The Early Years in Nairobi: Salah Elmur Interviewed by Danda Jaroljmek

Updated: Feb 25


Salah Elmur, Untiteld i, 1997

October 7, 2020


Artist Salah Elmur interviewed by Danda Jaroljmek, Founder of Circle Arts Agency and Circle Art Gallery, conducted at Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya.

Danda Jaroljmek (DJ): This is an interview with Salah about his early days in Nairobi. Salah Elmur (SE): Thank you very much DJ: So when did you first come to Nairobi? SE: Yes, I think I’d have to talk a little bit about the time before. There was a Canadian guy, his name was Bill. He used to work here in Kenya with an association that dealt with handicraft, and this association also had a branch in Sudan that also took care of handicrafts. Bill would come often to Sudan, and when he came, he would always come to my studio and buy some paintings.

DJ: What year was this? SE: I guess this was maybe 25 years ago, or something I don't remember exactly, but before I came to Kenya. DJ: After you left college? SE: But not just after; there was a time even between the college and graduation when I met with him. I think that was like 1995 (or thereabouts). He used to come buy, every six months (or so). And one day he told me, “I'm not going to come anymore because my job is finished, I'm going back to Canada. But I want to give you an address for a guy - I used to buy from you and sell to him.” And he gave me - I remember that is was a black business card - for Sarang Art Gallery. “If you go there, you are going to find good business with him, because he likes your work and he can sell it. And then, at that time, they invited me for the Sharjah Biennale. I went to the Sharjah Biennale; I didn't have money,and they paid for the ticket. And my plan was that if I sold some of my paintings there, I was going to go from Sharjah to Kenya to meet this guy.

DJ: So, you didn't know any Sudanese artists already in Kenya then?


SE: No… I knew Abushariaa Ahmed*. Me and Abushariaa, Bill used to buy from us. Abushariaa, at that time, went directly to Kenya; he reached Kenya before me. But because there were no mobiles, no emails and that sort of thing, we didn't have that link to talk and ask him about what was happening. And then I went to Sharjah, and from Sharjah... I didn't have money, and with one of my friends, his name is Bashan, we tried to find an airplane going to Kenya at a cheap price. We didn't find one, and eventually we found an airline called African International Airlines. This was a cargo (airline). They used to go to Mogadishu, and from Mogadishu, once they put all the goods down at Mogadishu, then the empty plane went to Nairobi for fueling. So I came by this plane, I went to Mogadishu, waited for people - there were no machines so people just carried all the luggage and goods down and then after that I came to Nairobi.

DJ: And were you sittingwith the cargo inthe back of the plane? SE: Yes

DJ: Did they have seats or...? SE: No, they didn’t have seats. They had blankets, so I sat over the blankets. And I came with my portfolio - I didn't have money, not even for a taxi. You imagine! For a taxi. So it was a very big risk for me. So I said, “Okay…” I arrived early in the morning, so I waited at the airport until - according to the business card Sarang Art Gallery opened like 10 (AM)... I don’t remember. So I waited until 10 (AM) then I took a taxi. And my mind was that “If this guy gives me the money for a ticket to go back to Sudan, and the taxi money, I'm going to accept.” Because I didn't have a chance. But I felt like I had to be strong.

And when I reached Sarang Art Gallery, downtown in Nairobi, I asked the taxi driver to wait for me. I went inside, I found Mr Mahendra (Shah). And then I greeted him, and I gave him the portfolio and asked him to give me, I don't remember, thousands of shillings, two or three or four. I asked him to give me that because I was in a hurry, and I was busy, and then I'd come back to make the deal with him. And he gave me the money. And then I gave the taxi driver, I rented a hotel for two days and then looked for Abushariaa, and I found him. And from then I used to work with Mahendra for a long time during my stay.


Salah Elmur, Untitled ix, 1998

SE: I feel he was happy, also because the portfolio had like 100 paintings on paper; small paintings. So he was happy. And I was asking him for some money, not because I didn't have money but because I was in a hurry and I was passing through, and I was going to have meetings with friends and other people, then I can come later. “So, give me money like it's an advance payment.” It was a trick if he gave me a for that portfolio just the expense of a ticket, and airplane ticket going back to Sudan, and paid for the taxi waiting for me outside I could accept that at that time. But I felt like I had to risk it, and be proud and again. This is the story of how I came to be in Kenya. And then I stayed for four years in Kenya, doing exhibitions at One Off Gallery, with Carol Lees, and doing workshops with Paa Ya Paa Gallery, with Mr Elimo Njau.

