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A Sudanese artist’s journey to find his place in the world

Very little has been written about the artist Hussein Salim. It is surprising given he has been exhibiting frequently in South Africa, his artworks sell out at art fairs and in London-based auctions and they present a unique abstract aesthetic. The fifty-something Sudanese artist attributes the paucity of texts about him to his terrible grasp on English. He has shied away from interviews. In truth, the unique turn of phrases he utters and his economy of language in relaying the essence of his life-journey – there are no spare words for idle chatter – add to his charm and make his story more compelling. In some ways it is a familiar story. Far too many African artists have had to leave their native countries to become and remain artists. However, the way in which Salim has found success and acceptance in a country with a reputation for xenophobia – largely targeted at African nationals – is refreshing. Uplifting even.

His largest solo exhibition in South Africa, The Garden of Carnal Delights, which opened at the Melrose gallery in Joburg in May, presented a landmark of sorts. It is the culmination of a series of fortuitous twists and turns since he left his hometown in Sudan in the late nineties.

On paper Salim was not in any way destined to be an artist. Born into a poor family of 13 children there was pressure to pursue a stable income and career.

“It was a day of big conflict in my home,” recalls Salim of the occasion he revealed his ambitions to be an artist to his father.

“You are kidding,” was his father’s response.

Convincing his father that he had a talent worth pursuing was just one of the barriers. There was also the fact that the rural village of Karim, where he grew-up was an actual desert and a cultural one too. There was no access to books, images or art. The internet had not arrived either. It seems almost impossible that someone would grow up aspiring to be an artist in such a context, but, conversely it seems to have shaped Salim’s proclivity for images.

“I grew up surrounded by emptiness. Total emptiness. I never saw an apple until I was seven years old. I knew they existed but didn’t know what it might look like, is it square does it have stripes? That kind of emptiness and poorness allows us to imagine things because we don’t have it in front of our eyes,” says Salim.

Not only did this absence of visual references feed his imagination and desire to draw but it also set him on a path of abstraction which has marked his art ever since.

There are a vast range of works on The Garden of Carnal Delights, in different palettes and marked by varying abstract patterns. In Ducklings, all manner of motifs recalling letters of the alphabet, animals, fish and wheels, swirl around a leaning figure and two orbs. This should make for chaotic scene yet all the objects somehow are suspended in a balanced composition. A work titled Francis is