Evoking the Mystical of the Middle East

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By Annette Hinkle

Though his house is nestled among the oak trees and mountain laurels of Noyac, a peek at the paintings inside the home of artist Hadi Toron reveals a psyche that has been shaped by a far different environment — one that lies over 6,000 miles away.

He is Syrian by birth, but Toron doesn’t paint his native Syria. Instead, it is the people of Sudan, where Toron worked as a U.N. diplomat beginning in the late 1980s, that has come to define his art.

“The Sudanese work – I cannot get away from it,” says Toron. “It’s different and there’s no other country like it.”

Toron’s work will go on view this weekend at Romany Kramoris Gallery in Sag Harbor in “Mystical” a show also featuring paintings by Laura Rozenberg. Though Sudan is not all that far from Syria, culturally and politically Toron found it to be totally unlike anywhere he had been before.

“Sudan is an intriguing society — it’s between the Arab world and Africa,” he explains. “I was with the U.N. for five years, and the years I spent there were very interesting. It was the turmoil of the war between the Arab north and the African south and one of the longest civil wars.”

“In ‘89 there was a beginning of another revolution — the Islamic revolution, and they’re still there,” he adds. “Then you had the famine. The horn of Africa was boiling over, so on top of Sudan’s problem there were refugees from Somalia — hundreds of thousands of refugees, which also came to be on fire when the Americans went there.”

Yet despite all the political turmoil Toron faced in Sudan as a daily part of his work for the U.N., as an artist, he found a society that intrigued and delighted him.

“The social picture is the tradition of the Sudanese which is a mixture of the north and south, the Islamic and the tribal, the black and the white,” he says. “The spiritual traditions are very strong — even Islam is Sudanese Islam – it’s not like that which we know. It’s localized and Africanized.”

“What attracted me is the spiritual side, this Sufi kind of sect — like the whirling dervishes in Turkey. It’s similar in North Africa, but different in each country. It’s a sect that is mystical and interprets local tradition.”

As a result, Toron’s paintings are a reflection of that culture. Nearly abstract in form, yet still easily identifiable, his figures are cloaked in the long traditional clothing of the Sudanese. In his painting, they often stand clustered and are a study in contrasting colors and shapes.

“The men wear white, and the turban is white. They are very beautiful, tall, skinny people,” explains Toron. “The women are very colorful and they know how to use colors. There’s the beautiful color of their skin and then their very strong tradition with the colorful cloths.”

“The buildings are there in the paintings – but they are so primitive,” he adds. “In Sudan, there is no architecture. In Sudan, it’s the people more than the walls. Their dance, their movement. They can be peaceful, they can be aggressive, but they are more peaceful than aggressive.”

“They’re beautiful people.”

It is the melding of north and south to create an entirely original culture that has continued to inspire Toron as an artist. Fiercely unique, Toron notes that even the so-called Islamic revolution that took place there could not change the deep seated traditions of the Sudanese people.

“They were able to continue governing with the army, but they could not change the society and people the way they wanted,” notes Toron of those who led the revolution. “They wanted to provoke women by saying they couldn’t wear perfume. They did not succeed. The traditions the Sudanese have are not Islamic traditions because Islam lost ground during the hundreds of years it was there, and a lot of its basis.”

But there is one old cultural tradition the Sudanese continue to practice that Toron find abhorrent.

“They are educated but suffer from a decadent tradition which has nothing to do with Islam or African tribes, but some thing else – female circumcision,” laments Toron. “Even educated women do it to their daughters ‘Because we are Sudanese,’ they say. It’s very difficult to stop, because it’s part of the society. It’s not easy to fight it, it’s accepted.”

“It’s not Islamic – it’s absolutely wrong, because there is no such thing,” he adds.

Perhaps it’s his deep understanding of all facets of the place that has kept Toron focused on Sudan in his work. Before even putting brush to canvas, Toron had time to get to know the Sudanese culture. It was only after he was in Khartoum for two years that he started painting, and he recalls that it was not easy at first to capture the spirit of the country and its people. But then, it clicked, and he found the focus that has continued to drive him to this day.

“I was struggling to find how I put Sudan in my art – the technique, the pictures, it was difficult at the beginning — then it was the easiest thing,” he says. “I know what they are, how do I paint them?”

Once he figured it all out, he never stopped.

“For years and years I have painted them. After I left Sudan and up till now,” says Toron.

It might be hard to imagine an artist staying with the same subject for so many years without exhausting his creativity. But Toron notes he has grown along with his collection of Sudanese paintings.

“I developed,” he says. “I’m still creating new things out of that experience and I will never stop. My next painting will be different than the one before or last year. I always find something new, though I’m not there.”

“I left Sudan but Sudan did not leave me.”

After Sudan, Toron worked for the U.N. in Trinidad and Tobago for another eight years, but the place never inspired Toron like Sudan did.

“Though the Caribbean is very colorful and different and special — they also have carnivale — it’s not as deep as the Sudanese thing and its history,” says Toron. “I’m always back to Sudan. This is my stamp – Sudan. The sky of Africa, the colors of the Nile – the colorful dresses of the women, the white and black of the men. The land – arid with the greenery of the Nile. It was very rich.”

“They call it the ‘food basket,’” he adds. “It’s the largest country size wise in Africa and has the lowest population – but they’re screwed up. The politics, history, tribal, religion, languages — it’s a messy situation. And now they’ve separated south from north.”

In fact, the southern region is slated to secede in less than two months — on July 9, 2011. The new country will be called Southern Sudan and it is where most of the country’s Christian population lives. Times are changing across the region, and with his native country of Syria all over the news in recent weeks, Toron reflects on what is coming to the whole of North Africa.

But he notes the situation is very different in each country — Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria. In some places, the army has sided with the people calling for change. But are not in other countries. Which makes everything very complicated.

“Mystical” paintings by Hadi Toron and Laura Rozenberg will be on view at Romany Kramoris Gallery, 41 Main Street, Sag Harbor through June 9. The show opens with a reception this Saturday, May 21 from 4 to 6 p.m. For details call 725-2499.

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