While rummaging through the attic of his father’s house, artist Salah Elmur chanced upon a cache of negatives from his family’s photographic studio in Khartoum.
It was a find that has informed much of his work.
Marked by richly painted backdrops, framed by the folds of heavy curtains and occasionally including the tiled floor of the studio, Elmur’s recent paintings explore the magic of the studio.
His vivid colour contrasts and dramatic stylisations attempt to echo the stilted appearance of the original poses and try to bring a new understanding to this rich tradition of studio portraiture.
These paintings can be seen in his current exhibition Studio Kamal — the name of his family’s business — at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, until May 24.
There you will find 34 paintings, mostly acrylic on canvas board with a few on paper, plus four sculptures, two of bronze and two in wood, in which the artist continues his studies of the sittings, but in the round.
And it is the sittings — the sets, the props, the sense of being present in the studio, the whole business of photo-portraiture — that seem to be the focus of this show, rather than the various sitters themselves, in spite of their number, and their differences in clothing and expressions.
The excitement of the studio itself is greater than that of meeting the sitters and, given Elmur’s family background, that is entirely understandable, but it makes for a weaker exhibition.
Sizes and prices of these paintings vary from $2,500 for the smaller portraits, each around 40x30cm, to $20,000 for one I took at first to be a rare landscape, Lagos Port, at 185x185cm. But with its chequered floor and the formal pose of the uniformed official, it might simply be another studio piece with an unusual backcloth.
Several of the smaller, simpler compositions are going for $1,500, with the dearest painting, a 180x180cm eye-opener called The Pink Suit, priced at $22,000.
Someone, somewhere, thinks times are not as hard as many of us believe.
My own favourite in this show was Layla’s Cat, partly because I am fond of cats but mainly because it was a break from the many variations on a theme.
What Elmur has caught rather well in the portraits, however, is not so much the individual personalities of the sitters but their generalised reaction to being in the studio; the awkwardness that comes from striking a pose and knowing that is how you will be judged in future.
Elmur disturbs the picture plane with a neo-Cubist stylisation of the heads — cliff-edge or double noses between eyes set wide on fragmented faces — while viewing the pictures en masse produces a surreal impression that you have tumbled down the rabbit hole with Alice.
Out of this aesthetic mishmash is created a faux-naif style that does at least make the work more accessible.
It also shows that each painting is guided by the same hand and sensibility, but by that same competence they miss the element of risk that excites us in every good painting. We gasp when the tightrope walker pretends to slip and then applaud when he regains his balance.
The deliberate ungainliness that marks this work will be seen by some as a sophisticated simplicity, while others will see it as a knowing trick and find it just plain irritating.
Helping to make sense of the show are reprints of some of the original Studio Kamal photographs, although including them could have been a big mistake.
Frankly, I found them more interesting than the paintings.
These studio photographers knew exactly what their customers wanted — a sharply focused picture of them and their loved ones in front of scenery that gave a sense of place, plus a few simple props such as a plant on a stand, an expensive looking chair or chaise longue that added substance… proof of precious time together, an important occasion, evidence that they had arrived.
These were moments fixed forever as styles fell out of favour, provoking laughter and then curiosity before coming back into fashion again. There were many such studios — most towns had at least one — and the tradition continues even today. But gone are the evocative plate cameras, the twin-lens reflexes and even the Hassleblad or two. Now the few studios that remain use auto-focus digital SLRs to churn out headshots for passports and IDs, plus the occasional family photo.
I would love to see an exhibition of old photos centred on the sitters, buttoned up in their best outfits, shyly holding each other and staring into the lens at a future unknown.
You can look into their eyes and know them better. Their portraits have passed the stage of being too personal to be of interest only to their families. Instead they represent a sort of Jungian collective consciousness; by looking at them we see ourselves.
But I cannot say the same for the paintings. No matter how clever an interpretation of the genre they might be, it is the authenticity of the original photographs that have the power to thrill.