Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Passing on an icy pavement

Mohamed Behnes (1972-2013)

Mohamed Behnes had an uncanny knack for pushing boundaries throughout his tragically short life. He was born in Sudan’s twin capital Omdurman, the pulsating heart of the country’s culture. His art demonstrated the love he had for his people. And, his target audience loved him in return. But, we all know that sometimes love is not enough.

The blistering heat of his native Sudan was a million miles away. Crouched on a frost-enveloped pavement in a backstreet of Downtown Cairo, he starved to death; his life of esthetic outpourings frozen as if in eternity. He juggled a very different set of challenges in Cairo than he did in Europe.

As far as Behnes was concerned, Cairo was a city where new forms of artistic expression could still happen. He was never one to avoid unnecessary controversy, indeed he courted disaster. He participated in Egypt’s 25 January 2011 Revolution, and it is ironic that he ended his days on earth in the city he loved, a city which did not particularly love him in return. His was a story of unrequited love. His French wife divorced him and kept their son with her in France. Towards the end of his life, he was deserted by friends and fellow artists.

Behnes was too proud to beg. Yes, he sometimes frequented the tiny Sudanese restaurant and adjacent café in Adli Street, Downtown Cairo for a free meal. He had many admirers, but at heart he was a loner. And, yet he died hungry of hypothermia. That was during the freezing spell of mid-December, the first time it snowed in Cairo for some 212 years.

Behnes chaffed at the idea of being confined to a certain artistic medium, or a particular country for that matter. He was a classic roamer, a wayfarer and wanderer. He was a romantic idealist who lived in cloud cuckoo-land. He believed in causes, but he was a rebel who was too much of an aesthetic to focus on making things happen. His instinct was hedonistic, free-spirited.

Although Behnes was mostly associated with the visual arts, he was also a symbolic poet and musician. He was an accomplished guitarist, and his novel, Al-Raheel (The Departure) received critical acclaim. Every one of his artistic talents replenished an adrenaline rush in the Sudanese artist, each requiring a certain amount of attention to detail, and each not quite satisfying to him when he experienced the outcome delivered, and yet he received numerous international accolades.

His first exhibition was in his hometown, Omdurman in 1999. He participated with 50 African artists in “The Language of Colour” in Bonn, Germany, in 2002. And, next in 2003 at the German Cultural Centre in Khartoum. In 2004 he flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to stage another exhibition. These were productive and prolific years and Behnes was fired by ambition and hope. He was, however, prone to depression and often succumbed to long periods of melancholia, despondency and even ennui.

But, he invariably bounced back emerging even more enthusiastic than before. In 2006, he exhibited his artwork in Nantes; Ariege in southern France; and La Selle-Guerchaise, Brittany, France. He settled for a few years in France but was drawn to Africa, ironically he was fleeing the freezing winters and coldness of the people in Europe. Alas, he never found warmth in Africa.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find the fact that Behnes died frozen with hypothermia on the backstreets of Cairo particularly galling. Death of tramps, street children and beggars on the streets of Cairo are nothing new. And, in other major cities in the world including in North America and Europe the death of award winning artists, let alone budding ones, penniless and on the pavements is not uncommon. The mortal remains of Behnes were flown to Khartoum for burial last week.

Nevertheless, I believe that the tragedy of the passing of Behnes in such cruel circumstances is a wake-up call of sorts. African governments face tremendous social and economic challenges. Political priorities take precedence over culture. Yet, most cultural workers in Africa see their art as political. The problem is that most regard themselves as political activists. And, hence distance themselves from their governments. And, many — one hears it often enough anecdotally — like Behnes are forced into exile, either for political or economic reasons. It is hightime that African governments with the right due diligence, see culture as a sound investment.



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