GALLERIES: At one with everything—except the artwork

Wednesday July 01 2020

‘It's Not my Face’ by Souad Abdelrassoul. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


The mystical art of Souad Abdelrassoul is well known to East African gallery-goers.

You can spot it at once — boldly deformed faces drawn on maps.

Souad Abdelrassoul, an Egyptian, lives and works in Cairo and is married to another distinctive artist, the Sudanese Salah Elmur, who is also known for the deliberately distorted figures in his paintings.

Most recently these have been created in homage to the characters who turned up at his family’s traditional photo studio in Khartoum and whose pictures he found some years ago in a cache of old portraits.

Both artists have exhibited in Kenya, at the Red Hill Art Gallery (in 2014 and 2016) and more recently at the Circle. And it is the Circle that is currently hosting an online exhibition of recent work by Abdelrassoul.

I should declare an opinion early on, if only to create a little context… I do not much like the work of either of these two artists.


I recognise of course their strong formal qualities, their ability (particularly that of Elmur) to create form, depth and weight in their work, but at the end of the day I find their figures awkward and in spite of their svelte application of paint, if not ugly then a touch clumsy and disagreeable. Maybe, thus, a little threatening too.

That is not in itself a bad thing. Art should shock and disturb, then as Lucien Freud said, finally convince.

But I am not convinced.

Perhaps this is partly because Abdelrassoul expresses her beliefs through deliberately distorted figures not to reveal more about the individual (as in a Bacon portrait, for instance), but rather to promote a general point about our ultimately self-defeating attempts to impose sovereignty over Nature.

It does not help her cause that the imagery has a strongly graphic content, which makes it appear slighter and more overtly designed than an instinctive and painterly approach.

Do I admire the professional skills underpinning her work and her own conviction? Yes. But would I want one on my wall? No.

Online ( in her exhibition entitled Confusion, are 10 of Abdelrassoul’s paintings and 13 of her drawings of faces and figures on maps.

Much of her work concerns the relationship between humans and the natural world. It proclaims: We are part of Earth and Earth of us.

“As we are all formed from dust, how is it that flowers do not sprout within us?” the artist asked earlier this year and in this show she essays an answer… by making them do exactly that.

Star of the show for me is her painting It’s Not my Face, an acrylic on canvas that presents a reclining woman looking in a hand mirror while becoming entwined by vines. Of all the works in this exhibition it is the most literal — the figure is human and not morphed into a tree or a bird, nor too heavily distorted. Also, and rather unfairly, I like it because the pose echoes that of the nude in Nevermore, O Taiti, Gauguin’s masterpiece of 1897.

Strangely enough the more I looked at these works online the more I began to feel comfortable with them, rather as you enjoy the company of prickly friends not in spite of their oddities but because of them. I admired the luminosity of Abdelrassoul’s palette for example and the confidence of her compositions.

There is a cleverness about some of the designs that might appeal too… The Lover for instance shows two heads melded into a single face, sharing the mouth and each with one of the eyes.

Flowers and fruit appear in all but a few of these paintings and mixed media drawings — rather bizarrely two bananas frame the figure in It’s Not my Food — and reinforce the artist’s thesis that all is one.

“Nature is part of every person; it is inside us and we are within it,” the artist states. “We are either a person of flora, or of fauna or even of metal, in many varieties and proportions.”

And she insists: “If you seem to represent something of an animal, rest assured, you do. If the flowers capture your sight and interest, then you could have a tree within you.”

Abdelrassoul’s belief in the holistic nature of the universe leads her to suggest that the more we place our ourselves above plants and animals, the more we degrade them.

I respect Abdelrassoul’s belief that all is one. It remains her visual expression of it that troubles me.