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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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Sticker entitled Unmasked (Personal collection)

Setting the Scene

Above and in title photo, conventional boundaries between fine art and craft dissolve in the work of an artist who has described herself as an “artesana del arte”. Amidst taut geometric monochromes or thronging, vibrant motifs of northern Sudanese women’s tobes, inner lives emerge. Life stories hinted by an artist drawn early to illustration and the imaginative power of stories told of unreal worlds. “Do not let their curiosity disrespect you”, reads one of her works (see below) and against the riot of colour and pattern, there is a restraint; a self-sufficiency and sharpness of gaze in her subjects.

Dar Al Naim with her work, HerstoryIII

Rich synthesis of recurring patterns, motifs and colour in Dar Al Naim’s work. Right, forms reminiscent of Sudanese prayer boards, lawhah, embossed with patterns echoing traditional Nubian house motifs, tribal facial markings or stamped with tiny, united figures. Left, the bands of mask-like faces that bead the edges of cloth whose greens, golds and reds echo the iridescence of Sudanese bridal robes. Here too, the eye, talisman against evil and suitable emblem perhaps, for an artist who seeks “to educate the eye.”

Below, centre, a 1922 talismanic lawha, (Pinterest), and left, a contemporary piece (personal collection). The calligraphy and motifs of lawHaat have been a source of inspiration for many contemporary Sudanese artists, see Birds of the Soul.

All photos of Dar Al Naim’s work used with permission and may not be reproduced. Copyright Dar Al Naim. See

Dar Al Naim chooses to leave many of her paintings untitled to allow viewers to approach her work fresh – and is delighted when so many offer titles echoing her own.

Left, the weight of a life. Dar Al Naim has acknowledged the influence of her father, renown artist, Rashid Diab, in her intense colour palette but unlike her father’s graceful, almost spiritual abstractions of women, it is the raw, intense individuality of lives lived that fascinates Dar Al Naim. “The faces of the people of Sudan, filled with expression, secrets and stories are my subject.”

See which have provided sources for this article. See too See too transcript of BBC Arabic interview with Rashid Diab:

Faces as masks, masks behind faces. Palimpsests of emotions. Protective masks shielding identities and masks as totems of universal identities. Masks subverting cultural understanding. Masks chosen and masks imposed. Masks to be worn and discarded at will. Masks worn to negotiate the dissonances of life, the juggling of the artistic and the personal, the personal and the public. Dar Al Naim explores her artistic relationship with masks in our conversation below.

Dar Al Naim; Unmaskings

Dar Al Naim; A Brief Profile Unmaskings; In Conversation with Dar Al Naim

Dar Al Naim, The Restless Eye; A Brief Profile:

Biographical Background Artistic Diversity Sudan Retold A Committed Voice

Biographical Background

Dar Al Naim (1988) defines herself as a Sudanese artist striving for a universal, unifying artistic lexicon. The richly layered textuality of her work reflects her culturally and artistically diverse origins. Citing Kahlo, Klimt, Al-Salahi, the Spanish baroque, with its “detail, intensity and force” as well as urban street art among her sources of inspiration, Dar Al Naim’s work expresses an urgent and restless tension between synthesis and cultural distinctness. Although she attended primary school in Madrid, she stresses it was her years attending secondary school in Khartoum that most powerfully shaped her personality. After graduating in fine art in 2012 from Oxford Brooks University, where she specialized in printmaking and engraving, she won the 2012/13 Old Fire Station Graduate Studio Residency Award. (See Subject to racism in UK where she said – “ I felt too black”, and “not at home in Spain”, and echoing Al-Salahi’s weariness of being labelled as an African artist rather than as an artist in the West, she returned to Sudan to “reconnect and cultivate a more diverse aesthetic” to her work” She worked as managing director of Rashid Diab’s Arts Center in Khartoum and later worked in Dara Art Gallery in Khartoum. She is currently based at her studio in Segovia, Spain and has exhibited in London, Berlin, New York, Spain, and Khartoum. See too DarAl Naim Mubarak, Art in Times of Adversity, pp55-57.

