An exhibition by Hassan Musa (b. 1951 Sudan; lives and works in France) was held at the Brunei Gallery in London, featuring the artist's Mail Art and the personal collection of curator Elsbeth Court, who recently donated it to the SOAS, University of London, Archives and Special Collection. A careful selection of Musa's prints, illustrated books, and well-known textile-paintings accompanied the exhibition, together with videos of the artist at work (Fig. 1).
In many ways this was no ordinary exhibition, not only due to the small scale of Mail Art densely displayed in the Foyle Special Collections section of the Brunei Gallery but also due to its content. It offered a personal insight into the nature of the artist and his social network, represented by correspondence dated from the 1990s up to the present day. Interestingly, this personal-micro dimension of the exhibition disguised a wider human and political dimension to the artwork, which invited the public to engage in a collective discussion.
Each Mail Art piece told a complex and layered story not only as an artwork, with its playful use of iconography using a mixture of collage work, postal stamps, text, drawing, and painting which can be described as a form of surreal satire, but equally through the journey traced by the postal artwork as object. The genre of Mail Art—which is mostly associated with the 1960s pop art movement and artist Ray Johnson (1927–1995), who founded the New York Correspondence School—shares origins with earlier twentieth century artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, and the Italian Futurists, who transformed the humble postal letter into a form of counter-cultural expression. And, as writer Zdenka Badovinac observes, for artists from Eastern Europe and Latin America, “Mail art served as an escape route from their isolated spaces ruled by various repressive regimes employing censorship, confiscations, arrests, and similar methods” (2014: 43).
Hassan Musa's interest in Mail Art developed in the early 1980s, as the artist explains:
The first Mail Art images I saw, was in an art magazine, Graphis (1983). The magazine published images of correspondence envelopes exchanged by Jean-Michel Folon and Milton Glaser. Folon is a Belgian artist (b. 1934) and active in France in the seventies. Glaser (b. 1929), an American artist (he is the one who invented the famous “I love NY” logo). What I loved about the Folon/Glaser exchange is that they seemed to have real fun communicating in their special graphic language. Their humor inspired me for the first Mail Art envelopes I sent to my friends. Most of them were happy to receive my envelopes and I was happy to know that my art work crossed the distances and reached them. Sometimes, I sent envelopes with no message inside, “the medium is the message” (M. Marshall [sic]). I think the only message in Mail Art is about generosity because art works go freely from one hand to another in tracks that the art market ignores.1
At its core, Mail Art has always had a playful, rebellious feel and an ephemeral quality; it was often created by artists to critique or challenge the artworld and the art market controlled by galleries, curators, private collectors, art critics, auctioneers, etc. In this way, Mail Art cuts out the middleman, takes away the economic transaction that gives art its monetary value, and becomes an act of giving and receiving. The journey of the artwork therefore is just as important as its final destination. The audience of Mail Art is not the preserve of the receiver-owner but is directed at all the people the artwork encounters on its voyage, providing a talking point for the postmen and postwomen who collect, sort, stamp, and deliver mail (Fig. 2). As Musa writes:
I think that it is important to keep the spirit of the Mail Art in the object (the envelope) that bears the marks of travel through the unknown hands between the USA and France. I think the post office stamps are “beautiful” no matter how clumsy they look because they make the envelope real and legitimated as an art object … each one would keep the mail that he receives as an element/evidence of this artistic relationship.2
In this way, Mail Art travels freely—for the price of a stamp—crossing borders, walls, and boundaries, unlike many people who are instead restricted in movement, often stopped or denied entry. Conceptually, therefore, Hassan Musa's Mail Art is all about freedom of movement, the fluidity of images and ideas across man-made physical borders and boundaries. For Musa's work points to our essential need to communicate and connect with each other across differences and distances, questioning at the same time our insistence in using boundaries and categories that separate or exclude one another.
These geopolitical issues were visibly present in this exhibition and seemed connected to disparate artworks and artists such as Yanagi Yukinori (b. 1959) and his installation piece The World Flag Ant Farm (1990), consisting of a series of plexiglass boxes with colorful sand representing the national flags of all the world's nations. Each box was in turn connected to the others by invisible tunnels through which live ants moved freely, transforming the political world map in the process, drawing parallels with human history and the constant flow of migration.
Similarly, the work of the Italian Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994) comes to mind, both in their similarities and their differences. In contrast to Musa's intimate correspondence, Boetti's use of Mail Art consisted in collections of “return to sender” letters sent to famous but deceased people Boetti admired, thereby creating a parallel correspondence to the physical world. At the same time, in both the artists' works, there is an interest in mixing art, text, and textile crafts together to provide layered meanings. I am referring to Boetti's famous textile maps of the globe, handwoven by women in Afghanistan, which also trace the geopolitical changes of the world and comment on the complex fluidity of politics, art, culture, and identity.
