Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2003
Issue No. 651
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Hussein Shariffe:

The muse that's fit to paint and shoot

Between two stools

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Hussein Shariffe

Click to view caption
Shariffe shooting Letters from Abroad in the Western Desert, Egypt
His films are replete with powerfully-built young men and strikingly beautiful black women. It is not as if he has a towering, chiselled physique: though he is no gnome, that you could not say, not with the best will in the world. He retains a spare and elegant figure, shown to particular advantage in the immaculate white and stylish simply cut collarless shirt. Sudanese? "No, I got it in New York, actually," he smiles coyly.

Hussein Shariffe may seem shy but he has a ready smile. And he is as bold as brass when it comes to defending his right to earn a living as a professional artist.

"I was born in a cultural milieu where to devote oneself to art of any form was frowned upon," Shariffe says. His face adopts a distant, sober look, almost frozen, edging on distraction.

Shariffe exudes an old-world charm. His impeccable command of English, sauve manners and aristocratic bearing proclaim a privileged childhood. Of course, a lot goes back to his social background. And, to his parents. They were first cousins.

A first cousin of former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadig Al-Mahdi, Shariffe hails from one of the most distinguished Sudanese families. Sadig Al-Mahdi remains one of the most influential Sudanese opposition figures and is the leader of the Umma Party, Sudan's largest political grouping. Shariffe's sister, Hafia, is married to Sadig Al-Mahdi. His wife, Shama, is Sadig Al-Mahdi's sister.

"My wife is almost like a sister to me." Shariffe chuckles. "Her father and my mother are full brother and sister. My father and her mother are full brother and sister, too. Thank God my four children are healthy."

He thinks nothing of the northern Sudanese tradition of idealising first-cousin marriage that in many other cultures are regarded as suspiciously incestuous. It is a tradition that is especially valued among the landed social elite, a way of keeping wealth and possessions in the family so to speak. It is vaguely reminiscent of the Pharaonic tradition of marriage among royal siblings.

Shariffe is proud of his heritage. He is a great grandson of Mohamed Ahmed Al-Mahdi, the founder of modern Sudan and the Ansar Al-Mahdi religious sect, the country's largest Sufi order. "The Mahdist legacy manifests itself in my work," Shariffe says. "Indirectly," he clarifies.

It's always been difficult to know where to place Hussein Shariffe. He is perhaps Sudan's foremost abstract painter, a pioneer at any rate. Artistically, though, he casts his net a lot wider. He is also a poet and filmmaker.

"I write a poem every ten years," he smiles.

He sees a definite analogy between his painting and his work as a filmmaker.

Shariffe read modern history at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. "The Cambridge years were uneventful but pleasant. I made lasting friendships and still value the friendship of journalists like Nicholas Harman and Richard Gershaw, both of whom I first met in Cambridge. And there was Jonathan Miller, the famous theatre and opera director and producer," Shariffe remembers. "There were 10 Sudanese at Cambridge at the time, including my late cousin Al-Taher Al-Fadel and Ambassador Mustafa Medani. Cambridge was fun."

A child of two hemispheres, Shariffe is a two dimensional artist: painter and filmmaker. "I had two great interests when I was a young adolescent, painting and the cinema."

Painting, though, was his first love.

"Painting is a very individual, solitary profession," he explains. "Film is different. You have to mingle."

There was a price to pay for championing the cause of art but Shariffe was willing to pay it.

"In the mid-1960s and early 1970s I spent a very trying time in Sudan. I tried to paint as a painter, live the lifestyle of a painter dedicated to his art. But the only people who appreciated my work were a handful of elite Sudanese and the khawagas, or whites. I wanted to reach out to the Sudanese masses. I wanted to communicate with a wider audience."

"Cinema has the ability to communicate across cultures and social classes. Illiterate people can relate to cinema. You don't have to be highly educated or cultured to connect to cinema."

He soon realised that he would have to leave Sudan in order to pursue one of his passions.

Shariffe waited for several seconds to see if I had understood the awful implications of his words. When he spoke again it was as if in a dream.

"Why not the cinema?" he asks himself. "I always loved cinema. Since I was a child."

Nightmarish images of contemporary Sudan send bizarre stories spurting from his mouth.

"Social conditions have worsened in Sudan," he says. "Millions of Sudanese live a life of squalor."

Shariffe begins telling the tale of a Sudanese brigand who became a national hero. He wants to tell the world the story of the brigand in film.

Clearly etched into his mind are the stories of men who embodied the calamitous Sudanese situation. The imagery of those tragic events he turns into film.

Al-Wathiq Sabah Al-Kheir (literally Self- Confident Man Good Morning) was a notorious Sudanese Robin Hood-like figure who robbed the rich and distributed his loot among the poor. Al-Wathiq emerged on the Sudanese scene at the time of the introduction of the Islamic Shari'a (or September) laws in 1985 by the then military ruler Ja'afar Al- Numeiri. It was a time of terrible famine.

