Suzanne Hilal, born and raised in Sudan before moving to the UK as a teenager, describes herself as a “Sudanese-English” Artist. After graduating from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies with a B.A. in Arabic Language and Literature, Hilal moved to the US where she is currently pursuing a J.D. in Law at the University of Loyola in Chicago. However, despite her studies, she still finds time to paint and exhibit her art. Having taken the opportunity to learn printing on a course in Chicago, Hilal’s most recent work depicts the characters and imagery of Sudanese folktales in a series of black-and-white linoleum prints.
Sudanese folktales have been a part of Hilal’s identity since childhood. Whilst no print focuses on a specific folktale, they nevertheless reference classic Sudanese characters such as Tajooj and Hassan. As a series in search of artistic meaning, Hilal’s prints combine traditional moral themes of love, trust and respect with her own personal tale of unrequited love, adventure and friendship. The Fatal Beauty of Tajooj, for example, depicts a rural Sudanese couple in a cotton field, posed side by side in a fashion that recalls the mid-Western couple in Grant Wood’s painting entitled American Gothic. This dynamic mix of both folk and modern classics is a vehicle by which Hilal “was trying to capture love in its most simple form - love in a life of toil for mutual survival.” Furthermore, like in many narrative traditions around the world memorably imparting moral lessons, an important trait in Sudanese storytelling is also humour: equally apparent in Hilal’s personal depictions of a tale whose ending, she assures, is a happy one!
Indeed, in a piece of art, Hilal largely seeks to capture an emotion. The process of transforming her ideas onto paper “always starts with an emotion,” a mood that happens to be stirred within her (for example, this would be having read or remembered folktales in the case of her print work). Trying to articulate these subconscious forces, however, can be difficult. Yet it is this process of responding to someone or something that has always driven her creation of art. Hilal’s hope is to inspire and stir her viewers’ emotions through the imagery she creates.
Viewers are often confused about whether Hilal’s art is African or Arab. Her very linear style of drawing and monochromatic colour scheme is largely inspired by the Sudanese artists Ibrahim Salihi and Omer Khairy. The seemingly “Sudanese” artistic tradition of long faces, long noses and large eyes is also naturally evident in many of her pieces. It is in this way that her images can be seen as representing a Sudanese aesthetic in that they capture both the African and Islamic artistic traditions.
The confluence of African and Arab-Islamic culture in Sudan is essential to both Sudan’s search for identity and Hilal’s own personal works of art. Much of her work, for example, includes Islamic imagery: such as three men praying in Three Wise Men,or a girl wearing hijab in The Fatal Beauty of Tajooj, and yet the images and the subject matter appear distinctly African. The contrast is striking and vastly reflective of Sudan’s mixed heritage of African and Arab culture. The issue of identity across African and Arab culture looms large in much of Sudanese expression. This has in part been greatly influenced by an Arab ethos for search, longing and elegy; something that one may feel, for example, in the wide eyes of Hilal’s characters. Yet Sudanese expression, with roots in a folktale tradition of kings, saints and learned men, is overwhelmingly shaped by a specifically Sudanese experience since before the coming of Islam to Sudan.
Although Hilal does not consider her art to be particularly religious, she does see the association of Islam in her work. Given the belief of some Muslims that the depiction of human and animal forms is against religious law, Hilal is often asked if such views have shaped her own artwork. She is quick, however, to point out that the first Muslim coins bore the pictures of caliphs and amirs, the first mosques were adorned with birds and beasts, and the first palaces bore the forms of men, women, and animals. These artistic and architectural facts from early Umayyad times, she argues, demonstrate that “the drawing of the human form was very much apart of early Muslim culture.” Hilal further explains that the Islamic prohibition of such representation is a cultural phenomenon that is extra-scriptural and became prevalent only later, after the revelation of the Qur’an. Hilal’s perspective suggests that an iconoclastic principle of religion established in the Qur’an (the condemnation of the association of images with the worship of God) may have only later impacted a wider Islamic practice of purely abstract visual expression.
As an artist who is native to Sudan, grew to adulthood in the UK, and learned the technical skills of modern art in the US, the “Sudanese-English” nature of Hilal’s work might not be immediately apparent. “The connections are more subtle,” explains Hilal. Although her subject matter mostly explores an attachment to her Sudanese culture, it has been England and the US that have given her the opportunity and means by which to pursue her love of art. “My subject matter has thus far been related to Sudan but my depiction of it is neither typically nor simply Sudanese, especially considering I learnt the printing technique I use here in the US.” It is in this way that her connections to all three countries are evident in her work and that her “life experiences come together on paper.”
Although Hilal does not find as much time to paint and exhibit her work as she would like, given her law study commitments, she is nevertheless working on a short story of love and friendship to go with her linoleum prints, which she hopes to publish as an illustrated children’s book. To see more of Hilal’s work including her ink sketches and paintings, click here
Interview by Varun Verma