'I often try to paint a bad picture ... but I hardly succeed.'
A Renaissance man, Hussein Shariffe excelled in painting, poetry and filmmaking. Born into perhaps one of the most important families in modern Sudanese history, his grandfather, Mohammed Ahmed Elmahdi, a religious leader and politician, was a prominent figure in the 1880s, and central to the fight against colonialism in Sudan.
Realising his love for the arts as a young boy, Shariffe received encouragement both from his grandfather and his tutor at Comboni College in Khartoum to further his talent. However, Shariffe’s passion for the arts was rebuffed by his father, who preferred that he pursued a career in Law or Medicine. As a compromise, Shariffe elected to study Modern History at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Feeling unfulfilled, he transferred to the University of Sheffield to study Architecture and then finally to the Slade School of Fine Arts where he studied under Lucien Freud. During this time, Shariffe held his first solo exhibitions of paintings at Gallery One in 1958 and 1960, and was a prize-winner at John Moore's Liverpool Exhibition in 1961; this work was later exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Although the artist was almost entirely educated in the West, he never lost touch with his Sudanese roots, and this duality is constantly referenced within his body of work. Shariffe's paintings, with their vivid juxtapositions of colour, were shown in third solo shows at Gallery One in April 1963, shortly before he returned to Sudan. There he worked as a lecturer at the School of Fine Arts, Khartoum (1964-6) and founded the literary and arts periodical Twenty One in 1965.
'There is a definitive analogy between my work as a painter and my work as a filmmaker, which I think is inevitable. My framing of the film is painterly. When it is in black and white the form of the frame becomes even more important. My attitude to colour on film is also painterly…this is the way I do things. I am a painter. Each work of art is different. I paint essentially for myself. I see myself essentially as a painter, but I also come to life as a filmmaker.'
While Shariffe’s first love was always painting, the solidarity of which he relished, he also showed a great interest in cinematography. He believed film allowed him to transcend social classes, and to reach a far wider audience for his work. In 1972, at the request of his friend and Sudanese modern master, Ibrahim El Salahi, Shariffe became Head of Film for the Sudanese Department of Culture, and directed he his first film The Throwing of Fire in 1973. In 1976 Shariffe moved back to Britain, completing his second film, Tigers are Better Looking, in 1979. Shariffe lived in Cairo for the last decade of his life, writing his unfinished film script, Letters from Abroad. In November 2016, Hussein Shariffe’s work was included in the Khartoum School – The Making of the Modern Art Movement in Sudan (1945-present) at The Sharjah Foundation in the UAE.