"Al-Wathiq was overly sensitive about his ethnic origin for he belonged to the much derided Abid Al- Shagia or The Slaves of the Shagia Tribe. A police officer provocatively called him a slave, and in a fit of rage Al-Wathiq struck him dead. From then on there was no stopping Al-Wathiq: he stole expensive cars, broke into wealthy homes, raided police stations. But he was caught in the end. His trial lasted an hour. He was crucified for 40 minutes before being put to death. His funeral turned into a political demonstration. Al-Wathiq became a legend even during his own lifetime."

Shariffe's film Al-Wathiq never saw daylight. The British television Channel 4 promised some funds, and Shariffe is still soliciting money to complete the filming.

"Then there was the tragedy of Hassan Abu Anga who had his right hand and left foot chopped off under the cruel September laws. Islam is not such a brutal religion, but unscrupulous lawmakers make it appear so," Shariffe laments.

The first ever film he worked on was about white mercenaries in Africa.

"I worked with French film-maker Henri Hervé. The Sudanese State Corporation for Cinema was involved. The film, entitled Facts, depicted the life and adventures of Hans Luther Steiner, a Geman mercenary captured in southern Sudan in the early 1970s. This was immediately after the ending of the Biafra war in which mercenaries played a prominent part. There were white mercenaries in Congo, in Angola, all over the continent."

Unfortunately for Shariffe, Steiner was released and work on the film was abruptly terminated.

"The first film I ever directed was a documentary about a tribe in Ingassena, southern Blue Nile. They worshipped fire and the sun. After harvest they celebrated by dancing and festivities and a ritual involving throwing and burning embers on the fields. The dance is a ritual in honour of the sun, in honour of the abundance of the sun's largesse. The ritual is a prayer of gratitude to the sun for a plentiful harvest. It is a fertility rite."

The Throwing of Fire received critical acclaim when it was released in 1973. It was a short, straightforward documentary about a remote tribal people and their time-honoured traditions.

Determined to acquaint himself more with the world of cinema Shariffe enrolled at the National Film School in London. He returned to England, this time to study film. "The school is very competitive. Out of thousands of applications only 25 are admitted. We were only 19 in my year. The other hopefuls were not up to par."

The Dislocation of Amber, shot in Suakin, Sudan's ancient slave port on the Red Sea, was the deciding factor in his acceptance at the school. Today the city lies in ruins, a shadow of its former self. Shariffe uses symbols -- scorpions, seashells, and camel caravans -- to accentuate a sense of utter desertion. Suakin's vacant coral buildings, a naked man crucified, slaves by the sea crouching on the beach, all lend portent to the film.

"The slaves in the film were actually prisoners in a Suakin jail. We gave them food and they were very happy being filmed and pretending to be slaves. Suakin was an old slave port. When the slave trade ended Suakin died." Poems sang by the late Sudanese star Abdel-Aziz Dawoud provide haunting background music. Indeed, Shariffe later made a film about the life and music of Abdel-Aziz Dawoud.

"The first time I saw Suakin was in 1972-73. We shot the film in the summer of 1974. I edited it in London in 1975. At the first screening the film was shown intact. Later the censors cut out all the nude scenes."

Tigers are Better Looking, an adaptation of a short story by Jean Rhys, followed in 1979. "In 1977 I met the author and I wrote the screenplay with her permission. 'I like it,' she said. 'But, you have seen things that are not there,' she added."

He threw himself into the work. "But never with the idea of giving up painting."

Shariffe's film on refugees, Diary in Exile, was co-directed with Atiyat El-Abnoudi. "We smuggled a copy into Sudan." It told the story of Sudanese exiles and refugees in Egypt.

Shariffe's primary education was in Sudan. As an impressionable adolescent he was sent to school in Egypt, to Victoria College, Alexandria -- an elite establishment renowned throughout the Arab World and modelled on a British public school.

When Shariffe was at Victoria College in the mid- to-late 1950s it was a venerable institution though it has since long fallen from grace. At Victoria he was introduced to classical music, English literature and painting. It was at Victoria that his innate love of painting was first nurtured by professional tutors.

Victoria was an eye-opener. Shariffe was introduced to new political concepts such as the Non- Aligned Movement and Arab nationalism. He acquired a political consciousness, but he confesses that he was "not very much involved with Egyptian society".

Naturally he was influenced by the anti-colonial climate prevalent in Egypt following the July 1952 Revolution, but he felt something of an outsider. His heart was in Sudan -- and the overriding concern in Sudan at the time was whether the country should remain united with Egypt or secede and become an independent sovereign nation. The Mahdist family, and the Umma Party it headed, were strongly opposed to unification with Egypt. The Sudanese people opted overwhelmingly for independence in January 1956.

