Meet ArtEx participant Ahmed Umar
13.03.2023 / The support I received through ArtEx has been absolutely invaluable.
“It has helped me get back on my feet and be able to work”
Artist and ArtEx participant Ahmed Umar (35) received support at a critical time in his career.
At the moment, Ahmed’ solo exhibition «Glowing Phalanges» is being shown at Kunstnernes Hus (the artists’ house) in Oslo (Norway). Six months ago he would never have believed that it was going to be such a unique success acclaimed by the critics, since he was going through one of his biggest crises as an artist at the time.
«I can’t tell you how totally important the support I got through ArtEx was. The fact that they organized a psychologist for me, has been invaluable. Had that not happened, I don’t think I could have carried on», says Ahmed.
«It has helped me get back on my feet and be able to work.»
Success and illness
The exhibition had been planned for several years, but not that it would fill all the rooms on the premises.
“I have always dreamed of having the whole first floor”, says Ahmed.
When I received the happy news last August, it could not have been at a worse time. A few months earlier, Ahmed had been taken to hospital by ambulance, totally knocked out by monkeypox.
“It was the first time I had been so ill that I was facing death, in a way.”
At times Ahmed is having problems with anxiety and depression and after he had been admitted to hospital things constantly got worse. The terror attack outside London Pub on 25 June also shook him deeply.
«I came from Sudan to Norway to avoid such people – and then they were here.»
His body was run down, everything felt difficult. If he had been in a traditional work relationship he would most probably have gone on sick leave.
«But as an artist you don’t come under that system. I felt as if I had no way out.”
Because he’d been given the chance of a lifetime – a lot of faith was put in him, the possib ility of falling from a great height.
“Then I felt that faith would come to an end. I had such big expectations and dreams before the exhibition, but I sat in my studio for hours without being able to work.”
ArtEx was there for me
Normally Ahmed manages without a support network, but this time he was not alone. As a participant in Talent Norge’s elite programme ArtEx you get access to health care as well as a mentor, a coach and a broad professional network, and ArtEx coach Kéa Ostovany took action.
“I was totally blocked. I got annoyed and went through all sorts of destructive emotions. But then I got Kéa. I was totally useless, but she fixed everything with the psychologist”, says Ahmed.
“To start with I didn’t want anyone to get involved and I tried to do everything on my own. But at one point it just didn’t work.”
From October onwards things got better. Then he worked 15 hours a day, mostly at night as he usually does, up until ten days before the opening of the exhibition in February. During that time the psychologist was there, as well as Kéa the coach. His ex was also there for him.
“They have more or less kept me in place. I consider Kéa as a professional friend, who I can complain to and who can give me good advice”, says Ahmed.
A critical comment
Ahmed is well on his way to his goal of getting established as a major international artist. The complex works are often inspired by his Sudanese background and upbringing in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and have many layers of meaning and symbolism.
«Glowing Phalanges» is no exception. The title speaks for itself, and the 99 objects in the exhibition may be regarded both as amulets and rosaries. The exhibition springs from what it was like to grow up stradling two Muslim cultures. The rosary is key in his family from Sudan, who are sufi Muslims, whereas with the wahabis in Saudi Arabia the rosary is banned.
“My teacher in Mecca said that if you lose your rosary and count the prayer on your fingers, your fingers will be lit up on the day of judgment”, says Ahmed.
The objects are held by white castings of Ahmed’s right hand, where the fingers are shaped according to various prayer movements.
“The exhibition is also a critical comment about how people in the West have contributed to the exploitation of natural resources. Materials from Africa and other places in the world have been used – from souvenir figures bought by people who want to take a few «exotics» home with them” says Ahmed.
An award-nominated storyteller
The last in the series of award nominations is this year’s Lorck Schive Kunstpris (the L.S. art award). In the rationale it says that Ahmed “actively uses his own body as artistic material, and his personal biography permeates the artistic project, where his own experiences are the driving force in an extensive liberation project.”
He describes himself as a storyteller.
“My work is often based on what I have experienced and my childhood. There are things I want to talk about, shed light on, criticize and tell people about”, says Ahmed, who has a master’s degree from the Academy of Arts (Kunsthøgskolen) in Oslo.
The struggle for LHBT+ rights is key to his artwork. He fled from Sudan to Norway in 2008 because it was too risky to be openly gay in his home country. Even though capital punishment for being gay was not practised, it was part of the legislation up until 2020. It is still illegal to have sex with someone of the same sex.
“It was the homophobia that made me come to Norway. Fleeing from friends and everything one has – I don’t wish that on anyone. It is very painful to see that my country is now succumbing to war and conflict.”
Alongside coming art projects, Ahmed has a major long-term goal, which is to organize The Nile Pride in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 2030.
“I think it’s possible. There is an awful lot of hatred, but at the same time there is hope.”
When he travelled back to Sudan in 2018 he had made thorough preparations with stringent safety measures. It was an adventure that we can follow in the documentary “The art of being sinful”. (Kunsten å være syndig).
Living under death threats
His visit to Sudan resulted in the photo exhibition “Carrying the face of ugliness” following meetings with several LHBTI people who hide their identities for fear of being persecuted.
In Sudan the saying “carrying the face of ugliness” means addressing a problem and carrying the blame for it on behalf of a group. Many of the strong images are displayed at Oslo S (the main railway station in Oslo), at Ski station and at Gardermoen (Oslo Airport) in large format. In the images, Ahmed is standing in front of gay activists from his home country.
He is famous as Sudan’s first openly gay man.
“I came out of the closet in 2015. That is when my life started. I have been in a life that is my own for eight years now. “
During the pandemic Ahmed had a series of live programmes on Facebook, talking about things people wonder about when it comes to being gay as well as about religion and sex.
Several million people saw the series.
“It has become popular in a way that is a little dangerous. I can’t go home (to my home country) anymore, there are far too many death threats involved.”
He tries to distance himself from the enormous hatred there is at times on social media.
“I have lived under so much stress and fear that I have almost become numb to threats.”
I’m going to die anyway, Ahmed points out. Maybe in a car accident, maybe by a deranged person. Maybe from natural causes as a 70-year old – who knows?
“There isn’t that much to worry about. I won’t let fear steer my life.”
Worth every tendinitis
All the same: In Norway it makes him feel safe being so profiled. Fortunately, praise comes streaming out, including during the conversation with Talent Norge at Kunstnernes Hus.
An elderly woman comes over, praising the exhibition. “Lap it up”, she says to Ahmed and puts her hand on his shoulder.
He smiles and mentions another thing he experienced, which also made an impression.
“A group of female old-age pensioners came over to me and one of them said: “Today is my eightieth birthday and I chose to come here. That is one of the best things I’ve done We’re seven old girls who’ve had a wonderful time.”
“That sort of thing makes every tendinitis worth it, or having back pain or nights and days being totally worn out but having to go on working.”
Programme of Excellence in Performing Arts and film (ArtEx) is an interdisciplinary talent developing programme which is to help top-level artists to further develop themselves artistically and build an interesting and sustainable career. Through the programme you will become part of an extensive national and international network, you will get to take part in interdisciplinary professional gatherings under the auspices of Talent Norge. A support network will be available to you throughout the duration of the programme, consisting of a mentor, a coach and a place on Olympiatoppen’s health service. You will also get an individual scholarship that is to be used for professional development in consultation with your mentor.