Culture: Visual Arts

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist at Tate Modern

A Vision of the Tomb by Ibrahim El-Salahi

At the venerable age of 80, Ibrahim El-Salahi becomes the first African artist to get a Tate Modern retrospective.

The Sudanese artist is one of the most significant figures in African and Arab Modernism. His style transcends cultural borders and geography, drawing on and integrating Islamic, African, Arab and Western artistic traditions.

This major show brings together 100 works from El-Salahi’s career, spanning more than 50 years.

It’s also a personal as well as an artistic journey. The exhibition starts in Sudan during the 1950s, where El-Salahi originally trained and practiced as an art teacher. The early works are full of youthful vigour, with earthy colours and tones.

We then move to the period when El-Salahi spent time in London’s Slade School of Fine Art during the 1950s, which is where he became influenced by a European artistic sensibility, particularly Cezanne and Giotto.

However, he felt the need to return to Sudan to find his own style, incorporating African masks and Arabic writing into his work.

But as this work was new and different, the public as well as the art galleries were slow in appreciating its originality. Unsurprisingly, El-Salahi became dispirited with this lack of appreciation.

However, he continued working. This resulted in one of his most striking pieces of art, Self-Portrait of Suffering 1961, a black-and-white image of himself as a young man, with hollow, tortured eyes. It’s a wonderful rendition of pain, torment and self-doubt.

El-Salahi’s paintings reflect both his personal life and the political history of the time. While employed as the Undersecretary at the Sudanese Ministry of Culture and Information, he was wrongfully imprisoned by the government. He was incarcerated for six months without trial.

During this time, he produced Prison Notebook, in which art became therapeutic and cathartic healing.

You can see the change in his work, which at this point is characterised by stark, minimalist black-and white drawings.

His latter works have mellowed, particularly in his Tree series, inspired by the Haraz tree which only grows in Sudan, on the banks of the river Nile.

A quiet and unassuming figure, El-Salahi attended the press view, keeping a low profile. He seemed genuinely amused by the curators talking about his work and about him in the third person.

I asked him how he felt about people discussing his work as if he wasn’t in the room. “I prefer not to say much,” he smiled. “I leave the talking to others, and they often say things about my work I’d never thought of before!”

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist will be at Tate Modern until 22 September 2013.

Words: Fiona Keating

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