Taming The Losses In Nubia: The Art of Fathi Hassan

by Nii B. Andrews for Art Capital Ghana

Significant portions of Nubian lands were submerged when Lake Nasser and Lake Nubia were formed as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam from 1958 to 1970.


Important cultural and historical monuments had to be relocated in a vast international effort; the relocation and preservation of the temple of Abu Zimbel garnered the most attention.


But Buhen Fortress – the earliest known Egyptian settlement in the land of Nubia dating to 1280 BCE, was submerged and lost.


The people of Nubia lost ancestral lands and were displaced; some were resettled in nearby regions; yet another diaspora was formed through the hazard of migration.


Leaving was often not an active choice but largely enforced by a lack of options, a bargain between alienation and freedom; living and thriving where you are born is perhaps one of the finest privileges of all.


Since 2014, 10,134 people have died on global migration routes, according to the Missing Migrants project. These figures are likely only a tiny fraction of the true picture.


Some nameless, die in horrific circumstances and “they keep quiet counsel in unvisited graves, and their stories vanish with them.”


Fathi Hassan who traces his immediate lineage to the displacement from Nubia; was born in Cairo in 1957 and became one of the first African and Arab artists to exhibit in the Venice Biennial in 1988; over the past 30 years he has gained prominence on the international art circuit.


Hassan telegraphs his “wild spirit and wandering soul through his art and meditations”.


In his tapestries and paintings, he projects a fused cultural ethos that resonates with prominent vexed contemporary questions.


In some respects, his work is a storehouse of dreams and desires.


To sustain the epic struggle for survival, Hassan has utilised multiple art genres: photographs, paintings, installations, drawings or, often, directly on walls, “his texts are deliberately illegible intended to highlight the plight of lost languages and oral history as a result of colonial domination”.


This approach emphasizes the difficulty of expressing experiences of forced migration and displacement – situations that are often accompanied with violence or the threat of it.


Hence Hassan employs an improvised Kufic-inspired script – symbols, textures and calligraphy of his Nubian heritage, to explore the space between graphic symbolism and literal meaning in vibrant colours and collage.


Hassan’s art is simply about the contemplation of potentialities and possibilities for the future.


While reflecting on the current pandemic, Hassan wrote:


"The earth, our planet, hosted us with its trees and white areas, made us breathe, eat, and asked us nothing in return. He only asked to be respected, loved.

……..We do not deserve the evil that we built with our own hands, and we cannot say that we did not know it!

…….Everything so strange, a nightmare that digs into us every day, and we don’t even know how to react.

I paint and write so as not to be afraid and not to feel alone. I shy away from distant memories of my ancestors, I call it with my soul to try to be saved.”


The permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC all hold his work; many publications by acclaimed critics, curators and art historians have examined and extolled his art.


His current exhibition titled, SOUL TAMING, curated by Najlaa El-Ageli is at the Sulger- Buel Gallery in London.


April 16, 2021
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