Although Hassan Musa's celebrated textile paintings use a completely different media, combining text, printed images, paintings, appliqué, and figurative iconography, like Boetti and Yanagi, Musa pushes the boundaries and categories of art that are operating in the artworld today, questioning our use of labels such as “African” or “Sudanese” artist and “African art” by using disparate references that purposefully disrupt our ideas and preconceptions. This point was made even stronger by the curators' use of texts from Musa's prolific literary work, such as his “African Riddle to Foil European Art,” originally published in the Memories & Modernities catalogue of the 47th Venice Biennale:
The two tongues in my mouth never lie, even when they tell two contradictory facts. The two hearts in my chest never betray, even when they beat for several passions. And the two opposite roads I follow lead straight to destiny, even when they go around. Who am I? Mr. African artist. So What! (1997: 47).
Like a skillful storyteller, Hassan Musa uses the art of bricolage to weave together many different images, voices, and stories, creating a series of riddles and metaphors to make us think, question, and imagine multiple beginnings and endings. Musa's Mail Art playfully uses humor, the absurd, and satire, challenging the center/periphery cultural baggage embedded in art by drawing inspiration from the wider visual archive. Some of the reoccurring images in his Mail artworks on display included an eclectic mix of Christian iconography (the crucifixion, the Last Supper, Christian saints), Islamic-inspired calligraphy, together with iconic images of Josephine Baker, Van Gogh, symbols of French nationalism such as Marianne, African masks, and Osama bin Laden. In addition, self-portraits of the artist appeared and reappeared throughout the Brunei exhibition, reminiscent of a trickster weaving his life and identity into the artworks (Figs. 3–6).
In this respect, Musa's work can be both intellectually stimulating and quietly (yet powerfully) controversial, as one of the members of the audience commented at an event organized as part of a series of talks and discussions linked to the exhibition. The elderly gentleman who represented an older generation of the Sudanese community in London questioned what made Hassan Musa's work Sudanese. A discussion developed from this simple yet complex question between the elder and a young woman who eloquently described how she thought Musa's work spoke directly to what it means to be Sudanese today. This conversation was particularly poignant because of the ongoing protests held in Sudan and across the world against President Omar al-Bashir's longstanding and cruel military dictatorship that led to him being ousted on April 11, 2019.
The global scope of Hassan Musa's work has many layers and levels, and the curators highlighted this with some of Musa's overtly political works, particularly his textile works, that criticize petrol companies and big brands and comment on the geopolitical and economic imbalances of the world divided between the rich and the poor, the North and the South, etc. (Fig. 7). Once again, Hassan Musa's ironic juxtaposition of images challenges the world of cultural opposites and creates a spectacle of it all, where no one if left unscathed.
In parallel to the exhibition, a series of events took place, including a talk sponsored jointly by the Center of African Studies, SOAS and Sotheby's Institute of Art3 and curator talks with Elsbeth Court and guest speakers representing Sudanese artists and researchers in London. In addition to this, an outreach program of workshops took place in the Brunei Gallery and in the community with young people and parents from New Arabic School (NAS) in London. The students, aged between 2 and 14, produced a variety of Mail artworks inspired by Hassan Musa's exhibition as well as Sudanese current events. These works were duly posted to the artist in France for him to reply to them in person.
This generosity of spirit and sense of community was without a doubt the underlying driving force that came across in the exhibition, represented by the artwork itself as testament to the strong friendship bond between the artist Hassan Musa and the main curator Elsbeth Court, and the generous donation of the archive to SOAS Archives and Special Collection MS 381333—Hassan Musa Mail Art Collection, where a complete digitization of the donated artworks is freely available online: https://digital.soas.ac.uk/ms381333
What Hassan Musa: The Artist's Stamp lacked in size, it made up in noise, for it reminded the wider discipline of African art of the underlying contradictions in the title of its field and the greater need to place the voice of the artist at the center stage of our practice. For as Zdenka Badovinac aptly writes, “It was its dialogic character that led to the building of numerous artist archives that today serve to break down monolithic narratives, making way for a plurality of stories that cannot be brought together under a single common denominator” (2014: 43).
Hassan Musa's Facebook page, January 29, 2019.
Letter from Hassan Musa to Leslie Carrère, dated February 28, 1999, in the personal archive of Hassan Musa, Domessargues, France.
Hassan Musa Artist's Talk, January 24, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f67j7nF2JWU)