El-Salahi and the Arab spring
A year or so ago I went with James Currey, the eminent publisher, to a house in South Oxford, to visit the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi and his wife Katherine, to learn of plans for a retrospective exhibition of his work from the 1960s on. I cannot think of any African artist who deserves one more. Now aged 82, he has followed an itinerary more complex and terrible than most African cultural icons.
The retrospective has now been realised in an impressive show at Tate Modern on the South Bank until September 22 with the sub-title “A Visionary Modernist”, the same as a handsome book that accompanies the exhibition. It was first shown in 2012 at the Sharjah Art Museum and then at the Katara Cultural Village in Doha, evidence, perhaps, of an encouraging new up-front Arab interest in the art world, extending in African art. It will eventually grace the new Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has been one of the main organisers of the “travelling” exhibition.
Born in Omdurman in 1930, El-Salahi went first to his father’s Koranic school, where he has his early vital encounter with Arabic calligraphy, before proceeding to the Khartoum School of Design, where he majored in painting in 1952. From there he went on government scholarship to the Slade School of Art in London, subjected in London to influences of both ancient Islamic manuscripts and all the traditions of western art, all of which can be seen in his work. Back in Sudan in 1959 he became a lead artist in the Khartoum School at the Technical Institute there but an exhibition of his work from London, as the programme note says, “failed to connect with local viewers”.
Apart from travelling in Sudan absorbing its atmospheres, he spent some time in 1961 in Ibadan in the heyday of the Mbari Club when Soyinka, Okigbo and others were around, as well as Ulli Beier, the European cultural entrepreneur who from early saw the potential of the new African artists. He saw El-Salahi’s unique talent and published a book of his drawings under the Black Orpheus label, and used him for book covers, such as the striking one for Tchicaya U Tamsi’s poems Brush Fire. Some of the memorabilia from Ibadan, and from other early exhibitions and contacts (there is a visitor’s book from Paris where you can see Ulli Beier’s own signature), are on show in a ‘souvenir’ case at the exhibition. This was a connection that was reborn in the early 1980s when El-Salahi, at a difficult period, had a show at the Iwalewa Haus in Bayreuth which Beier was running at the time.
We can see the formative influences from his early career, especially his lifelong preoccupation with the delicate shapes from calligraphy and the muted hues (beiges, browns and ochres) of his native Sudan. The retrospective shows how his experiences with Sudan impacted on his work. The early mystical beauty and strangeness epitomised in ‘Vision of the Tomb’ (1965) morphed to more disturbing, tormented work. After working for the government in Khartoum, he was imprisoned for several years accused of anti-government activities. This produced immediately a remarkable ‘Prison Notebook’, the subject of an excellent essay in the book by Salah Hassan. In self-imposed exile in Doha his ‘spiritual journey’ produced the bizarrely introspective sixty panels of ‘Time-Waste Palace’. In 1998 he moved to Oxford, recovering equanimity as well as an increased output, seen in various quietly symmetrical studies of ‘The Tree’ and more recently large flamboyant paintings of flamenco dancers. But the demon of politics still haunts him. The large triptych at the end of the exhibition – ‘One Day I Happened to See a Ruler’ – conveys the ugliness and brutality of power.
In Oxford, Ibrahim showed me a fascinating sketchbook of pen and ink sketches titled “the Arab Spring?” The question mark is deliberate because of the darkened paths down which the ‘spring’ has moved. In the exhibition I was delighted to see the small sketchbook is there in the memorabilia case, but with only one page exposed. But it is so instantly instructive and politically relevant that all the sketches deserve full exhibition.
I have, I confess, not written very much about the Arab spring, its ramifications and its consequences, since it first exploded in Tunisia at the beginning of 2011. The recent turbulent events in Egypt leave one particularly mystified and amazed. This is in part because of the contradictions of the “coup that is not a coup” (or “revolution as a form of election”) which are of such powerful intricacy that rational commentary becomes difficult. El-Salahi’s own doubts about the truly revolutionary nature of the “spring” are clear. Dictatorship dies very hard, and the Arab world for a long time has been beset by authoritarian rule in different forms. I can only say in the present disturbing extreme turbulence in Tahrir Square, let us see what happens.
By: Kaye Whiteman
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