When one visits a museum of modern art, one invariably finds the work of Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollock and other Western artists. It is rare to find works by African modern artists in these places, but next July, London’s Tate Modern will hold a retrospective solo exhibition of the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi, a tremendous achievement for him and a milestone for the international recognition of African modern art. The show, entitled Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, has been curated by Prof. Salah Hassan, history of art.
On Wednesday, El-Salahi spoke about his life and work at the Africana Studies and Research Center. Now aged 82, El-Salahi has been making art for most of his life and has created hundreds of works. As a boy, he went to Quranic School where he learned calligraphy and how to use space and light in his writing. From 1948-51, he attended the School of Design at Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum. In 1954, he was sent to London on a scholarship to attend the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He traveled around Europe and learned a great deal about different artistic styles, especially those of the Renaissance. He returned to Sudan in order to bring the practice of modern art to the newly independent country, and became the chair of the Painting Department at the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum.
While in Sudan, El-Salahi traveled the country looking for the meaning behind Sudanese artistic identity by recording local architecture, decorative designs and items that adorned houses, such as prayer rugs and calligraphic phrases from the Quran. Salahi also researched Coptic manuscripts and used them to learn more about the history of Sudanese art. This study led to his enthrallment with Islamic art, particularly Arabic calligraphy, which he saw as both an art form and method of communication. He became one of the first artists worldwide to include Arabic calligraphic motifs in many of his paintings.
During the mid ’70s, El-Salahi was wrongly imprisoned by the Sudanese military dictatorship for over six months as a political prisoner, when the dictatorial government was targeting intellectuals. Prison conditions were very harsh, but the worst part of the imprisonment was fear and uncertainty about the future. If your name was called out, this meant that you could be killed, freed or moved. Some prisoners who were moved to another prison deep in the Darfur region had to purchase a cat and tie it to their foot; this was the only way to remain alive because the cats would chase away deadly scorpions and snakes.
After El-Salahi was released, he lived in self-imposed exile in Qatar and then England; he currently resides in Oxford. His work has been presented and collected by museums across the globe, such as MoMA in New York and the New National Gallery in Berlin, and he has become one of the most influential African artists. His work integrates traditional African and Islamic artistic sources with European art movements, particularly cubism. This can be seen especially in his large oil painting called Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1 (1963).
El-Salahi’s art is also influenced by historical events in his own life, such as his wrongful imprisonment. The art he made during this time reflects his melancholy and the difficulties of imprisonment and isolation. After his self-imposed exile, he began composing works such as The Inevitable, which depicts chaos and struggle in response to the unrest and civil war that took place in Sudan (this large drawing from 1984-85 is in the collection of Cornell’s Johnson Museum). The Tate Modern exhibition also showcases many of his recent pieces such as his radiant Tree Series from the 1990s, inspired by the resilient trees that grow on the banks of the Nile.