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False Starts - some incomplete observations on the paintings of Amir Shingray

The Night Before I Murdered Sir Lee Stack, Unfinished State, Acrylic on Canvas, 2009

1. A nomad’s footprints

It would be foolish to attempt to catalogue Amir Shingray’s works, regardless of how tempting the thought might be. The greater majority of them are scattered around the world, left behind in haste upon leaving one country for another - Turkey, Canada, Jordan, the US - or sold for a couple of hundred dollars to help a friend get to Africa, or often simply buried beneath ten other paintings on the same canvas - how many times have I asked him about a painting only to hear that he’d painted over it. Given the impossibility of the task at hand, I will instead simply draw a shape around what is known, and leave the missing pieces to the imagination. These gaps do not trouble the artist, so we should feel the same way.

Originally trained as an engineer, Amir quickly found that his interests lay elsewhere – his time in the American College in Istanbul, studying under Greg Wolf, saw him first come to terms with his new vocation as an artist, then swallow whole the greater part of contemporary art history. Wolf, a charismatic American expat, found a kindred spirit in Amir, a born nomad, describing him as “the American College’s equivalent of the Notre Dame quarterback” - his influence continues in Amir’s mature work through its wit and irreverence. The early paintings from Istanbul I have only seen in reproduction - postcards, exhibition catalogues, slides, newspaper articles. At the time it was often compared to Miro because of its formal composition: often blocky, with strong outlines and ambiguous anthropomorphic shapes; or to Basquiat for more obvious, if annoying reasons. Amir himself was more strongly influenced by Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns, and the idea of forging a separate and enigmatic identity that refused to occupy the space designated for it in the paternalistic art ‘world.’ Several exhibitions followed, the work both political and comedic, a deflation of the pretenses of the 1980s, identity politics reduced to a dick joke (Portable Ethnicities), the willful scavenging of ‘western’ art for useful forms and artifacts; in these early pieces, dissonance is preferred, tropes are played with and then cast aside, the ground shifts beneath these paintings, their titles are important. Thankfully, many of these pieces survive intact in private collections in Istanbul, acquired by both knowing collectors and loyal friends.

The work from the 1990s, mostly made in Toronto, was more nostalgic, perhaps as a result of the greater geographic distance between the artist and his homeland, as well as his exit from the hotbed of politics that is Istanbul for the relative stability of Canada. In both their form and content, the images spoke to memories, both cultural and from his own childhood: the surfaces were densely worked, coloured from edge to edge, poems and snippets from conversations, jokes, or the Qur’an filled the air around his figures, and the enigmatic titles – About a Bicycle (1994), Crocodiles in my School Yard (1993) – pointed back to both childhood and, inexorably bound up in those memories, Port Sudan, his hometown and scene of so many mythical tales; the legendary homeland of the Queen of Sheba and place of the jinn, the western coast of the Red Sea has held a fascination for artists and storytellers since ancient times, though at this stage Amir was directly concerned with trying to recapture the personal mythology of his youth. Later work from the same period was more epic though, fuelled by the artist’s desire to retell the folk tales that had cast a spell on him as a child - fully formed mythic figures emerged onto huge 6 by 12 foot panels as he tried to recover the lost stories of his people and nail them down. A suite of six of these enormous paintings was exhibited in Toronto in 1996, signifying in some ways the end of an era; it was as if he had exhausted the theme, and in doing so had also exhausted the possibilities Toronto offered him – a change of scenery was needed.

Travels in Jordan and France led to a suite of portraits of women, arabesques that dissolved form into colour and pattern – of those more will be written later – paintings that disappeared into safehouses in Jordan after Amir returned to Canada, lost to all but their residents, dear friends who could be trusted with anything; I recall them from memory as they have left no photographic trace, though their colours – burnt orange and cerulean blue, rippling black outlines – endure…

And then it occurs to me that a chronological account seems inadequate – it wallpapers over the simultaneous experiments in dozens of different directions, creates a false sense of continuity or striving that does not fit the facts, such an interpretation would only mislead, so perhaps the only place to start is at the present moment, and then work backwards from this point.