See Birds of the Soul for more on Ibrahim Al-Salahi and Forests and Spirits for Kamala Ishaq

Artistic Diversity

I paint, I illustrate, I engrave. I am a mixture.” RIght, Dar Al Naim’s fascination with multiple media, her commitment to the discipline of mastering craft techniques and the “overlooked” impact of scale – she enjoys the physicality of working on vast canvasses and the surprises it brings – are evident in the sheer diversity of her artistic output. Like Salah Elmur, Al Naim relishes seeking out old, broken and recycled materials which she incorporates into her work. Impulsive and spontaneous, “I have always wanted artistic freedom across media”, she explains and there is a freshness and energy in all her work.

See too Inscriptions on Rosewater for more on Salah Elmur

“The most amazing and extraordinary experience I’ve had in Sudan, was a trip with my family, where we camped in the desert and traveled to Karima, Merawi, Old Dongola, Kerma, Soleb, Delgo, Abri, Atbara, Meroe, Musawarat Sufra, Shendi, Sabaloka and Omdurman. What an eye opener that was, especially towards the understanding of the diversity of Sudan – not to mention the skies at night.

“These desert skies, roofed by a mantle of stars inspired me to think, that regardless of how much we try to separate ourselves from one another, whether it be human to human, or human to animal or plant, that we all stand together under the same sky.

Sudan Retold

The urge for artistic freedom across media and a profound sense of the connectedness of human experience is evident in her contribution to Sudan Retold, where she uses collage, hand-printing stamps and ink to recreate the world of Christian Nubia in the City of Faras, hidden by flooding from “the eyes of the future” . Inspired by her own research and her father’s stories, Dar Al Naim expresses part of the “spectrum of identities” that is Sudan. A celebration of the Christian identity of northern Sudan, which for more than thirty years, was little spoken of.

Below, plate from The City of Faras in the Christian Era, Sudan Retold, p59. See too

A Committed Voice

Perhaps inevitably, Dar Al Naim’s commitment to “a new international and global dialect” voicing “a message of peace and unity” means her work can also be read as social and political text, its message made more urgent by recent events in Sudan. Her social media presence and the accessibility of her work, the production of stickers, T-shirts; her sketchbooks dedicated to the Sudanese revolution of 2019, displayed by video on Facebook, “The Revolution will not be Televised”, her public feminism all inform an art which is at once personal, political and socially committed. “In Sudan, there are those who think women artists can’t have ideas”, she has stated and in addition to bringing Sudanese art to a world public, she hopes to facilitate “ an artistic conversation between men and women creatives. Her work, Body of Water, part of the Mediterráneo migration series, is rich with textures “suggestive of hidden bodies, invisible on the political stage that fails to acknowledge Sudan”. 

Below, examples of Dar Al Naim’s work expressing political and social solidarity.

Unmaskings – In Conversation

Dar al Naim is a passionate conversationalist. Ideas, insights and experiences pour out at dizzying pace as a thousand conversation circuits light up. Having real communication is what she treasures; “you have to be open when you have a conversation, you have to go into it not knowing exactly what you’re going to talk about so that what needs to be talked about can come out. No assumptions.”

Its an approach integral to her creative process too. There are no preconceptions, no roadmap when she starts a work, she explains, gesturing to her latest canvas, dimly lit amidst the “jungle” of plants she has adopted during lockdown. She allows images to emerge after responding to her intuition” and playing around”. “There is no shape, initially. Just complete freedom. I wait for it to start talking.” “All art is addition and subtraction and I wait until I know what needs subtracting. It is a conversation. When I started work on this latest piece, I felt there was something about waiting – waiting, waiting in all its forms that was drawing me to it. And gradually this figure emerged and I realized she had her hand on her hip; waiting, for whom, what, why, …….. I wanted all the questions to be there.”

Forging her evolving artistic identities – Dar Al Naim pictured as a child, with her father and playing with the semiotics of masks.

IT: Dar Al-Naim, thank you so much for your time and kindness today. May I begin by asking you how you have experienced lockdown and how it has shaped your creative life recently?

Dar Al Naim: I know lockdown has been terrible for so many but for me creatively speaking, it’s been the best time – so productive. I used to think that I was 100% extrovert. That shifted to 50%-50% and now I’d say I was more like 80% introvert so lockdown has given me the chance to focus on my work without offending anyone who might want to meet me. You know, artists can be very rude – just telling people to go away!

