The Norwegian-Sudanese artist Ahmed Umar highlights questions regarding identity, religion, and cultural values through several modes of artistic expression. He uses personal experiences as tools to convey narratives not only about suppression and alienation, but also about liberation and owning one’s own history. Umar works within a broad range of media – sculpture, textiles, ceramics, graphics, jewelry, photography and performance – and with materials and techniques that are as multi-faceted as the stories they relate.
About the exhibition
The starting point for the exhibition Glowing Phalanges is the artist’s background and childhood, growing up between two denominations of Islam and their different religious practices. The exhibition reflects a journey between faith and doubt, freedom and restriction. In Umar’s native country Sudan, the use of prayer beads and amulets as protection is deeply rooted in the artist’s family traditions. During his schooling in Mecca in Saudi Arabia, however, he was told that the proper way to pray was by using the digital bones (phalanges) of the fingers of the right hand. This practice would be rewarded on Judgment Day, when the hand would then glow and light up the darkness. Hence the exhibition’s title.
The exhibition presents 99 sculptural prayer beads in a variety of materials and formats, each one corresponding to a personal prayer. The sculptures are made of materials derived from commercial souvenir objects produced in African and Asian countries, which Umar has collected over the years. The souvenirs, often caricaturized human and animal figures, are made of hardwood, bone, teeth, skin and ebony, and their import into Norway and Europe, historically and continuing today, has been mostly driven by missionary activity and tourism. This enterprise has led to the depletion of natural resources and restriction of local craftspeople’s creative freedom. For this exhibition, the artist has also incorporated organic material from Norway, including reindeer horn and the 60-year-old skeleton of a whale excavated from the ocean floor near the island of Smøla in the Nordmøre region, as an indication of the exploitation of natural resources that occurs in our own country.
Umar deconstructs these generic objects and recombines them in new ways, meticulously refinishing each fragment and reassembling them as a whole. He literally picks apart the constructed image of "the exotic" so as to breathe new life into the materials, instilling in them his own story. The process results in tactile and sensual objects, each with a distinct personality. The last of the 99 prayer beads takes the form of a monumental, appliquéd tapestry that spans the entire length of the windows in one of the twin skylight halls.
All the works in the exhibition are held by casts of the artist’s right hand. The various gestures of these hands resemble motions made while praying, underscoring how the hand can potentially be subject to political and religious control. And yet it also evokes creative power and the ability to rebel and protest – the hand can also seize control back for itself.
About the artist
Ahmed Umar (b. 1988, Sudan) is a cross-disciplinary artist living and working in Oslo. He received his MFA degree in medium- and material-based art from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in 2016. Through his art, Umar has also been an important front figure for queer persons with Muslim backgrounds in Norway and Sudan.
His works have been exhibited at a number of institutions in Norway, and he was a participant in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. Umar’s works are in the permanent collections of the National Museum, Drammens Museum and City of Oslo Art Collection. In 2023, in addition to this solo exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus, Umar’s work will be on view at Trondheim Kunstmuseum in connection with his nomination for the Lorck Schive Kunstpris.
Glowing Phalanges is a continuation of the artist’s ongoing and continually evolving project, Forbidden Prayers, which has been previously shown at KRAFT in Bergen, Sandefjord Art Association and Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium. Umar plans to make a total of 1000 sculptural prayer beads.
The exhibition is supported by the Arts Council Norway and KiN - Art Centers in Norway.
Exhibition brochure and checklist
Download the exhibition leaflet and checklist (in Norwegian):
"Treffer rett i hjertet." - Lars Elton in Dagsavisen
"Ahmed Umar gjør sin største soloutstilling så langt. Den er en suksess." - Alma Holtved in Aftenposten
"Ahmed Umar har skapt en rik og tankevekkende utstilling om tilhørighet og utenforskap." - Mona Pahle Bjerke for NRK
"Kraftfull og intim på samme tid" - Justine Nguyen i Morgenbladet
"Ahmed Umars utstilling på Kunstnernes Hus gjør uutslettelig inntrykk." - Sara Hegna Hammer in Klassekampen
Ahmed Umar: "Jeg har levd med så mye skam." - Interview by Live Lundh in Morgenbladet
"Gjør karikerte turistsuvenirer om til personlig kunst" - Yngve Sikko for Tidens ånd
"Ahmed Umar combines a strong personal story with a critical look at European stereotypes of African culture." - Nicholas Norton for Kunstkritikk
"Det storslagne og det intime forbindes og forvandles på med oppsiktsvekkende resultater i Ahmed Umars separatutstilling i Kunstnernes Hus." - Kjetil Røed in Kunstavisen
"En utrolig ambisiøs utstilling. Og perfekt utført." - Hanna Gjelten Hattrem in Subjekt
"Med 99 suvenirer inviterer Ahmed Umar publikum tett innpå sine religiøse erfaringer" - Maria Borg in Vårt Land