2. What is past, or passing, or to come

On my computer screen are a series of photographs of paintings; by the time I finish writing this, and how much more so by the time you might read these words, these paintings may cease to exist, or to resemble the photographs in any way. Part compulsion, part perfectionism, Amir’s process evades easy categorization - it is a working and reworking, a teasing-out of possible directions, absolutely without sentiment or glorification of the ‘finished’ piece. This is not to say that his painting is all process – the surfaces of those works he deigns to exhibit and sell are meticulously detailed and composed, the idea is seamlessly integrated however ragged they might appear – it is rather to say that, until a piece attains that final state, it is fair game for interventions, re-inventions, or cataclysms that might even result in its complete destruction.

Recent work – exhibited at Craig Scott Gallery from November 2008 to January of 2009 – records the Canadian landscape, seemingly in late autumn and winter, its muddy browns, off-whites, and greys, steel blues and tangled foliage rendered against a sequence of meandering lines and layers of dripping orange paint on relatively small supports – the largest piece is perhaps three feet square, though many are composed as diptychs and triptychs. This is the terra firma of Southern Ontario, tracked by the machinery of agriculture, the weight of concrete and asphalt, the lonely poetry of empty box-store parking lots late at night, their foggy air illuminated in patches by floodlights, making visible the yellow-lined parking spaces stained with oil patches and tire tracks. The flatness of the land proposes a geometric solution, and lines and arrows are traced across it by the artist, hinting at the inevitable development that can only be years away, the tract homes buried beneath this fertile soil, the heavy trucks and machinery that will excavate them in due course.

An email arrives with new images attached. The snow and mud has been banished, there is movement in yet another direction - this time facing towards Cairo, tongue firmly in cheek. An enormous painting - 7 x 6 feet - mischievously titled ‘The Night Before I Murdered Sir Lee Stack’, depicts a meeting of conspirators, perhaps even a party: there is an oud player in the foreground, other musicians, people smoking. The atmosphere is redolent of the 1920s, we could be in Raffles in Singapore, or any number of similar colonial establishments across the planet, though the title clearly situates us in Cairo, in an Oriental riff on a speakeasy. They are not content to simply flaunt the rules of Islamic prohibition, these anarchist creative types want to change the course of history – Lee Stack was the chief officer of the British colonial corps, and his assassins (in actual fact, never conclusively identified, though men hanged for the crime) have gathered here in anticipation of his demise. The viewpoint depicted in the painting is that of the artist, he is taking in the scene, and he is describing himself as an assassin, a term that clearly ties him to decadent antecedents such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, themselves, perhaps ironically, both orientalists by nature and figures of huge influence in the Arabic avant-garde culture (see Samir Kassir’s Being Arab). The actual assassins of Islamic history usually died while carrying out their tasks – when an artist assumes such a viewpoint, that of one who will risk all, it means that he resists the easy interpretations of history, such as liberal pipe dreams of giving voice to the dispossessed – what is going on here is rather more complicated than that. The actual murder of Lee Stack took its course in 1924, and set off a calamitous sequence of events that affected East Africa for decades, as if calamity could have been otherwise avoided, or that African history, like all history, is not simply a catalogue of outrages. Of course, for Amir, history is written at parties, or in the arms of a woman, or in music, it is not cut-and-dried from history books, instead it is elusive and confusing, experienced and then remembered in a haze, a nightmare from which we are all trying to wake. Like Nietzche’s words written in blood and aphorisms, Shingray’s paintings are not to be looked at, they are to be lived in. What is striking here is not the fascinating back story, or the imagined faces of these conspirators, whose own portraits have been written out of history, as they belonged to neither the winning nor losing side in the great game of Egyptian politics; beyond all that, what impresses is the colour sense, the rhythms and patterns of the painting, the way that the rows of hats seem to intone a strange, dissonant melody, the dark glasses and bowties give an air of mystery as they transmute into secret signals from the lost pages of history.

