Denis Williams

Moulid el-Nabi


Not on display

Denis Williams 1923–1998
Watercolour, ink, graphite and paper on paper
Support: 762 × 555 mm
frame: 857 × 635 × 35 mm
Purchased 2016


This work on paper dating from 1959, realised in watercolour, ink, pencil and papier collé, represents a complex scene that combines abstraction and figuration. In the centre, a large Islamic archway, or ogee, frames a group of congregated men, draped and turbaned, bowing down before a number of performers, including a drummer and a figure seen in profile with raised hand. The form of the arch echoes that of an imposing building in the background, possibly a mosque with two minarets. The arch and the areas surrounding it at the top and sides of the composition are richly decorated with abstract motifs, predominantly painted in bright primary colours. The patterns, reminiscent of calligraphic ornamentation, include triangular and circular forms as well as patterns relating to celestial objects: stars, planets and crescent moons. On the right of the archway, excluded from the scene taking place in the background, is a group of three veiled women. Only the women’s heads are visible, as their bodies are obstructed by a large reclining torso and head of a male figure lying face-down in the foreground. This monolithic figure or sculpture appears buried beneath the cool blue of the earth’s surface. According to the artist’s daughter and biographer, Evelyn Williams, this painting provides the viewer with a unique and concrete reference to the artist’s recent engagement with archaeology in Sudan where he moved in 1957 (Williams 2012, p.74).

The title Moulid el-Nabi is conventionally translated as ‘The Birthday of the Prophet’, and is a reflection on Williams’s experience of living in an African and Muslim community. Moulid (or Mawlid) is the observance of the birthday of the prophet Muhammad which is celebrated on the twelfth day of the Islamic month of Rabi’al-awwal by Sunni Muslims and on the seventeenth day of this month by Shi’a Muslims. The work depicts a ceremonial dance performed by men at the ‘Zikir of the crescent moon’. Zikir (or Dhikr) refers to devotional acts in Islam in which short phrases or prayers are repeatedly recited. In his painting Williams presents a combination of narrative recording of cultural practices and ornamental abstract patterns.

The disparate elements of Moulid el-Nabi create a dizzying effect, recalling the dreamlike and unsettling watercolours of Edward Burra (1905–1976). The picture employs a non-illusionistic representation of space while abstract elements, in vivid colours, frame and confer a dreamlike quality to the scene. While the composition is crowded with figures and pattern, Williams’s work is characterised by a sensitive and delicate touch. The middle area is cut and pasted; Williams’s daughter Evelyn has commented that her father had used this collage technique in earlier works on paper (Williams 2012, p.69). While the curvilinear, organic forms are very different from the hard-edged abstraction that characterised the work he produced in the mid-1950s with members of the British constructivists, the repeated geometric patterning on the right is reminiscent of the mathematical investigations Williams incorporated into his abstract painting from 1954–5.

Born in British Guiana, Williams moved to Britain in 1946 to study painting. He encountered challenges as an Afro-Caribbean artist trying to integrate into the mainstream of British modernism and, disillusioned about his life in London, he left in 1957 to move to Africa, initially to the newly independent Sudan. Moulid el-Nabi emerges out of an experience that was familiar to a number of Caribbean intellectuals at that time who left British colonies in the Caribbean, travelled to Britain to study and work, and subsequently spent time in Africa often as university faculty staff. There they witnessed the transformations of newly independent countries on that continent before returning to the Caribbean where they contributed to a similar process of decolonisation there.

Moulid el-Nabi was painted at the time of the First Sudanese Civil War (1955–72), between Southerners (primarily Christians and animists) and Northerners (primarily Muslims and culturally Arabic). The work could be interpreted as Williams’s reflection on the way in which traditional artefacts were being neglected by Sudanese Muslims in favour of Islamic rituals and art, rich in geometric and colourful patterns. His travels and encounters with different cultures had a profound impact on him and became the subject of his writing, in his diaries from 1959 onwards and, later, in his first novel, The Other Leopards (1963), which addresses issues of race and explores the overlapping of African and European elements in the Caribbean psyche.

Williams wrote about the profound impact of his travels in his Africa Journal (1959–67): ‘I acknowledge it as one of the revolutions of my awareness to have lived in such homogeneous societies of the Old World where the idioms of culture are reflected in every detail of language, of thought, of custom and in the very architecture of the individual mind’ (quoted in Williams 2012, p.74). Writing from Khartoum to his friend A.J. Seymour, the editor of the journal Kyk-over-al in Georgetown, Williams described how the environment of Sudan impacted his practice as an artist: ‘My painting is once more coming easy. Good and strong! Things are coming up in me here that I thought I’d lost forever, they’re good. Yet this is not my environment. I enjoy an anonymity by which I can get more out of myself than I’ve ever known before.’ (Ibid., p.67.) Nevertheless, while he was in Sudan, Williams devoted more time to writing and research into African art than to his own painting and this would remain the case for the remainder of his life.

Further reading
Charlotte Williams and Evelyn A. Williams (eds.), Denis Williams: A Life in Works, Amsterdam 2010, pp.13–15, reproduced p.33.
Evelyn Williams, The Art of Denis Williams, Leeds 2012, pp.74–6, reproduced p.75.

Elena Crippa and Allison Thompson
April 2016

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