be, forever hereafter, a media lever, fabricated by the American political machine, just like Marilyn Monroe, Che Guevara or the American Flag. By nature of the attention that it polarizes, an image emits a political energy proportional to its media weight. I tried to take advantage of the energy of the Bin Laden icon. Each time that the American political image machine reactivates the Bin Laden icon, it offers me a new opportunity to play with this extraordinary short-cut in the geopolitics of images.
AB: Women occupy a key position in your career work, whether as biblical and literary legends (Suzanne, Scheherazade, or even Saint Sébastien Femina), famous icons like Josephine Baker and Saartje Baartman, or your grandmother, who appears in your text “i like identity ” describing the postcolonial situation. In each case, you illustrate the resilience of women in the face of discrimination. What is your position in regards to feminism? Are you a feminist?
HM: I am a son to my mother, a brother to my sisters, a husband to my wife and father to my daughter. All of these female figures hold a place at the center of my existence. I am aware that it is impossible for me to adopt the rational neutrality of distance in order to define a critical position towards this political category that we call “Feminism.” However, when I consider my personal commitment within the social situation, I cannot say that I am not feminist.
AB: Who would constitute your “ideal” public?
HM: I think that the nature of the public is a question of social class and of shared moral references between the artist and the public. The French comedian Pierre Desproges used to say “You can laugh about everything but not with everyone.” I think that every public is “ideal” as long as the artist knows who he’s dealing with. When I taught art to middle school adolescents, I often had a hostile public without any complexes about contemporary artistic culture. However, my knowledge of this public helped me to organize the “negotiation” better in order to make my young students understand the impact of each “difficult” work.
AB: In the past, you were fascinated with the gradual “whitening” of Michael Jackson. What are your thoughts on his premature death? Does it mark the end of an era? If not, then what does this sad event represent for you as an artist?
HM: I am much saddened by the passing of Michael Jackson, firstly because he was part of my memories of adolescence (The Jackson Five). In addition, beyond his immense talent as a musician, I think that he was a great image creator. He’s an image that merges with its creator. Our memory of images is marked by the imprint of Judeo-Christian civilization such that we can no longer understand anything today in art history if we haven’t read the Bible. But is reading the Bible possible without the support of images of the sacred invented by Christian artists? Since Michael Angelo, God has ruled from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, David is at the Accademia Gallery, while Moses is at Saint Peter in Chains Church, in Rome.
Art inherited the tradition of “pious images” which carries the function of the devotional object and sign of faith. Today, religious teaching happens in schools of art education, just as, long ago, catechism was taught in religious schools. The images of art have become sacred images. Pilgrims of all faiths, or faithless, travel to the four corners of the world to pay homage to the icons of art. These images seem to be the last refuge of the sacred in a modern world that no longer believes in anything, or almost. Today, museums are better populated than churches. In this context, Michael Jackson arrived like a sort of prophet of modern times. His temple? The concert venues. His message? The show. His miracle? The metamorphosis of his image. This chameleon prophet spoke to an American nation sick from a stupid segregation that puts people in opposition according to the color of their skin. He said: The law of segregation is nonsense. The color line is an illusion, even if it is written in the Bible!
By crossing the color boundary, Michael Jackson upsets a well-established symbolic order. This symbolic order is the pedestal on which the North American political order is constructed. Michael Jackson is a new Moses who strikes the sea of prejudice and parts the waters so that Americans may choose a Barack Obama as President!
AB: In an interview with Jeune Afrique in 2012, you maintained: “social struggle isn’t feasible outside of a religious vision, as demonstrates the effectiveness of anti-imperialist icons. It’s unfortunate, but the discourse of nuance is rarely audible.” In your opinion, does every simplistic discourse therefore contain a religious element?
HM: Religious thought is efficient because it is constructed according to the logic of a pictogram: good and evil, nothing else! The effectiveness of a pictogram lies in its extreme simplicity. The religious argument that opposes evil and good rests upon the reasoning that it would be impossible to choose evil.
Man is necessarily good. He cannot but choose good. And even when he strays from the straight and narrow path, he will be able to cleanse himself through repentance. The problem with believers engaged in a political conflict is that they are capable of dragging all others into total destruction because they hold the firm conviction that God is with them.
AB: In parallel, you denounce just as firmly the “cult” of the art world that increases prices as a function of fame. And yet, artists need to live. What can therefore be substituted for this mercantile logic?
HM: As a desperate utopian, I hope that art, like education, health and justice, not be on the market. A day when: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat, the calf, the lion and the yearlingtogether, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaïe 11:6). In awaiting that day, I can only continue to contradict the images of the market with my own, which bear my criticism of the aberrations of commercial society. I know that, in a single life, I cannot change the world, but I will not let the world change my life without doing anything.
- Hassan Musa, « Je pars d’un principe très simple : les gens sont intelligents, » interview with Lucie Touya and Thierry William Koudedji, Africultures. Alex Marise Bique (dir.). 4 Nov. 2005. Internet. 3 Jan. 2014.
- See, for instance, “Le droit-fil de la couture,” Renaud Faroux in Art absolument, 40 (mars-avril 2011) 75, as well as “Soudan: Le fabuleux butin de Hassan Musa,” Nicolas Michel, in Jeune Afrique, 2686 (1-7 July 2012) 96.
- References to the painting « Les Glaneuses » (1857) by Jean-François Millet are numerous throughout Hassan Musa’s career. See notably L’art du déminage (2004), The good pain (2007) et The total hapiness (2008).
- Hassan Musa, « Je pars d’un principe très simple : les gens sont intelligents. »
- Hassan Musa, « i comme identité » in Musa, Catalogue de l’exposition Icônes, Galerie NKA, Bruxelles, 2006, 24-25.
- Nicolas Michel, « Soudan : Le fabuleux butin de Hassan Musa », 98.