Written by Mysa Kafil-Hussain

“My homeland exists in my nails, it expresses itself whenever I create an artwork.”
Mohammad Omar Khalil[1]

Born in 1936 in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, Mohammad Omar Khalil is now an internationally esteemed painter, collage artist and master printmaker. Khalil spent much of his early life in Khartoum, and went on to study in the city’s School of Fine and Applied Arts, where he graduated in 1959 with a Diploma in Painting.[2] He then began teaching at the same institution, reaching the position of Head of Painting, but left several years later to pursue further education abroad. In 1963, Khalil enrolled into the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy; where he learnt a range of skills including mosaic art, fresco painting and printmaking. Upon leaving Italy, Khalil returned briefly to Sudan where he became Head of Painting at the Khartoum Technical Institute, remaining there for less than a year before moving on to new pastures. Khalil arrived in New York in 1967, where he still lives and works to this day.

New York marked a new start for Khalil and a new world of possibility, with the bustling city’s bright lights and creative spirit providing the artist with much inspiration, and he felt right at home: “I loved the speed, and the ideas that were happening right and left. I decided that if I had to be an artist, this was the right place. It had to be New York.”[3] New York influenced his work immensely, especially in his growing incorporation of elements of Western pop culture and the almost-synesthetic impact of American soul and jazz music. However, despite his love for his new home, he still returned to Sudan and the wider Arab region as much as possible.[4] Khalil began working in New York’s Pratt Institute and The New School in the early 1970s, teaching printmaking in these world-renowned institutions.[5] In 1978, the ground-breaking Asilah Festival took place for the first time in Morocco, first initiated by Moroccan artist Mohammed Melehi, with Khalil not only taking part as an artist but also held the position of Head of Studios, leading workshops in engraving for other artists attending the festival. Khalil soon bought a home in the old city, and still returns to Asilah every year to take part in the festival and, according to residents, enjoys walking leisurely around the beautiful, narrow paths of the small coastal city.[6]

In 1988, a disastrous flood submerged Khartoum, destroying a great deal of the city including Khalil’s hometown. Unfortunately, much of the artist’s work that he had produced in the 1960s between Sudan and Italy was destroyed, including hundreds of prints and paintings. A large segment of Khalil’s early art collection was thus lost forever.[7] Around the same time, Khalil was producing some of his most celebrated prints, including his Petra series, which he made between the 1980s-90s following a visit to the famous Jordanian site. He created diptychs and triptychs inspired by the magic and light of Petra, exuding a delicate and ethereal darkness which he also uses in much of his other prints, including other series’ in the 1990s such as Harlem and other works dedicated to cities which inspired him across the world. This mysterious darkness, in which he experimented with endless, rich gradations of black and white, allowed his imagination to run riot in his search for light, exploring – in his own words – the “pits where I found myself more liberated than ever”[8], seeing vivid colours within the darkness.

Whilst he didn’t stop creating his unique prints, upon the turn of the 21st Century Khalil seemed to allow bright and bold colours back into his work in a wide range of paintings and collages, which he produced over many years. These artworks were inspired by many influences – music, politics, personal experience, just to name a few. However, the vast majority were inspired by Khalil’s travels, especially to Morocco and southern Spain. Five of these artworks can be found in the Dalloul Collection: Desert Music (2003), Troittor I (2003), Shift III (2003), Marrakech Fana Mosque (2010) and Cordoba (2010), all of which are made with oil paint and collage on wood, allowing the viewer into a world full of textures, materials, colours and abound with energy and stories. Whilst the three paintings from 2003 are some of his earliest forays into vibrant collage work, by the time he created both Marrakech Fana Mosque and Cordoba, he was well versed in visually manifesting the sights, sounds and atmospheres of places through a spontaneous patchwork of images, fabrics and paint. His trips to Morocco, a place close to his heart, had a great impact on him over many decades, and gave him an intimate knowledge of the aesthetics of the country, as is evident in his Marrakech artwork. For Khalil, the streets of the city were a constant source of inspiration, whether it was the tile work, the textiles or just the trees and door knockers – together, he would transform all the bits and pieces he collected with his own hands until they would find their place in his collage to evoke the senses of the city.[9]

Cordoba was born out of a similar story, but the trip Khalil found himself on in the south of Spain was actually a unique group adventure with fellow artists Ibrahim El-Salahi, Dia al-Azzawi and art collector, AbdulMagid Breish. In the spring of 2009, Khalil was on sabbatical from his teaching in New York and travelled to Paris to research Paolo Uccello (which inspired a further series of collage works by Khalil under the title of Uccello’s 15th Century masterpiece, The Battle of San Romano). Breish, knowing that Khalil was in Europe, invited him to join the trip, and the group travelled together throughout Andalusia to inspire their disparate art practices.[10] Khalil was deeply moved by this journey, and once he returned home, “the art poured out, directly onto the canvas”.[11] Incorporating patterns, textures and colours inspired by Cordoba, Khalil created a snapshot of his vision of the city, also using photographs of the city’s famous Mosque-Cathedral, given to him by Azzawi after Khalil’s camera was unfortunately stolen.

