Shades of rust gradate the metal bars, which illuminate beaming rays of sun on the gate of Cooper Prison. “Enter unto it engulfed in peace and security. And do not despair of God’s mercy” is written in stylized Arabic calligraphy above the arch-shaped gate. When Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi drew the entrance to the infamous 19th century colonial prison in northern Sudan, where he was detained for six months in 1975, he crammed prisoners’ heads between the squared bars of the gate’s lower section, their eyes sunken, staring back in despair or gazing away in apathy. At the center of the metal sun, he writes “Nothing is skewed.” (A literal translation of the Sudanese expression Auja ma fi, which Salahi uses, meaning: Nothing is wrong.)
Salahi’s Prison Notebook (1976) is a slim sketchbook with a hunter green cover. It received international attention when art historian, critic and academic Salah M. Hassan included it in the 2012-2013 exhibition he curated, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist. The exhibition toured Sharjah, Doha and London. In 2018 Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collaborated in publishing English and Arabic facsimiles of the sketchbook, with introductions, a chapter from Salahi’s autobiography, and contextualizing notes, also edited by Hassan. The Arabic edition of the book was launched last November as part of an events program, organized by SAF, in parallel to its first art book fair, tiled Focal Point.
Documenting daily scenes from Cooper Prison, Salahi’s reflections and even nightmares using drawings in black pen and ink washes, as well as poetry and prose, Prison Notebook is the only visual memoir by a Sudanese political prisoner, writes Hassan. One drawing is of a serpent enclosed in a coffin-like structure, its body divided in five. The central three parts missing the head and tail are dotted with amorphous shapes resembling mummified bodies and lanterns. The prose Salahi wrote next to it tells of his dream of becoming a trapped snake that is butchered as it exits its cell, and when ordered to return leaves its head and tail behind.
Suspected of involvement in a failed coup against former President Jaafar Nimeiri in September 1975, Salahi — a 46-year old undersecretary of the Sudanese Ministry of Culture and Information at the time — was picked up from his office and detained for six months and eight days. He was released as abruptly as he was captured, and was never formally charged. Salahi created the prison notebook in the months following his release, spent under house arrest. Versions of the sketchbook evolved during his jail time.
Trained as an artist and photographer in Khartoum, London and New York, El-Salahi began documenting the experience he and other prisoners — including university professors, labor union heads, lawyers, scientists and media figures— underwent, drawing on shreds of cement bags. Fearing solitary confinement if guards were to find them, he buried the drawings, along with a four-inch long pencil, in the sand outside Quarantine A, the same cell that housed Bavarian mercenary Rolf Steiner a year earlier.
Fortunately, prison guards never found Salahi’s buried drawings. After his release in March 1976, he developed the initial visual fragments imprinted in his memory in a sketchbook using black pen and ink, breaking away from the bright colors that characterized his paintings in the early 1970s. Salahi presents the coldness of armed guards toward prisoners using faceless silhouettes and black boots, but fleshes out one friendly, Om Kalthoum-song humming guard of Nubian origins. He draws him watching over the prisoners from above a wall, with well-defined lines and cross hatching, almost as a muscular knight in full armorsuit while the watchtowers seem to fade into the background. Another guard, who gradually warms up to the political prisoners after constantly huffing and puffing in anger at them for not standing up when he walked into their cells, is drawn as an outline filled with shades of grays using ink washes; the only details Salahi includes are his collar number, boot lace and fingers holding the barrel of a Kalashnikov.
At Prison Notebook’s launch event at Sharjah, Hassan introduced Salahi’s work and cited one lighthearted anecdote from the book on how to become politically versed in a prison structure.
The first Saturday of every month was the prison warden’s visiting day. At dawn, everyone would be awake and tidying up. They then lined up before the warden as he asked about their wishes and if anything was wrong. Prisoners then took turns asking for onions, which they used as medicine and a culinary substitute to the distasteful prison food. To Salahi’s frustration, none of them spoke of the human rights abuses they were subjected to or their dire living conditions. However, he eventually follows suit, as he writes in his autobiography and sketchbook, learning the necessity of negotiating what is possible — his first practical lesson in politics. Salahi requests the onions and adds: “Nothing is skewed.”