*Ahmed Abushariaa (b.1966) studied fine and appliedarts at the University of Khartoum but left Sudan in the mid-nineties and settled for some years in Nairobi. He now lives and works in Kampala.

DJ: So this was ‘95 to 2000.. to ‘99? SE: Yeah. I stayed for four years. Then I used, after that, to go to Sudan and come every three months or four months like that, up to now. I used to come every year to Kenya, even if I don't have business because I feel like Kenya helped me very much in my beginning.

DJ: So you're attached to this country; You feel like it's part...You’re also a bit Kenyan? SE: Yes. I feel like this is my home. And I also got a lot of inspiration from Kenya - the people, how they look, how they dress, handicrafts, decorations everywhere, colours. There are only two countries that I am inspired by - Kenya and Sudan. Or, Sudan, Paris and Kenya. So when I feel like I'm going to become empty, I travel to Sudan to recharge my battery, or I come to Kenya to recharge my battery; for new inspiration.

DJ: So when you were here, during those four years, and you met the other Sudanese artists, who was already here? SE: Me and Abushariaa, we were the first artists here in Kenya. At that time Sudan was very tough becausethe Muslim Brotherhood tried to close the country for art, for many things. So we felt like we couldn’t even survive life there. So when we were here, we told our friends to come because we found they could come, they could enjoy, and they could even make some money for their families in Sudan to survive on.

So everyone here invited his friends, and we became like a community; I think we were more than 10 artists living together. We started living in Kawangware and then we shifted from Kawangware to Pangani, and from Panganito South C (author’s note, from a very poor disadvantage area to more upwardly mobile residency areas each time they moved) And this was in those four years. And then after that, every two or three decided to go and stay together. Eltayeb (Dawelbait) went and rented an apartment alone. And some of them even went outside (left the country), like some of them went to Canada like Kujur. And some of them went back to Sudan like Ahmed Sharif. (Ahmed)Abushariaa, and Eltayeb (Dawelbait) and (Hussein) Halfawi, and Hassan Fadul, they just stayed here. But also because of business - this is unusual for today's artist community - because the market here, the local market, couldn’t fit all these artists some of them went to other kinds of work. Like Hassan Fadul, he worked, I think at that time, as a teacher in the Arabic school here in Nairobi. And Abushariaa decided to go to Germany. And then from Germany he came back to Kenya and then went to Uganda; now he's based in Uganda.


Salah Elmur, Untitled vi, 1997

DJ: Yes, RaMoMAat Rahimtullah Towers. Did you have solo exhibitions? Or…


SE: Yes, I showed with her many times. DJ: And what about your relationship with Hellmuth and Erica (Musch-Rossler) because they have some very earlyworks of yours, I think. Or they bought work from you... SE: He boughtwork from Mahendra (Shah), not from me. I think he was based in Uganda at that time. He was starting his business, and as a collector, because he likes art. And then I stopped for a long time, and when I came back. I met him and he offered me an exhibition. And then I started a business relationship in Kenya with him. We did an exhibition, me and Soaud (Abdelrassoul)* my wife. And then after that we tried to discover the art business in Kenya, and we found Circle Art Gallery, and then… We’re with Circle now.

