The Sudan has a rich history which dates back to antiquity where its fortunes were very much intertwined with that of ancient Egypt. The country was in ancient times the home of the great Nubian and Kush empires but much of the Sudan’s contemporary history has been mired in conflict. Two successive civil wars have plunged the region into armed chaos but with the peaceful succession of South Sudan there are now hopes that the country can once again be celebrated for its rich cultural life, and Ibrahim El-Salahi is at the forefront of this renaissance.
London’s prestigious Tate Modern is now playing host to a long overdue retrospective of this great artist’s work. This mammoth show chronicles his exhaustive career and in doing so also charts his turbulent personal life – a life that includes early acclaim as well as subsequent imprisonment. Salahi said in a recent interview: “When people ask me what I do and I say I paint, they ask, do you paint houses? I say no, but if I did I would have a lot more money. What I paint are ideas which come to me in my mind and seem to develop independently, ideas which I am always not aware of but that seem to exist somewhere in my subconscious.”
The concept of the subconscious is a powerful one and can be very much seen in El-Salahi’s work, work that is a wonderful fusion of traditional African, Islamic and European art forms. Both his paintings and his drawings on the surface initially appear to take the viewer on one single journey but after closer inspection, the images seem to take on a life of their own, a life filled with multiple meanings, the surface meaning and then the deeper subconscious one.
An example of this would be his painting dedicated to the late Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was the first democratically elected prime minister of what was then the Republic of Congo, now DRCongo. He helped win the Congo its independence from Belgium, but subsequently found his socialist government deposed in a military coup, a coup that was backed by the West. Lumumba himself was captured and tortured by the military government and then finally murdered by western assassins.
Many African commentators trace the Congo’s current problems to Lumumba’s overthrow and this is very much echoed in the painting. It depicts skeletal mourners carrying the corpse of their dead leader on their heads. It is as if his death drains away their own life force in the same way
Lumumba’s assassination propelled the country into a period of instability that it has yet to emerge from.
Some of El-Salahi’s paintings are simply labelled “Untitled”. El-Salahi states: “In many ways they are like children, you give them names and then they grow up and the names no longer suit them. I gave up naming them because to do that in some ways dictates what paintings should mean to people who see. The most important thing I feel is the meaning people bring to them, not one I want to impose.”
So much of El-Salahi’s work does seem to fuse the present with the past. It is of Africa now, with all its contradictions with Africa of antiquity. One painting called, “The last sound”, is of a African mask which seems to literally depict not only the death mask itself and its physical essence but also to be reaching for a more mystical meaning, an attempt to trace the very moment at which the soul actually departs from the body.
It is both haunting and beautiful and contains an image that appears in many of El-Salahi’s other works, the crescent and the moon. “Another,” appears to be not so much a literal depiction of a tree but rather the female essence of all of creation. One of the most beautiful pieces in this wonderful retrospective is a collection of images simply called “Reborn sounds of childhood dreams II” in which there appear to be depictions of images from our dreams – the fragments that lurk in our subconscious and only emerge in the middle of the night.
Now at the age of 80, El-Salahi’s journey to his current status as one of Africa’s most renowned contemporary artists has been a long and torturous one. Born to an Islamic teacher in Sudan’s second city of Omdurman, his first commission was decorating writing slates at his father’s Qura’anic school. He went on to study art at Khartoum’s Goron Memorial College and subsequently won a scholarship to London’s Slade art school in 1954. He says of his experience in London that it was a place where he was able to discover Cezanne, Giotto and various other European artists.
On his return to the Sudan, however, he found resistance to his new artistic vision. He describes the experience in this way. “I organised an art exhibition in Khartoum of still lifes, portraits and nudes. People came to the show just for the soft drinks. After that no one came.”
So he started to look for something that would help the people there to connect to his work. In a recent interview he recalls: “I started to write small Arabic inscriptions in my paintings, almost like postage stamps and people started to come towards me. Then I began to break down the letters and a Pandora’s box opened. Animal forms, human forms and platforms began to emerge. That was when I really started working.”
El-Salahi then travelled to Nigeria and met Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and started to become aware of the cultural renaissance that was underway throughout Africa. He says of this time: “It was exciting, but also frustrating, because there was little response from the rest of the world or even Africa itself. Everything went quiet.”
El-Salahi subsequently fell out of favour with the Sudanese government and was imprisoned in appalling conditions: “There were 10 of us in a cell, sharing a bucket that was overflowing. The penalty for being caught with writing instruments was solitary confinement but I kept working, drawing on scraps I buried in the ground.” He simply states of this traumatic time that “I learned a great deal.”
El-Salahi now lives in Oxford in a kind of self-imposed exile but his work still transports those who see it back to his homeland, even with the colours he uses – the ochres, browns, black and green are all very much the colours of the Sudanese soil.
The abiding impression one gets from seeing El-Salahi’s paintings is that of his ability to paint both spirit and form, to paint not only what he sees but mystically the very essence of what gives it life; be it a tree or the portrait of a person, he treats both with the same reverence and respect.
For so much of the last century contemporary African art has struggled to be accepted on the international stage but that struggle appears now to be coming to an end; with an increasing number of contemporary African artists now taking their rightful place. No one deserves this more than El-Salahi, who fought, at times, a solitary battle to have African art taken seriously. Seeing his breathtaking work on display at London’s Tate Modern you feel that his name most certainly can and should be mentioned in the same breath as many of the other European artistic giants of both the 20th and 21st centuries. He is truly a remarkable artist.