Stepping backwards in time, we come to Amir’s first major show in several years, held at Craig Scott Gallery in March 2007. A few themes dominated, most particularly the idea that ‘the main attribute of a state is its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence’, a pointed dig at both American interventionism and the Islamic fascism of the current Sudanese government, but with a sense of history that detached his outrage from immediate events and rendered the work as something more than agit-prop. The paintings depict subjects such as the gallows of Nimeiri’s state terror - inherited from the British, and explicitly depicted in the photo-collages and drawings of the Nation Building series, one of the paintings featuring the annotations of a former prison guard who had written Amir a letter outlining the formal procedures involved in an execution - or the husks of burnt-out villages in the Darfur series, created from loose piles of twigs and garbage in an assemblage that conveyed both the poverty of these marginal populations and their absolute lack of value to the ruling elites. These are literal depictions of the costs of war, descendants of Goya’s Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica. Dismembered doll parts float in pools of oil, a heavy-handed but accurate comment on American actions in the Middle East. The legitimacy of violence is confronted with its end result. Portraits of pachas, on paper, plastic, ceramic, canvas, wood, created an historical context: the violence is not the consequence of Africans run amok, bereft of a guiding colonial hand to keep them from killing each other; instead, it is the endgame in a centuries-long conquest of the land, whether by the Turks, the British, or any form of government which refuses people their autonomy; there is a line drawn in the sand from colonialism to Islamism, a gilded authoritarian edge – a line that joins the pachas to the janjaweed of Darfur by way of Westminster and Khartoum. In the artist’s eyes, there is no lesson to be learned here, no way to avoid the inevitable - this is what people do, they destroy one another. A solitary piece offers hope - The Fountain for the Unknown Writer acknowledges the ultimate price paid by journalists and poets, both in Sudan and around the world, many of them hanged on the very gallows depicted on the far wall, and posits a monument to their memory. These are not abstract notions for Amir – he has close friends in exile, threatened with violence for their critiques of various gangster governments. Yet unlike Anselm Kiefer’s monumental works for the Unknown Artist, with their rather obvious icon of a palette (and after all, how many artists have died for their paintings?), Amir’s work is wilfully comical and good humoured, composed of humble materials - a basin which has been rigged with an aquarium’s water pump, its water dyed black with ink and reflecting our own faces back, knowing that we could all share the fate of this writer, if oil were found under our houses, or if government were to slip into authoritarianism. There was a later plan to expand this work into more durable materials – marble, bronze, fountains and the like – but Amir abandoned it, the ersatz materials were more in keeping with his intent.

3. A technical digression

There is a certain flatness to acrylic paint that seems to suck the light out of colours. Few artists handle it deftly; it is the purview of the industrial artist, the weekend painter or the signmaker. Amir, too impatient to await the drying of oils, favours acrylics, often mixing india ink, pencil inscriptions, and markers into the process. In his hands, the ordinarily flat paint acquires a textural quality, often through unusual mixing of colours, but more often through the confidence of his gestural brushstrokes. The spray of water at the centre of Istanbul (2006), which I own, illustrates this. I am standing in my hallway, looking at it now, a brushy off-white tinged with ochre and grey. While remaining flat, it captures the movement of the paint across the surface, merging gesture with representation, its plumy whiteness contrasting with the neutral, almost-grey primer behind to create a sense of depth where none should be apparent. But there are additional reasons for the selection of acrylic as the medium of choice – the flat pieces are more easily transported without damage, they can simply be removed from their stretchers and rolled up without fear of cracking, smudging or any of the other risks one takes when doing the same with an oil painting; I should think that Amir, who has traveled extensively and often on short notice, find this to be of some comfort, knowing that his work can be stored and travel with him regardless of whatever last-minute evacuation might await.