There are many reasons why Khalil’s work stands out so clearly over so many decades. His paintings, etchings and collages have been described as traveler’s diaries, with the artist living “deeply in every moment of his travel” with music emanating from his images,[12] and so many of his works exude a personal touch in the details of the fabrics collected for his collages, the expressive brushstrokes in his paintings, and the magical darkness and light etched into his prints. The character and universality of his artwork move rhythmically from Khartoum to Marrakech to Andalusia and to New York and beyond, marking him not just as a Sudanese, African, or Arab artist but as an international master of his field, with his work naturally finding a home in countless global institutions and collections.

Khalil continues to live and work in New York City, and still exhibits across the world.

[1] The Mosaic Rooms, “Exhibition Guide: Mohammad Omar Khalil – ‘Homeland Under My Nails’”, The Mosaic Rooms, London, 2020, https://13rf5f1h78h24flvaf33gx6s-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/Exhibition-Guide-MOK.pdf

[2] Albareh Art Gallery, “Mohammad Omar Khalil”, Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain, n.d., http://www.albareh.com/en/artists/biography/8.html

[3] The Mosaic Rooms, “Exhibition Guide: Mohammad Omar Khalil – ‘Homeland Under My Nails’”

[4] Farouk Yousif, “محمد عمر خليل المسافر الأقل خبرة في التفاؤل”, Al-Arab, September 10, 2016, https://alarab.co.uk/محمد-عمر-خليل-المسافر-الأقل-خبرة-في-التفاؤل 

[5] Albareh Art Gallery, “Mohammad Omar Khalil”

[6] Yousif, “محمد عمر خليل المسافر الأقل خبرة في التفاؤل”

[7] The Mosaic Rooms, “Exhibition Guide: Mohammad Omar Khalil – ‘Homeland Under My Nails’”

[8] Abdul Aziz Ashour, “محمد عمر خليل: ذاع صيته في الغرب ووجد ضالته في الشرق”, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, June 27, 2012, https://archive.aawsat.com/print.asp?did=682319&issueno=12256

[9] Roula El Zein, “‘A Bridge Between Two Worlds: Mohammed Omar Khalil”, Mohammad Omar Khalil: A Bridge Between Two Worlds (Exhibition Catalogue, Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain), 2014, https://issuu.com/albareh/docs/albareh-mok-brochure

[10] Mohammad Omar Khalil, “Andalusia”, in In Vested Interests: from Passion to Patronage: The AbdulMagid Breish Collection of Arab Art, ed. Louisa Macmillan (Milan: Skira, 2020), 225

[11] Ibid

[12] Yousif, “محمد عمر خليل المسافر الأقل خبرة في التفاؤل”

Sources

Albareh Art Gallery: “Mohammad Omar Khalil”. Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain. Accessed September 2020. http://www.albareh.com/en/artists/biography/8.html

Ashour, Abdul Aziz. “محمد عمر خليل: ذاع صيته في الغرب ووجد ضالته في الشرق”. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. June 27, 2012. Accessed September 2020.  https://archive.aawsat.com/print.asp?did=682319&issueno=12256

El Zein, Roula. “‘A Bridge Between Two Worlds: Mohammed Omar Khalil”. Mohammad Omar Khalil: A Bridge Between Two Worlds (Exhibition Catalogue, Albareh Art Gallery, Bahrain). 2014. Accessed September 2020. https://issuu.com/albareh/docs/albareh-mok-brochure

Elkayal, Heba. “For Sudanese Artist Mohammad Omar Khalil, Black Is All Color”. Al-Fanar Media. March 30, 2020. Accessed September 2020. https://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2020/03/for-sudanese-artist-mohammad-omar-khalil-black-is-all-color/

Khalil, Mohammad Omar. “Andalusia”. In In Vested Interests: from Passion to Patronage: The AbdulMagid Breish Collection of Arab Art, ed. Louisa Macmillan, p. 225. Milan: Skira, 2020.

The Mosaic Rooms: “Exhibition Guide: Mohammad Omar Khalil – ‘Homeland Under My Nails’”, The Mosaic Rooms, London. 2020. Accessed September 2020. https://13rf5f1h78h24flvaf33gx6s-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/Exhibition-Guide-MOK.pdf

Yousif, Farouk. “محمد عمر خليل المسافر الأقل خبرة في التفاؤل”. Al-Arab. September 10, 2016. Accessed September 2020. https://alarab.co.uk/محمد-عمر-خليل-المسافر-الأقل-خبرة-في-التفاؤل