Western-educated, Shariffe identifies strongly with certain aspects of Western culture. He is also acutely conscious of belonging to an entirely different world to the one he encountered as a young student in England. He is proud of his Sudanese roots. He speaks fondly of his homeland but is painfully aware that he is as much at home in a Western cultural milieu as in his native Sudanese setting.

"Duality is a kind of disease. One tries one's best to live with it," he says nonchalantly.

Shariffe's early adulthood was marred by the opposition of his family to his art. In his 20s matters came to a head. His father was furious, his mother disconcerted. His uncles, both paternal and maternal, strongly disapproved. His father and his uncles lacked understanding of his determination to devote his life entirely to his art. Only his grandfather understood his desire to dedicate his life to painting.

Shariffe's grandfather, Al-Sayed Abdel-Rahman Al-Mahdi, was very supportive of his grandson's endeavours "My son, I know that this is not a conventional or profitable trade. But if you love it go ahead. God bless you," his grandfather told him during a farewell visit before Shariffe's departure for England. His grandfather kissed him on the forehead. That was the last time he ever saw his grandfather.

"He was far more liberal and progressive than my father and uncles. He was ahead of his time," Shariffe says.

Al-Sayed Abdel-Rahman remembered the Battle of Omdurman in 1883. "He was a boy of 13, the British killed all his other male relatives. His mother was a formidable woman and she presented the British with her only surviving son. 'Finish him off, go ahead,' she challenged."

Shariffe explains that it was left to his grandfather to revive the Mahdist calling. "As children we used to enjoy hearing all the interesting stories about my grandfather's courage and fortitude. He was an inspiring example to us all."

Eventually Shariffe's father relented. He agreed to let his son attend art classes for a trial period of two months in Sudan. Admission at the College of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Khartoum, was the first step after which Shariffe left for England to study at the Slade School of Fine Arts, University College London.

The Slade offered interesting studio-based programmes and students developed their own work with tutorial and technical assistance according to individual needs. The Slade, established in 1871, was founded on humanist liberal arts traditions, and Shariffe soon imbued its spirit. He enjoyed studying the history and theory of art. He was especially fond of contemporary art. He never had a mentor as such but enjoyed the exchange of ideas, the learning of new techniques and the artistic ambiance of the Slade.

Among his tutors at the Slade was Lucien Freud, a grandson of Sigmund Freud and perhaps Britain's most celebrated figurative painter. But Shariffe is not in the least interested in portraits. His abstract paintings come in loud colours -- vermilion, turquoise, emerald green, crimson and canary yellow.

So how did he arrive at his style of painting?

"I can't pin it down to anyone. Living in a certain place one becomes acclimatised to its nuances and rhythms. The ambiance and the atmosphere rub off on you." And these were, after all, the swinging sixties.

In London Shariffe quickly familiarised himself with his surroundings. He was no stranger to the city, having visited regularly as a young man on trips with his father. "My wife came to London with the children in 1967 when the youngest was five."

His children were partly brought up in England. The London of the 1960s and 1970s had a profound impact on Shariffe.

"Sudanese families are dispersed all over the world," Shariffe says. His son, Ma'amoun, works in New York but hopes to pursue further education -- environmental studies are his passion, not arts. His three daughters -- Nasra, Aisha and Iman -- live in London.

Are any of his children artistically inclined?

"One of my daughters, Aisha, paints and Nasra, my eldest daughter, designs jewellery. She studied geology at the University of Yarmouk, Jordan. Perhaps there is a correlation between jewellery and geology."

Shariffe left England for Sudan in August 1989.

"After spending two years doing nothing in Sudan I came to Cairo. Egypt is close to Sudan both in a geographical and a cultural sense. But still one feels a little like an exile."

"Cairo is conducive to work," he says. But the Cairene artistic community did not accept him wholeheartedly. "Not in any tangential kind of way," he regrets. "They are very cliquish over here, especially the artists."

Shariffe didn't plan to come to Cairo, "things just worked out that way."

"A friend of mine, Sudanese lawyer and human rights activist Amin Mekki Medani said why not come to Cairo. I was in Sudan at the time and the climate was not at all conducive to work. So I took up his invitation and I moved to Cairo. I stayed on."

His studio is strewn with brushes and paint, bottles and canvasses. Shariffe points to a frangipani on his balcony. "I love plants," he says, clutching a packet of cigarettes. He chain smokes.

"At the moment I am working on a film on poetry," he says. Entitled Letters from Abroad, he explains that the film's focus is on Sudanese "poetry of exile". He has the nervous glow of someone about to embark on a new project. "Abroad being a place in the mind; not necessarily physical or geographical."

There are many Sudanese who are internally displaced because of the civil war. Shariffe's film Not the Waters of the Moon, a documentary he directed that was written for and sponsored by UNICEF, tells the stories of children at war. It was shot in southern Sudan under difficult circumstances.

"I am a painter. Each work of art is different. I paint essentially for myself. I see myself essentially as a painter, but I also come to life as a film director."

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