He welcomed us into his home; the one he turned into a small in-house Museum, chatted to us about interesting stories from the various stages of his life, adventures and his search for the meaning of art and beauty. He showed us his paintings, which were stacked around, making the space appear smaller than what it is. He drew people, issues and injustice suffered by humans with such delicacy; I felt the paintings could speak.
The Sudanese artist Osman Alamin Ali Shibir was born in the city of Wad Medani in 1940. His father worked in the orchards of the Sudanese-English government, which gave him the opportunity to visit many regions around Sudan, until he settled in Malakal in modern day South Sudan. He studied the initial stages of technical and secondary schools, where he started discovering his artistic side, until he moved to Berlin (Germany) to study painting and museums design at the Academy of Arts, and graduated in 1970.
Osman Shibir worked as a university lecturer for interior design and architecture in a number of Sudanese universities. He published about five books on arts and design, and shown his work in a series of exhibitions hosted in Sudan, Germany and England, since 1975.
I asked him about the impact of different cultures on his personal life, he said: “Germany, where I lived for a long time, had a big influence on me; I studied and worked there for a long time, got married to a German lady and my children now have a German nationality, along with my Sudanese native identity. I consider myself a mixture of three cultures I belong to, because each of these cultures have given me something; like the sense of dignity from my Arabic side, African simplicity and purity, and German honesty and perfectionism”.
Life in Southern Sudan – the shift:In 1954, when Shibir moved with his family to Malakal he lived amid the Shilluk, Dinka and Nuer tribes, milking cows and drinking their raw milk. He recalls: “I was captivated by the beautiful autumn weather and the green nature of the land throughout the year, and remember the colorful birds that fascinated me and altered my perception of art and beauty.” Growing among the different tribes also brings back memories of cultural values, Shibir shared: “I observed their values and habits closely: children from eight to sixteen years old herding the grazing cows, boys of twenty-year-old carrying spears to protect herds from theft, and then men when they reach forty do not go for grazing, but are committed to councils under the shade of trees to resolve disputes between tribes. The dowry for marriages was cows because money was worthless at the time. Youth used to blow on horns to announce weddings and funerals. I also remember how in the fall they do not get affected by the high humidity, because they wear copper bracelets, which science later claimed is true. The tribes I lived among were civilized in their own ways, and I was so influenced by them that I even owned a cow back then, which I later sold so I can travel to Germany.”
Germany: the station
After a train trip around Europe for almost three years he settled in Berlin in 1962, Shibir tells us about the change in heart after years on the road: “luckily on the train I stumbled upon an elder American lady and two German young women who were on their way to visit their friend in Berlin. Their friend’s husband worked at the Faculty of Arts, and he eventually gave me an opportunity to join. In a time where Europe resorted to manufacturing, advertising and exhibitions of graphic art, I studied architecture and building international exhibitions over a period of five years, then finished a Master’s degree in six years, and later worked at the Free Exhibitions of Berlin.
– How did you fit in the society back then?
“I was the first black African to enter a prestigious college, such as the Academy of Arts after World War II, and we were treated with love and respect without any inconveniences or problems. As for the German language I picked some of it by interacting with people and talking to them on the street, as for the reading and writing foreign students were given special language lessons.”
Artistic life: rebellion against the local artistic culture, concepts and ideasThose who enter his small home will immediately find themselves in the area he turned into a small exhibition. It’s impossible to miss the prominent white color dominating his paintings. White is the original color of paper, but Shibir uses the empty spaces in his own way to make a distinctive impression on the viewer. Then you notice the ox appearing in various forms in most of his paintings. About his affection for the African tribes cultures; “I’m merely documenting what I have seen and experienced in a renewed way to introduce people to different regions, I draw graphics describing people’s homes and lives to reflect something deeper.”
Discussing the symbolism in his art led us to his opinion on contemporary Sudanese art and artists: “it’s a local art, for the inside, for the Sudanese mood. But it has nothing to do with universal art. Global art feeds off the rebellion on the inside and the development of what was not present before.”
Shibir rejected local art symbols throughout his journey; you won’t find the tea lady (sit alshay), the Dome of the Mahdi, or a village and its huts. He claims this is because he was exposed from an early time to the different forms of art, which made him more open to new ways of composition, noting “I rebelled against local icons because they limit the artist’s ability to pick up visual cues until they disappear and die, a mistake that we always make, and even in different areas other than art. It does not help in moving forward; because international art lies within rebelling against what is happening, and painting is a language that anyone can understand.”
– Why can’t we find your work in exhibitions here in Sudan?
“Because my work is not for sale; it does not touch on the Sudanese identity in particular to become acceptable to the Sudanese taste. The specialty of my art lies within its complexity, universality and rebellion on the locality –in the words of credible international artists and critics- and this is why I would rather establish a museum and not just one exhibition or show here in Sudan”.
The project: Museum of Modern African ArtShibir devoted his accumulated experience to plan the establishment of a global Museum of Contemporary African Art. He collected works of arts; from paintings to sculptures since 1959 until now. Based on his academic background in designing exhibitions, he designed the entire project of the Museum and estimated the cost to be 100 thousand dollars. The Museum will be the first of its kind in the world, and will include all forms of folkloric African art, sculptures and musical instruments.
About his work regarding the Museum, Shibir confessed “I tried to combine African simplicity and the complexity of fine art, in terms of percentages and blocks and beauty concepts, so you can see my work for the first time as a surreal, abstract or classic or all together. I have mixed them all so each recipient could find his need without taking away from the content of the painting and the idea.”
Mr. Shibir tells us about the repeated offers he received for the sale of his paintings and his sculptures for more than 10 thousand Sterling Pounds apiece, commenting: “I’m not looking for money; I’m working so I can have my own mark. My work cannot be kept in a home salon for one rich family to own, art is for everyone, and its place is the museum. I am sure that it will take the attention it deserves once the museum is created.”
– Museum of African Art, where it will be and when to expect it? Could it be here in the Sudan?
“I present this idea as a global project, not a local one. It can be adopted by any country in the whole world, not a single museum is dedicated to contemporary African art, there are only archaeological museums, and here lies the importance and value of this museum. I’m working on establishing it outside Sudan, Europe specifically; it will also feature my personal work, which is more than 100 pieces, as well as some African musical instruments.”
Reflections from a colleagueArtist and Professor Ahmed Mohammed Shibrain said about him: “he has embarked on all this activity without speaking about himself except for the purpose of showcasing his projects, neither he spoke about the services he provided to the University of Khartoum or his teaching projects in more than one college. His oil paintings have fragmented dimensions, overlapping patterns, sharp-lines that form beautiful shapes that run from the center of the painting and then cut across the lines and spaces to simulate nature in the components that we see in our daily lives, for he strips nature from its coordinated measurements to create artistic visuals.”
To get a glimpse of Osman Shibir’s art, check out his online gallery on Facebook.