She paints her Africa

Translated by Geraldin Sørum


The elephant has been a popular motive for creative expression at all levels in Africa, both in older times and today.  -The elephant is a symbol of Africa for me, says Fatma Issa Holm – and there is a lot of elephant in the pictures she makes.


By Lene Haanshus (Kunst for alle, no. 3, 1997)


The elephants in her pictures do not come tramping towards those that look at the picture.  There is often only a suggestion, such as an outline of an elephant head or a play with the form of a tusk.


One of my most clear childhood memories is from a visit to Mombasa tells Fatma. – I had heard that in Mombasa there was an arch across the main street in the form of two enormous elephant tusks.  When I came there, there they were – just as impressive as I had imagined.  I still remember the wonderful feeling I had when walking through the arch.  I have included it in the picture “Preserve me”.


As the title suggests, Fatma also has a strong concern for the threats against her African symbol.  One of these is ivory trading, which is illegal, but which the authorities have not yet managed to put an end to.  – When I heard of the burning of a large pile of confiscated ivory, I thought “How many elephants have died for ivory?”



- All troubles in Africa distress me, she says after a pause.


Nevertheless it is another Africa she tries to tell about to Norwegian children and youngsters, than the hungry and wretched continent that the media describe.


- Everyone knows about the picture of misery, she says.  – I want to convey that there also finds another picture of Africa.


She does this by among other things, exhibitions with artefacts from art and culture of East Africa, and especially from the island where she grew up, Lamu off the coast of Kenya.  She takes part herself and tells about the things she shows to children, youngsters and others who are interested.  Among those who have invited her with her exhibition are school classes, art groups and art societies.


- Lamu is a place where cultural traditions from East and West have met and live side by side, she says.  – Since it is an island, traditions related to boats and the maritime are also important.



- Most people connect traditional African art and culture with the rich inheritance connected to sculptures in wood, metal and stone, she says.  – Visual art in Africa is ancient and includes both sculptures and pictures.  The oldest we know of are over 5000 year old rock paintings.


Fatma also tells about decoration of houses and paintings on fabrics and human bodies.


- The pictorial expression extends from the realistic to the fantastic and to the ornamental, she says.  – The techniques have been just as varied as the forms of expression.  Here is wood carving, modelling, rug platting, metal casting, bead embroidery, weaving, batik, printing and painting in all different forms and colours.


Perhaps the most immediate association to this inheritance lives in the masks.  They include sculpture and textile art in one expression.



- At home I was always told that those who can make something with their hands are never hungry, says Fatma.  – I learned to crochet and knit as a child, and I remember that it was fun as a youngster to get orders and earn some extra money from handicraft.


Fatma has also later in life liked to work with fibres.  She has knitted, crocheted and sewn a lot.  And she believes that it is her childhood confidence with the material that lies behind when she constantly returns to textiles also in her artistic work.



An interest for art and the desire to convey to Norwegian children, has gradually led Fatma to studies in the department for aesthetics, visual art and drama at Oslo High School.


- The hours in Norwegian educational science have not only given me a tool to convey with, but also enabled me to understand the Norwegian society much better she says.


- Furthermore the art history lessons have been very useful.  They have taught me words to describe all the architecture I grew up with in Lamu, with all its forms, and all its stucco work, carvings and other decorations.  When I had these things around me every day, I did not notice them.  Now I think the old architecture in Lamu is both interesting and inspiring.


And I have learnt to see connections.  When I saw wood carvings with acanthus vines on Norwegian stave churches, I could see the similarities with some African carvings which are particularly found on doors, both in Lamu and on another African island, Zanzibar.



Fatma is very conscious of her African background and continually tries to include elements from this in her pictures.  She also searches for connections to Norwegian culture and is happy when she finds some.


Among the impressions she has of the architecture of Lamu is a large fort on the island.  She wanted to use this in an exercise at school – where she wanted to express the relationship she experiences between Lamu fort and Akerhus fortress.


- It gives me much the same feeling and the same associations to walk around the walls of the old Norwegian fortress and the old African fort, she says.  – I think, among other things, of all the human toil that was needed to build the walls without very many technical tools.  And of the rulers that had the walls built, the men that have got their names in the history books.  I have put together a collage of the men behind Akershus in a silk print.  In a charcoal drawing she has put together elements of the two forts to an harmonic whole: some of the light, smooth plastered walls from the African fort against a background of dark stone walls from Akershus.  In a textile picture she places a picture of Lamu fort together with a conventional arch from Akershus.



Exercises at school have opened yet another door for Fatma.  She has been inspired and given the chance to develop her own artistic creative ability.  During the studies this is something that she is working more and more with, and which she believes she will use a lot during the years ahead.  Ideas to the pictures she wants to make keep flooding in.


And with respect to materials, she keeps coming back to textiles.  But she experiments with different techniques, and willingly combines several techniques in the same picture.  She paints on different types of fabrics.


- Reactive colours to fabric painting are drawn into the fabric, and give a water-colour effect, she explains.  – Other fabric colours stay on the outside of the fibres and give sharper lines.  Sometimes I paint straight on the fabric with a brush.  Other times I make a stencil and use a roller.


She also prints on fabric with a frame print or silk print.  She then usually prints on ??? VLIESELINE ???.  Black cotton fabric is the starting point for etching.  The motives are masked over with wax or tape, and then the fabric is etched lighter using bleach.



Among other themes that Fatma has worked with in her pictures, and which she wants to do more of in the future, is portraits, especially female portraits.


- I want to make portraits that show how people really are, regardless of how they look on the outside.  It is so easy to interpret and judge people from the exterior.  For example a woman wearing a veil here in Norway would be looked at strange and considered as repressed and enslaved.  It would be almost impossible to be seen as anything other than “the woman with the veil”.


A woman that has made an impression on Fatma is Gro Harlem Brundtland.


- The first time I came to Norway in 1980, she had just become Prime Minister.  I did not understand Norwegian, but realised that she had become head of government.  It was the first time that I had lived in a country with a female head of government, and it felt in a way safe.  We had something in common.  I was sure that this meant a lot both for women in Norway and for women in other places around the world.