LONDON — Mohammad Omar Khalil was born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1936. Known as a master printmaker (though he was also a painter), he followed his art studies in Sudan with training in printmaking and fresco painting in Florence, Italy. Based in New York since 1967, he has taught at New York’s National Center for Etching and the Moroccan Asilah Art Festival, all the while developing his own singular aesthetic.
Homeland Under My Nails: Mohammad Omar Khalil – Selected Prints (1964–Present) at London’s Mosaic Rooms, the first major UK survey of his work, opens with a statement reading: “I do not see color, I see light and dark … when I think of home, I do not see colors. Sudan has no color.” The first prints viewers encounter, such as “Marketplace” and “Sawakin” (both 1965), are saturated with darkness, composed of black aquatints pierced by slivers of light. These prints appear in the opening section, entitled “The Flood”; the name references a flood that hit Khartoum in 1988, destroying many of the artist’s early works that remained in his home country.
The darkness of these prints provides the groundwork for understanding the rest of Khalil’s work. Drawing out light and tone with different shades of black, he explained in a talk with journalist Maya Jaggi, “Sudan doesn’t have any color. We have green and the green is not color. The green is all gray because the sand fills the trees.”
Khalil continued to work with a grayscale palette long after settling in New York (as seen in his 1999 Harlem print series), where he worked in carpentry and printmaking before finding a job at the National Center for Etching. Yet eventually his encounters with new people and ideas prompted works like “Common Ground VII” (1985-1995) that incorporate color, as well as collage elements and references to pop culture.
In 1978 Khalil travelled to Morocco to take part in the first ever Asilah Arts Festival in Morocco, where he would return annually to serve as the festival’s head of studios, as well as running printmaking workshops and producing artworks including “Asilah Connection” (1992). In 1997, he made a monumental homage to Petra, “Petra VIII” — a triptych inspired by the magic of the historic kingdom — while creating illustrations to accompany prose by Syrian poet Adonis and Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih.
In addition to his art practice, Khalil has another great passion: music. At the Mosaic Rooms, the exhibition concludes with a gallery dedicated to musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan and Oum Kulthum (also spelled Umm Kulthum and Oum Kalthoum). Khalil used to listen to Bob Dylan in Sudan; he described the sound of his music as “mumbling.” This love of music is represented in a series of typically black works inspired by Dylan’s music, while the familiar face of Oum Kulthum makes an appearance in “Oum Kalthoum” (2008). The latter combines lithography, collage, and watercolor to form images of the Egyptian singer’s face, projecting the spirit of her legendary persona.
For all of his formal and conceptual invention, Khalil and his work are best encapsulated by “Self-portrait” (1975), an image of a man made up of different shades of black, that nonetheless radiates light. His oeuvre is a constant reminder of his association with his homeland — the exhibition title refers to his famous statement that “My homeland exists under my nails, it expresses itself whenever I create an artwork.”
“Sudan is my DNA … I feel it in all my body,” he explained to Maya Jaggi, adding, “It comes through my fingers, everything, I can recall it, I can live it. Black and white is the classic way. And it’s the richest medium, the richest color for me in all printmaking.”
Mohammad Omar Khalil: Homeland Under My Nails – Selected Prints (1964–Present) was scheduled to continue at The Mosaic Rooms (226 Cromwell Road, London, UK) through April 26. The exhibition was curated by Abed Al Kadiri with The Mosaic Rooms.
Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Cognizant of the importance of discussions around art and culture during this time, we encourage readers to explore the exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate and to view a video of the artist speaking about his practice here.