Nairobi is blessed with an abundance of brilliant Sudanese artists, most of whom have graduated from excellent art colleges and universities in Khartoum. All of them have their own approach to fine art, only that one can invariably tell that they have received some extra special inspiration having come from Sudan.
Whether it’s the teaching, tradition, temperature or convergence of the Blue and White Nile at the place where they have all gone to school, they all are striking for their unique approach to their subjects. That includes everyone from El Tayeb Dawelbait and Salah El Mur to Abushariaa Ahmed, and Rashid Diab to name a few.
Mohamed Adella Otaybi is no exception, apart from his having only arrived in Kenya recently. He has never found time to come here before, although he’s been featured in previous Circle Art shows as one of the gifted Sudanese artists. He came now specifically to attend the opening of his first solo exhibition in Nairobi at Circle Art Gallery.
Entitled ‘The Lost Paradise’, the artist quotes the British poet John Milton who wrote Paradise Lost as the inspiration for his title. “It’s a story about how Adam and Eve fall from heaven to hell,” Otaybi tells the BD Life a few minutes before guests and potential patrons start streaming in for the opening.
Asked how that story relates to him and his exhibition, he explains how his wife passed on tragically eight years ago, and he’s experienced hell without her. “She continues to be my source of inspiration and this exhibition is dedicated to her,” he says.
That might explain why we can see so many women in this show. Yet he insists the exhibition is not solely about her. However, his largest and most illustrative painting, entitled ‘The Lost Paradise’ gives a hint of how she has fueled his imagination even in her absence.
It’s got a musician playing a beautiful guitar-like instrument, a long-nosed muse right beside the guitarist and above them lies a woman atop a bright yellow wall who could easily represent his wife, or at least her silent presence in his life.
Otaybi describes one of his paintings, entitled ‘Flying Fish’ as “surrealist” which is a term that might apply to all of his paintings. In this case, the flying fish is balanced atop a man’s head, His ‘Untitled II (Bird Woman)’ replaces a bird’s beak with a woman’s head. And in ‘The Mirror’, he’s replaced a man’s head with the beak and head of a bird.
As there seem to be two mirrors in that painting, not one, he explains that when we look in a mirror, we often see someone who doesn’t look the way we imagine ourselves to be.
Yet much of Otaybi’s art has a feeling of whimsy and almost childlike playfulness to it. One sees it in works like ‘Playing Cat’, ‘Homeless Cat’, and ‘Aggressive Birds’. Animals often feature in his works, as in ‘The Horse’, ‘Bull and Dove’, ‘Two Fishes’ and one of my favorites pieces, ‘She and the Sea’ where a woman relaxes at the shore while above her a family of fish swim by.
The other reason his art has a childlike quality is that his paintings tend to be flat in the sense of lacking a three-dimensional perspective. In ‘She and the Sea’ for instance, the fish are literally above the woman, stacked as it were. Yet he leaves it to your imagination to see where they are and even see the horizon line in the distance.