Fathi Hassan's Shifting Sands: An Egyptian-Nubian artist's odyssey at a London gallery

Fathi_Hassan
5 min read
05 June, 2024

This year's London Gallery Weekend features a highlight exhibition at Frieze’s No. 9 Cork Street gallery: Fathi Hassan: Shifting Sands, by Egyptian-Nubian artist Fathi Hassan. The exhibition runs until Saturday 15 June 2024.

This exhibition, organised by The Sunderland Collection, which features rare antique world and celestial maps, promises to captivate attendees.

Fathi Hassan, born in Cairo in 1957, gained prominence in the 1980s. In 1988, he became one of the first artists of African descent to be featured at the Venice Art Biennale.

After moving from Egypt in his early twenties to study at the Naples Art School, Hassan spent many years in Italy. Now based in Edinburgh, he works across various media, including photography, painting, drawing, and installation.

Hassan graduated from the Naples Art School in 1984 and became an active figure in an avant-garde art scene that attracted international artists such as Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, and Hermann Nitsch.

This period of political and artistic upheaval, along with a vibrant dance-music scene, deeply influenced his work. Hassan exhibited many of these figures, challenging traditional notions of high art in ways that continue to influence his practice.

His artistic growth was also shaped by his work as an actor and set designer for screen and stage.

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Beth Greenacre, curator of The Sunderland Collection’s Art Programme, reflects on her collaboration with Fathi for his current exhibition: “Throughout his practice, Fathi Hassan explores the space between meaning, memory, and symbolism.

"In this new body of work, his own multicultural history and diasporic identity find a home in response to the cartographic treasures of The Sunderland Collection.

"I am thrilled to be working alongside such a remarkable artist and to have stepped into his pluralistic world as he continues to mine the collective memory and oral traditions of lost territories at a pivotal moment in the evolution of his career.”

While working with The Sunderland Collection, Hassan created art that explores the sharing of ideas and cultures around the world, cultural meetings, and his own history. The artwork shown at Frieze is a rich mix of memories, ideas, historical figures, and his unique artistic style.

In his series Trail Blazers, Hassan envisions a space where musicians, writers, entertainers, and scientists converge, their lives and work profoundly impacting global thought and culture.

This series includes figures such as Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin, and Muhammad Ali, as well as ancient icons like Muhammad al-Idrisi and Averroes.

These characters bridge geographies, eras, and identities, interacting within collaged backgrounds made from rare maps in the collection.

This idea of figures defying space and time resonates deeply in Hassan’s work, which aims to transcend spatial and temporal boundaries to connect with his historical past. However, it also suggests figures adrift in unfamiliar times and places. 

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In an exclusive interview with The New Arab, Fathi Hassan, wearing his signature Burberry bucket hat and a sandy beige linen blazer, shared his exhibition insights.

Commenting on the characters in his works, Hassan told The New Arab, “When creating art or inventing something, we enter a state of pure spiritual reciprocity — transcending time, geographical borders, and physical space. I feel I belong to nothing, and nothing belongs to me. Like the characters in my works responding to these ancient maps, I am passing through time and place.”

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Fathi Hassan, Trailblazers (Al Idrisi), 2023, mixed media on paper, 17.5 x 27cm
[Courtesy of The Sunderland Collection]

Hassan's personal history and life journeys also play a crucial role in the exhibition.

The mixed-media works on display combine collage, print, pencil, and gouache to depict autobiographical elements, Italian landscapes, and recurring motifs such as childhood animals, a crescent moon, and Nubian warriors.

These pieces reflect on the flooding of Nubia in 1952, which displaced Hassan’s family before his birth, symbolised by traditional boats (feluccas) used to navigate the Nile.

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Fathi Hassan, The Migrant... Where everything is possible, 2023, mixed media on canvas, 42 x 79cm [Courtesy of The Sunderland Collection]

Accompanying these images of personal history and life journeys are tight-knit, blocky Nubian and Arabic letters that evoke ancient memories.

Some of this "writing" is deliberately meaningless, mimicking the contours of words and blending with real letters to create pictorial forms.

This playful transformation of letters and language reflects a sense of a land that is no longer home, capturing the essence of dislocation and nostalgia as past and present merge into a unique cultural identity.

“When I create written work, I never use precise phrases; otherwise, I’d be an author. It could be a single word; it’s never a sentence. Often, the text in my work is deliberately illegible, referencing lost languages and oral histories. Nubian culture, where I originate, is an oral tradition passed through speech, inspiring the text in my art,” said Hassan. 

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Fathi Hassan, La Mappa dell'amore, 2009, 100 x 120cm, gold, silver glitter, oil and sand on canvas [Courtesy of The Sunderland Collection]

In addition to characters, Hassan intertwines replicas of The Sunderland Collection’s maps with his own detailed cartographic writing.

In Hassan's Sacred Moon (2023), Hassan weaves his distinctive text and Nubian heritage with a celestial diagram from Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia Macrocosmica (1660), creating a fusion of objective and subjective perspectives on the world. 

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Fathi Hassan, Sacred Moon, 2023, 21 x 29.5cm, mixed media on paper
[Courtesy of The Sunderland Collection]

When attending the exhibition, it's essential to acknowledge Hassan's journey marked by prolonged periods of curatorial and commercial neglect.

Despite facing these challenges, he persevered by engaging in various odd jobs, including teaching chess, tutoring Arabic, and even venturing into acting — taking on the role of Othello, a decision influenced by being one of the few black artists working in Naples at the time.

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In contrast to several artists from the Arab region currently receiving global acclaim, Hassan did not have the opportunity to be part of any sustained art scene, whether in Egypt or within the diaspora.

Today, Hassan's artistic contributions are experiencing a resurgence in the international art sphere. Notable commissions, such as those from The Sunderland Collection, and his recent affiliation with London's Richard Saltoun Gallery, renowned for its commitment to showcasing artists beyond the conventional art fair circuit, underscore his growing significance in the art world.

Zainab Mehdi is The New Arab's Associate Editor and researcher specialising in governance, development, and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region

Follow her on Twitter: @zaiamehdi