Featured Artist: Ibrahim El-Salahi
“A picture is no more than a mirror, a vehicle that takes one back to one’s self, to turn one’s sight inwards to find the Self within and begin to meditate”.
Ibrahim El-Salahiis considered to be one of the most important contemporary African artists. He was born on 5th of September 1930 in Omdurman Sudan to a Muslim family.El-Salahi learned to read and write and to practice Arabic calligraphy in a Quranic school run by his father. He is one of the leading visual artists of the “Khartoum School”, considered as part of African Modernism and the Hurufiyya art movement, that combined traditional forms of Islamic calligraphy with contemporary artworks.He combines painting and drawing often using motifs from African, Arab and Islamic art as well as Western references. And on the occasion of the Tate Modern gallery’s first retrospective exhibition of a contemporary artist from Africa in 2013, El-Salahi’s work was characterized as “a new Sudanese visual vocabulary.
El-Salahi is the first African artist to have a retrospective at the Tate Modern in London.Hestudied Fine Art at the School of Design of the Gordon Memorial College, which later became the University of Khartoum. Supported by a scholarship, he later went to the Slade School of Fine Art in London where he was introduced to European schooling, modern circles, and the works of artists that gradually influenced his art.He was able to adopt stylistic and philosophical cues from modernist painting while studying in London, which enabled him to strike a balance between pure expression and gestural flexibility. After completing his degree at the Slade School of Art in London he returned to Sudan to teach in Khartoum. His time at the College of Fine and Applied Arts, there, sparked a movement now known as the Khartoum School of which El-Salahi was one of the founders.
El-Salahi was given a UNESCO fellowship in 1962, allowing him to study in the United States before travelling to South America. With the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation, he returned to the US in 1964 and 1965. In 1966, he served as the leader of the Sudanese delegation at the inaugural World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal. El-Salahi was a member of the Sudanese delegation at the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers in 1969, in addition to representing Sudan at the World Festival of Black Arts. These two occasions had a major impact on contemporary African art movements.
El-Salahi has been recognised as a leading modernist figure and had a retrospective at Tate Modern in 2013. He spent a number of years working for governments.From 1969 until 1972, El-Salahi was assistant cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in London. After that, he returned to Sudan as Director of Culture in Jaafar Nimeiri’s government, and then was Undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information until September 1975. That year, he was imprisoned for over six months without trial in for being accused of participating in an anti-government coupin Sudan. The hardship he endured there has informed much of his later work.
El-Salahi described his creative process in an April 2015 interview for Art Review with Mark Rappolt. He remarked, “I work on a new piece, and I add components because I don’t know what shape it will take. I discovered this while I was incarcerated. Someone would suffer a dreadful outcome if they were discovered in the prison with a pencil or piece of paper. I used to draw tiny embryo forms on smaller sheets of paper when I had them. Then I kept adding little pieces, and I used to hide it in the sand outside the cell out of pure fear of 15 days in solitary.Because it’s a notion that I’m only partially aware of, each element needs to be framed independently. Then, when it develops collectively, it forms a whole.”
In a beautiful quote he further added, “Working in a democracy is a lasting experience; working under a dictatorship is an incentive for doing something – sometimes you can be afraid of the consequences, but sometimes you have to say you have a definite message”.
The evolution of El-work Salahi’s has gone through numerous stages. The basic shapes and lines that dominated his early artistic work progressively gave way to the use of more subdued, earthy tones in his colour palette. In his own words, Ibrahim El-Salahi: “I restricted my colour scheme to sombre tones, employing black, white, burned sienna, and yellow ochre, which reflected the colours of the ground and skin tone shades of people in our region of the Sudan. After this time, he began employing new warm, vibrant colours and abstract human and non-human figures that were shown using geometric patterns. His art became meditative, abstract, and organic.He primarily employs white and black paint and his later work is heavily influenced by lines. All images can ultimately be reduced to lines, as El-Salahi has stated, “There is no painting without drawing and there is no shape without line.”
Also, his artworks often include both Islamic calligraphy and African motifs, such as elongated mask shapes. Some of his works like “Allah and the Wall of Confrontation” (1968) and “The Last Sound”(1964) show elements characteristic of Islamic art, such as the shape of the crescent moon. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, El-Salahi lived in exile in Qatar, where he focused on drawing in black and white. Many of his admirers were unaware of his residence in Qatar, and El-Salahi found this distance to be “relieving”, as he could use the time to become more experimental.
The accomplishments of El-Salahi present significant opportunities for challenging and repositioning African modernism within the framework of modernity as a universal concept, one in which African history is integral to global history. El-Salahi is renowned for his original and insightful thinking, and his exceptional body of work, avant-garde visual language, and spectacular style have powerfully influenced African modernism in the visual arts.
He currently lives and works in Oxford, England.Many critics have admired his approach and style of work. Belgian art historian, curator, and museum director Chris Dercon says about the artist “He is now hanging where he belongs, next to Karel Appel, but also Robert Motherwell, and in front of Dorothea Tanning”.
“El-Salahi is a born story-teller. He is full of stories when he narrates, writes or draws, not to mention the tales that are told about him”Hassan Musa.
“The light side of life mingles with the sinister in El-Salahi’s paintings. He seems to work from a place of deep conscience and intuition” Hande Eagle.
El-Salahi is a follower of the Khatmyia Sufi order and has a great commitment to Islam. He prays five times a day and as well as prior to creating his paintings. Like other Sufis, El-Salahi sees prayer, as a way to build a relationship between the Creator and the Created.
“There are three people to address [when making an artwork], the self, the ego; unless you satisfy that ego, no work will come out at all. Second are the people in your own culture, family or neighbourhood. And third are all, human beings, wherever they might be”.