DJ: And, tell me how you work. You said the other day that your early work from college was more similarto the work that you're doing now. And you're going to send me some pictures whenyou have a chance. SE:Yes *RaMoMA (Rahimtullah Museum of Modern Art): Established in 2001 with support from the Ford Foundation and the Rahimtulla Trust,RaMoMa was one of the leading exhibition spaces in Kenya for contemporary African art. In early 2008 the museum relocated to new largerpremises including severalindoor galleries, a sculpture garden and an outside area for open-airperformances. RaMoMa also held regular workshops for children and adults and published a quarterly magazinecalled “Msanii” on the visualarts scene in Nairobi. RaMoMAclosed in 2013 DJ:And while you were here, you needed to make work that was more commercial, so you couldsurvive. Maybe not commercial; commercial’s the wrong word, but more decorative, maybe easier to sell. Can you talk a little bit about that? And then, when did you start making the work that we now know for you? I think the first ones I saw were like the Circus series, and then the ones withthe family and so on. So, just tell me a little bit about that? SE: When I was in this art school in Sudan, my work was very similar to (my work) now. I remember we used to draw models;we didn’t have naked modelsbut we used to draw - a man standing up, carrying something and then... I remember I did something very similar. I did that work for college, and then I do my own things besides that, inspired by how he's sitting, how he’s standing up (and so on). And my first exhibition also was kind of figurative - not decorative art, figurative paintings. And I started doing that kind of figurative work, but with not too many colours; not and not decorative. And then, before I came (to Nairobi), I found - this is a mistakeof mine, but I did it also in my way - I found that people liked colours, because they think Africa is full colour and they see the bright colours as something that is African. I didn't think that, but I started doing bright colourswith inks, and that continuedfor a long time. And I found it... I enjoyed it. But I have some works - the works I used to sell to the Canadian - the colours are different from that work that I did here in Kenya.I did the Kenyan brightcolours. I mixedthe colours with white and with black to be something like my colours, not the colours from the ink bottle. When I was here, I used that, because I wanted to survive. I have a family in Sudan and I have two kids. I am from a village, I married very early when I was 21 years old.


Salah Elmur, Untitled xii, 1998

DJ: So your children are grownup now? SE: Yeah, some of them have graduated from the university and they’re working. One of them is studying at the college of dentist’s medicine, and my daughter is studying also. *Souad Abdelrassoul (b.1974) is an Egyptian artist based in Cairo. Abdelrassoul studied Fine Art at El Minya University in Egypt, graduating in 1998. She went on to postgraduate study of History of Art, and in 2012 she completed her PhD in Modern Art History. She is married to Salah Elmur. DJ: In this series of works, the small works of Mahendra’s, the work has a feeling that we here in Kenya think of as this sort of Khartoum school of painting the symbols, the patterns like the cow horns, the Nubian symbols and so on… SE: Yeah. In our school we had a syllabus. One of the major things in the syllabus was that we have to travel - they make a journeyfor students, every year - to go to different parts…

DH: Like a field trip. SE: Yeah. And on this trip, you had to copy the decorations of people, from the skin of the people, from houses, from everything. And you studied watercolour, and the landscape, and houses and this and that. Because of that you find us all of us sharing these kinds of decorations. Also, our masters, they created the Khartoum Schools, and Khartoum School had a very... I call it a caption (a motto) that Sudan is multicultural - Islamic, Christian, African, Arab country. So some of us use calligraphy, and use African decorations and... You find everything in (the work of) most of the Sudanese artists. They are inspired by that, by that manifesto of the Khartoum School.


DH: But your work now has none of that.


SE: No. Because I am inspired by models and my father’s studio. My father’s studio changed my painting so much, becauseI found - I’ve told this story many times - I found, in our home store, boxes full of photographs and negatives. And photographs were not very good ones because the good ones were taken by the clients. So I found the hazy ones, double exposure, something like that. These inspired me very much - how people were sitting and standing, facing the camera.This changed my subject matter.


DH: And were the photographs also, as well as being an inspiration for the composition of your paintings, was it also about modern Sudanese people being proud of their culture and dressing up, and, you know, like in other parts of Africa; Malik Sidibe, Seidou Keita those photographs of the proud new independent Africa.


SE: Yeah, they’re beautiful, and even the people, they’re acting. They're not coming and just being normal in front of the camera. They're acting - they’re carrying flowers, they're carrying, sometimes, cassette recorders, and they’re sitting with flowers, and even the background becomes like a landscape, or curtains. This is something very beautiful for me. I like it. And now I become a collector for old photos from anywhere - from Sudan, from Egypt, from Kenya, trying to have a very big collection and now I have more than 4,000. Good photos.


DH: Wow! You are yourself a collector, you have beautiful objects; the photographs of your house and the things that you have the ceramics and books etc


SE: All these I use; they inspire me. I can't work unless I read some stories or I look for books or I buy some antiques or some old postcards. They inspire me so much.


See works in the collection by Salah Elmur