A Friend of the Wind: Fathi Hassan's Response to Maps

by Prof. Alessandro Scafi for the exhibition Shifting Sands

‘You can’t hide in the desert.’ So wrote Fathi Hassan in a collection of poetic reflections published ten years ago, Un africano caduto dal cielo (‘An African who fell from the sky’). ‘In the desert you are clear, calm, resigned, pure. You are friends with the wind, with your being as thought, as a living soul in search of words.’

Fathi Hassan, born and raised in Egypt, with family roots in Nubia, who went on to become an art student in Naples and then an international artist, has remained a desert nomad, a friend of the wind who traces his paths in search of meaning in sands that belong to ‘no one but the sand’ (Edmond Jabès). Accustomed to mixing his Nubian Arab African background with current Western concepts and techniques, Hassan draws inspiration from maps belonging to The Sunderland Collection to construct his personal theatre of the world, like a modern Abraham Ortelius, compiling his atlas of culture and emotions. The ‘spatial turn’was one of the most important philosophical and intellectual developments of the twentieth century. The interest shown by Hassan and other contemporary artists in the aesthetic potential of cartography is one sign – among others – of the ‘cartographical turn’ that is underway in the twenty-first century.

In the works on display, Fathi Hassan manipulates line, form, space, colour and perspective, plays with the symbols of his Nubian heritage and experiments with Arabic script, following the example of African artists who have incorporated writing and graphic symbols into their art with great ingenuity for millennia. Aware of the communicative power of the written word, Hassan interweaves image and text, not only combining the visual and the verbal (‘image-texts’, to use W.J.T. Mitchell’s memorable expression), but also deliberately obscuring the reading process with invented scripts.

Hassan is proud of his origins – ‘I come from the Nubian culture of black pharaohs,’ he confided to me – but he is not puffed up with his success: ‘I have no talent, I just got lucky, I found myself in the right place at the right time.’ In fact, his many exhibitions around the world and the interest aroused by his works are also a sign of the times.

In 1996 the Nigerian artist and art critic Olu Oguibe lamented the ‘colonial’ approach of Westerners towards African artists, exhibited as anonymous and unknown objects of exotic charm but not revealed as subjects with the right to their own individuality and distinct artistic language. The exhibition Shifting Sands shows how much the situation has changed.

Today, as Achille Bonito Oliva explains, objectivity and neutrality are imposed ubiquitously by technology and standardisation; Fathi Hassan, as a ‘classically modern artist’, uses them in a fertile way, managing to produce ‘differences’ that filter into the imaginative repertoire of a society pervaded by the ‘supremacy of technique’ – an obsession that renders it ‘devoid of subjectivity’. Hassan thus uses an asymmetrical geometry, open to surprise and emotion, beyond the ‘arrogance of precision’ and ‘Western logocentrism’, to reassemble fragments of past traditions and of different provenances.

Hassan has added African faces, leopards, zebras, elephants and a Nubian ibex to the maps of the earth and sky found in the Sunderland Collection. Starting with Renaissance maps of the inhabited earth inspired by Ptolemy and modern two-hemisphere world maps, he superimposes portraits of influential figures in Western and Eastern traditions, for example Shakespeare and Averroes, Einstein and Al-Idris, Charlie Chaplin and Mohammed Ali.

The fantastic cross-pollinations of art and cartography undertaken by Hassan recall recent reflections on what a map really is, notably by historians of cartography who have based their studies on the definition proposed by Harley and Woodward in 1987: ‘Maps are graphic representations that facilitate the spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.’ Accordingly, Hassan’s manipulated maps from the Sunderland Collection introduce us to the human world of the artist himself. His art seems to confirm the idea that maps are not only visual devices for orientation based on mathematical representations of the earth’s surface, but can also depict imaginary places, existential paths, mythical journeys, ideas, emotions, knowledge.

Hassan’s inventive combinations precisely evoke the creative power of maps to project and construct reality. Today, historians of cartography are well aware that mapping is not a neutral transfer of external information – the world – into the frame of cartographic space – the image. Considered by Arthur Robinson to be a great achievement of abstract thought because of the way they construct conceptual analogues of reality, maps are social and cultural documents that inevitably reflect the values and concerns of their creators and the contexts from which they emerge. Maps do not simply describe reality; they also shape it.

Hassan’s works can be regarded as thematic maps, since they show a particular theme (the artist’s inner world) connected with a specific geographical and historical terrain (the cartographic tradition represented by The Sunderland Collection). His version of Mediterranean culture, which dissolves the boundaries of space and time, and the ease with which he interpolates heterogeneous iconographies into examples of European and Eastern cartography in the collection provide an eloquent response to Denis Cosgrove’s call in the late 1990s to rethink maps and mapping in light of the advent of new cartographic forms and techniques and the decline of Eurocentric geopolitics.

In his theatre of the world made of camels and celestial maps, Hassan reminds us of the ability of maps to make visible what is not immediately accessible to the eye. His poetic and surreal approach further underlines the idea that what is invisible to the eye is precisely what is ‘essential’, such that ‘it is only with the heart that one can see rightly’ (the secret confided by the fox to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince).

As Katia Migliori has noted, Fathi Hassan possesses ‘l’oeil du coeur’ that Western thought so badly needs. In one of his ‘untidy’ thoughts (as he calls them) collected in his Un africano caduto dal cielo Fathi writes: ‘A colour on a canvas, a sentence on a page, a song sung out: no artistic form can ever take flight if it does not have the spirit of a child or the wings of a butterfly.’

©The Warburg Institute

©The Warburg Institute

Prof. Alessandro Scafi

Since 2007, Alessandro Scafi has lectured on Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History at the Warburg Institute (after eight years of teaching at the University of Bologna).

He is the author of several books on the depiction of the biblical Garden of Eden on maps and on various aspects of the history of cartography. His research interests include Italian art and literature (in particular Dante), pilgrimage and utopian visions.


Bonito Oliva, Achille, Fathi Hassan, Contenitori di sogni, Exhibition Catalogue, Centro Arti Visive ‘Pescheria’, Pesaro (Milan: Charta, 2000), reprinted as ‘The allegorical forms of the pharaoh artist Fathi Hassan’, in Hassan, Luckytrail.

Cosgrove, Denis, ed., Mappings (London: Reaktion Books, 1999).

Harley, J. B and David Woodward, eds, The History of Cartography, I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Harley, J. B., The New Nature of Maps. Essays in the History of Cartography, ed. Paul Laxton (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Hassan, Fathi, Luckytrail (Self-Published, 2023).

Hassan, Fathi, Un africano caduto dal cielo, ed. Alessandra Angelucci, intr. Katia Migliori (Martinsicuro: Di Felice, 2014).

Issa, Rose, ed., Fathi Hassan (London: Beyond Art Productions, 2001).

Migliori, Katia, ‘Parcours’, in Fathi Hassan (Udine: Campanotto, 1991), pp. 25-28.

Mitchell, W.J.T, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Mullen Kreamer, Christine, Mary Nooter Roberts, Elizabeth Harney, and Allyson Purpura, ‘Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art’, African Arts (Autumn 2007, Vol. 40, n. 3), pp. 78-92.

Oguibe Olu, ‘Un discorso di ambivalenza: il pensiero postmoderno e l’arte contemporanea africana’, in ‘Africana’: El Anatsui, Theo Eshetu, Fathi Hassan ...: Sala 1, Roma, gennaio-febbraio 1996 (Verona: A. Parise, 1996), without pagination.

Robinson, Arthur H., Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1982).