There was a period when he worked primarily with oil paint, a long phase during which he was addressing directly the dichotomy of being an African artist working in a primarily European medium – as always, he approached it in the context of a joke, choosing deliberately classical themes such as portraits and still lifes and turning them on their head; his portraits were of the prostitutes and pimps he saw from his window on one of Toronto’s grimier corners, the fruits and vegetables of his still lifes as often as not were being eaten. Just prior to this, while living in Jordan, he had engaged directly with the arabesque tradition, exemplified in the later works of both Matisse and Picasso, two artists whom Amir reveres above all. Working again in oil, he composed a series of large canvases of seated women, in homage to the European masters, but fully with the intent of correcting the clichés of the arabesque as a resident of the Middle East and native Arabic speaker – his women seem to merge into their clothing, and in turn into their seats, all the while their black eyes stare out in interrogation of the viewer. Despite the propaganda to the contrary, Arab women control their own destiny and are not viewed as mere property of men, and it was this dignity that Amir sought to invoke, and in doing so to correct the vulgar stereotypes of the harem which have permeated art history since at least Ingres’ Turkish Bath, and to do away with the whiff of exotica and Orientalism that assigns Arabs the signifier of the other in Western culture. Of course, all of this business was infused with good humour, camaraderie, and compassion, and with the lingering perfumes of cigarette smoke, cooking, and fresh-cut flowers.

Through the years, Amir has experimented with a wide range of materials; I think of the oil pastels of his mid-90s work in Toronto, executed on Arches paper, which were generated using a process whereby the surface was covered first in a series of coloured shapes, then completely covered in black pigment, which was then scratched away to reveal the underlying colours. The pieces themselves capture that sense of discovery. The effect was one of filigree, or perhaps more accurately, latticework, reminiscent of both the complex geometries of Islamic tiles and the scraffito of nicknames carved into a school desk by mischievous boys.

4. Half a story

Where is this elusive beginning that we are so sure exists? We insist on some kind of resolution, that there must be some meaning that underlies creativity, whether the individual work – what does it mean? what is it a picture of? – and of the artist – what does he explore? what drives him? It is only with great difficulty that some of us shed these inclinations; most of us are looking for some kind of story that explains it all. Is the story set in Sudan, in an old family compound, surrounded by brothers and sisters, uncles and visiting dignitaries? I can only guess, and consider the beginnings of my friendship with the artist.

I met Amir in a cafe on Queen Street in Toronto in the autumn of 1995. He was wearing a hat and scarf though it wasn’t a particularly cold day. We had a mutual acquaintance who has since slipped out of orbit, but at the time thought that we might hit it off, and that we might work together on a show at a local gallery which too has long since disappeared, fifteen years being a long time in the life of a city. Amir was attempting to take the oral history of his culture, skip past the writing-down bit, and jump directly into a pictographic retelling of the great legends of the Red Sea, and the coral buildings of Soukin. The paintings were enormous, and executed in the living room of his apartment, the carpet spattered with paint and debris, the curtains having long since been transformed into a gallery of ideas and sketches. Periodically, Amir has been driven to work on these monumental scales. He might simultaneously be drawing tiny, intricate patterns on 10 by 10 inch oil rags, but somewhere in the studio - or garage, or spare room, or hotel room - will lurk something monstrous in scale and intention. It will be intended as a dowry to some chanteuse, or a gift to an admired journalist, or a backdrop to an imagined opera, it will contain his current obsessions, which in the past have included arches, windows, grids, sunglasses, arrows, bicycles, musical instruments, street walkers, or birds.

It seems sometimes that certain paintings are destined to belong to a particular person, and neither money nor circumstances will prevent that from happening. A particularly beautiful diptych, painted on a folding support to permit it to travel, made its way from Toronto to London, England, to fulfill its destiny as a wedding present for dear friends; more of his paintings have been sold at parties, or over coffee, than ever graced the walls of a gallery, often for the benefit of a charity or an individual in need. I have at times been able to acquire some of Amir’s paintings, though the list of ones that slipped through my fingers comprises a large part of the notes for this document; perhaps they simply were not meant to be mine. These days, I live with Istanbul, though it was in fact a commission for someone else who changed their mind at the last minute – until they come to their senses, I consider myself its guardian.

Martin Mills