Walking with their fathers in the desert, navigating by the stars beneath the incandescent Moon, instilled in two boys a love of the ever-changing sands–their beauty, mystery and power.
One of them, from Sudan, found inspiration in the monumental Nubian statues that he found among the shifting sands, while the other, an Egyptian, was stimulated by the Sufi music his father played, the rhythms and harmonies offering a gateway to the soul.
Each became artists and although they have never met face to face, they held a joint exhibition that captured their sense of wonder and the romance and majesty of the desert instilled by those boyhood journeys.
It was held at the Nairobi home of art dealer Veronica Paradinas Duro, director and founder of the GravitArt online gallery, heaved the furniture out of most of the rooms in her townhouse off Peponi Road, Westlands, and converted it into an open gallery–and a patch of desert.
Desert, in Nairobi? Sand was strewn over the floor of a sunken area around the sitting room fireplace, rugs and cushions were put in position and a small bit of the Sahara was there for guests to enjoy…minus the dunes, the caravans of camels, the Bedouin, baking days and freezing nights and all the other inconveniences of the real thing.
But it helped to set the scene and it mirrored the theme of the exhibition, which was called The Sky Inside You (A Reflection from the Desert).
The two artists inspired by those childhood walkabouts are the Sudanese Eltayeb Dawelbait and Egyptian painter Mostafa Sleem.
Eltayeb had admired Sleem’s canvases on a visit last year to Cairo and the two began to correspond about matters artistic via social media, during which the similarities of their childhood adventures emerged.
Spotting affinities in their work, Duro encouraged the contact and arranged a joint, themed exhibition.
The pop-up in her home was for only one day last month and no prices were posted, all the exhibits having been posted on her online gallery (www.gravitartgallery.com) where both the exhibition and representative works by many other artists can be seen in an ever-changing parade.
The styles of Eltayeb and Sleem while superficially very different–one restrained and spare, the other riotously expressive–are similar in their love of line and the theme that binds them.
Eltayeb’s 24 constructions–paintings or wall sculptures, if you like–present his familiar noble heads scratched through layers of paint on reclaimed wood, producing deceptively simple looking works, with irregular perimeters and sudden, plunging depths.
They sit quietly on the wall yet command their space.
Sleem’s 15 paintings, oils and mixed media on canvas, are more traditional in their approach. They reflect the artist’s love of colour and his confident ability to deconstruct his subjects while retaining coherence across the canvas.
Showing these two artists together was a smart move; their differing styles are complementary, each resonating the more for being seen with the other.
Eltayeb’s series of parallel lines sweep through layers of existing paint to reveal the history of the matrix while superimposing on it his typical Nubian faces.
These works, often raw to the point of being industrially so, and sometimes left to follow the pattern of old drawers or panels and their frames — occasionally revealing their origins through hinges and handles left attached — at once celebrate the detritus of all our days and the richness of the artist’s cultural history.
They also reference those early walks among the dunes, bathed in moonlight, with titles like Shy Moon, The Beauty of the Moon and that old favourite Blue Moon.
Sometimes the stars take precedence. In Navigation for instance, a grid of dots in the bottom left corner of the piece represents the maps of stars by which the desert nomads, like sailors, find their way through the endless, rolling sands.
Camels are known as ships of the desert for a very good reason; the comparison between sand-strewn wastes and the oceans is both ancient and accurate.
As always Eltayeb’s palette is restrained–pale and spare; blues, soft greens and greys–as though scoured by the desert winds, making his black sgraffito markings all the more assertive. His paintings sit quietly yet give a sense that like the Bedouin, gentle and hospitable to strangers, they would be formidable, somehow furious if roused.
In that, they carry with them the fierceness, determination and adaptability needed to survive in the desert.
Sleem is at his roaring best in a painting called Midnight Mirage that bizarrely shows a man playing a saxophone; one of several with a musical theme.
But is a sax and in one case a cello vital accompaniment to a desert journey, essential baggage for a camel’s back? Or is this the music of the stars, falling in successions of twinkling notes as though from the black velvet sky?
In fact it reflects Sleem’s love of music that began with his father’s penchant for playing Sufi melodies.
And now moving swiftly from a branch of Islam to another of the world’s great monotheistic religions, I wish you, of all faiths or none, a Very Merry Christmas!
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