IT: As an artist from two such different cultural and artistic traditions, is there any form of “homecoming” you have experienced or yearn for?

Dar Al Naim: I lived in UK for eight years and I ate curry and fish and chips and developed an English accent, I’ve lived in Spain and Sudan – and when people make negative generalizations about these places, I feel a loyalty towards them and I feel I have to say something to correct, to counterbalance these assumptions. Because they are assumptions. And I get tired of being asked where my work is from; my work is for everyone, the general public, not the world of academia or one particular culture. Am I not allowed to be from here – wherever that here is? I want to go anywhere and be allowed not to be defined as being from somewhere. In many ways, this is the diaspora dilemma. I see myself engaged in an honest search for belonging but belonging and a feeling of home is not a country. You have to first make your brain, your mind, your body your home. I guess the homes that we make are yet to come. Artistically, though, I’m a sponge.

Her father’s influence in colour and female form evident (left), and Dar Al-Naim’s HerstoryIII on the right.

“I haven’t just based my knowledge on art from my father; in fact it was my mother who taught me how to shade in, understand light, sculpt with clay, etc.

Fascination with scale, vibrant tones, African textile and the eye.

IT: Can you talk a little about masks and why they feature so powerfully in your work?

Dar Al Naim: I think we wear masks we choose and we have masks imposed on us and inescapably a lot of that is about identity and how we have to respond to other people’s questions to us on our identity. Sometimes people make horrible assumptions about who you are and ask questions based on those assumptions about what it is to be a Muslim man, a Sudanese woman, gender roles in a revolution and that question “where are you from?”, and “was your mother or your father Sudanese?” We get distracted by racism and sexism and it becomes a reason for not dong things that matter. And for not having real conversations. What do you really think – that’s what I want to engage with. I am as white as I am black. I am content to explain my reasons for being, why I feel comfortable in a turban – I love its elegance – but I can’t be the same person or one person all the time. Let’s drop the masks and have open and real conversations.

IT: As a young artist, how do you juggle the stress of needing to make money and sell your work and your creative integrity? How easy or complex is it to operate as an artist navigating social media?

Dar Al Naim: It’s difficult. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but now a word can mean a million things – I mean anything you write or say on social media has a million interpretations, all depending on the mood of the reader. People make assumptions and judgements. You can’t control any of that. And on social media, you are present in everyone’s eyes and it’s almost as if what is not seen doesn’t exist. So, I made the decision to move towards other forms of communication and away from FaceBook and WhatsApp. You’ll know more later this year, I hope! There’s a chance to teach, to really communicate, to challenge, again, to teach when someone doesn’t come to you just with the intention of making you less in their dialogue with you, through their agenda or assumptions. As you mentioned, curiosity with respect – that matters to me.

IT: Could you tell us why it was important for you to collaborate in Sudan Retold?

Dar Al Naim: When I was asked to collaborate, I thought the best thing was to wait and see what I felt was missing from the collection once everyone else had chosen their topics. And I was struck by the fact Sudan’s Christian past was missing and had been missing from Sudanese conversation for many years and I was so moved as a child by my father’s stories of Faras and staying with my auntie, looking up at the vast desert skies there and I knew I had to take this chance to bring something that had been neglected to light again. And it’s wonderful and so important as an era in our history, not just artistically but because for the first time we see the creation of black saints. So I had to do it!

IT: Could you talk a little about your plans for the future?

Dar Al Naim: I used to want to conquer my future through what I did, my work and so on. Now I feel I’m constructing a past for my future life – I mean, when I’m 60, will I have made my past peaceful, will I feel comfortable with that past? I also want so much to archive and provide a home for Sudanese arts and get Sudanese art out into the world more. When I worked in Sudan, one of the things I tried to do was to give Sudanese artists the chance to see things so precious culturally and artistically, like Meroe, which they’d never got the chance to visit – in their own country! This is really important to me – I’m ambitious for that.

Dar Al Naim, thank you for your openness and generosity of spirit in this interview. We look forward to seeing your latest work, And She Waited, very soon.

See Dar Al Naim’s work, A Woman is a School in “A Woman is a School” 2

This is a literacy post for Women’s Education Partnership. 

See Latest News and At a Glance for more about our work.

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