In the work of Medina Hammad, there is evidence of unfinished business. Ordinarily, we may think of this as a negative assertion, denoting something as being unresolved or even confused, but not in Hammad's case. The sense of 'unfinished business' is an integral part of her work. As Hammad has herself declared, 'self exploratory work does not often form a conclusion, more a realisation of simply how things are'. In Hammad's painting, the sense of the 'unfinished' manifests itself in both formal and conceptual ways simultaneously. Whilst a resolutely figurative style, Hammad's art maintains a distinct brashness, in terms of its mark making and adept use of colour, which at times draws it toward abstraction. Such an approach not only belies the industry of her work, but equally the gravitas and complexity of her subject matter...
Following her visit to Sudan and the production of Sudanese Stories and the Arabian Nights Sequence, Hammad has once again re-evaluated the ways in which she explores and questions the disparate elements of her Sudanese and English background. The paintings Raylea's Request: The Red Trousers (2002) and The History of the Black Dress (2002), are indicative of a modified approach. Where the former is about seeking identification with cultural tradition, the latter hones in on Hammad's life in England. In Raylea's Request: The Red Trousers a figure looms as if caught in suspension, whilst in the background an archetypal palm tree is portrayed mirage like on the distant horizon. The abstract form which dominates the painting's foreground is suggestive of a figure, but also acts as a counterpoint to the painting's more figurative elements, suggestive of something intangible. Raylea's Request: The Red Trousers refers to Hammad's grandmother Raylea, who as told by her father practiced the ritual Zar, which Hammad experienced during her visit to Sudan. Raylea's Request is a fantastical and eerie work, where the tensions between the figurative and abstract allude to both the tangible and elusive aspects of memory and experience.
The History of the Black Dress represents an altogether different need for catharsis, resulting from a particularly unpleasant encounter between the artist and a male acquaintance at a social gathering in which Hammad and her black dress were at the receiving end of his unwelcomed, lewd sexual behaviour. Unsurprisingly, this is a more sombre work. Here, abstraction has no foil. It is a device used to symbolise the unspeakable, the feeling of being compromised in a professional environment. The cathartic nature of this work is epitomised by the evocative title, which with a certain ironical tone acknowledges the impossibility of turning the clock back. The History of the Black Dress recognises that taking control of a terrible moment from the past is the only way of purging the demons of its memory from haunting the present.
As an artist, Hammad has consistently sought new ways of approaching her identity, challenging her own assumptions as well as those of her viewers. Conscious of the pitfalls in staging work which explores the intricacies of her English and Sudanese background, Hammad's deals with her identity in provocative and humorous ways, which eschew simplified notions of identity that pander to romanticised and marketable ideas of 'difference' and the 'exotic'. As such what has previously been attributed to Hammad still holds true today: 'Some may look at these paintings and consider the work to be about 'Medina'. But others, perhaps being more perceptive, will see within this work mechanisms and devices that will prompt them to look afresh at their own lives.'
Whilst Hammad's desire to speak through the autobiographical remains undiminished, it is the formal and conceptual shifts in her practice which reveal the 'unfinished business' in her work. The painting Raylea's Request epitomises this approach, where formal relations within the work, like the figurative and the abstract, or the iconographic versus the oblique reference, play against each other, creating intriguing pictorial tensions. Such an approach not only makes for compelling images, but crucially, these formal tensions become a metaphor for the exploration of identity. Hammad's narratives accommodate the inevitable ups and downs of such a process, revealing both the moments of identification and those of alienation. These ongoing tensions transmit the sense of the 'unfinished' in Hammad's work. This is a measured state of ambivalence which appears to be the most appropriate form of resolution.
Extracts from the essay "Unfinished Business: The work of Medina Hammad", by Richard Hylton, in the catalogue to accompany Medina Hammad: new and recent work