Artists Ahmed Umar
Venue Kunstnernes hus (Oslo, Norway)
Text Sofia M. Ciel
Ahmed Umar, who is openly gay, was born in Sudan and raised in Saudi Arabia. In 2008 he came to Norway as a political refugee. Since then, he has actively campaigned for gay visibility in the public and social media – an activity for which he still receives threats (in his homeland homosexuality is considered a crime). Umar’s artistic broad practice includes various, mostly material-based media such as sculpture, jewelry, ceramics, printmaking, and also performance. Through art, Umar tells personal stories often commenting on his conservative upbringing, and the Glowing Phalanges exhibition – his first major solo exhibition in Norway – serves as a great example of this.
Here 98 plaster-cast hands arranged in rows along the walls hold sculptures. The objects’ aesthetic qualities — zealously polished wood in abstract shapes, with subtle details like metal fragments, bones, teethes, shells, and hair — immediately attract attention. Looking at them, it is impossible to recognize their previous status. These were originally commercial souvenirs produced in various countries in Africa and Asia. The artist purchased them from flea markets over the years, and then carefully reworked them. A time taking sculptural work with attention to details and focus on retelling the history through the object makes the core of Ahmed Umar practice. As he admitted in one interview, it requires a lot of emotion and pain to work with those materials but, through sculpting, he tries to re-authenticate them. And in turn, graving for hours in ebony – one of the hardest and time taking materials – reworks his struggles. (Jeg har levd med så mye skam. Morgenbladet» Nr.7/17.-23., February 2023).
One could ask why sculptures are presented in such a particular way. While prayer beads and amulets have a protective function in the Sufi tradition that his family practices, in other interpretations of Islam they are forbidden. The plaster hands in the exhibition signify the Sunni Wahabis teachings in Saudi Arabia that the right way to pray is by using the right-hand phalanges; on Judgment Day the hand would glow in the darkness. In the second hall the last hand holds a thread from a huge textile work installed at the glass ceiling. The play of the light and meditative atmosphere, brought about by a subtle sound installation of male voices that sing over drums — a recording from Om Dawanban mosque in Umar’s hometown — create the feel of a temple in the exhibition hall. A secular temple.
Glowing Phalanges could be described as a material-based storytelling. By adding the personal layer with hours of sculpture work, the objects gain new meanings and most importantly – the history changes with them. And there lies the strongest point of the exhibition, in that critical ability in including and – at the same time – transforming the narrative of the other, commercial and exotic into a new history, by re-writing it or – to be more precise – re-sculpting it. And there is something soothing in this, simple, minimalistic yet demanding execution of the concept that tunes in perfectly well with the building’s architecture. It seems that it is not only the object that can be transformed into an amulet by the intention, but also the entire place. In the case of Glowing Phalanges, the intended spell works perfectly well creating a temple for non-believers. Writing this text from today’s perspective, it is hard not to think about the political situation in Sudan. Let’s hope those protective spells work also for the outside world.
Ahmed Umar graduated from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts with a bachelor’s degree in Printmaking (2011–2014), followed by a master’s degree in Fine Art, specializing in medium and material-based art (2014–2016). In recent years he has noticeably marked his artistic presence; his works have been purchased by several public collections (including the Norwegian National Museum), he was included in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020) and this year he is nominated to Lorck Schive Kunstpris.