Ibrahim El-Salahi finds the Commonality in Human Experiance, Laying it Bare in Black and White.
By Marianna Nannarone
Ibrahim El-Salahi’s black and white works began, he says, as “a study of the colour black in itself.” Touching on themes frequently revisited in a career spanning three continents and more than half a century, this series can be seen as the culmination of El-Salahi’s personal and artistic odyssey. Earlier paintings are thick with colour—ochres, subdued yellows, burnt sienna— inspired, the artist has said, by the earth of his native Sudan. Yet the black and white works are not, as they may seem, an abandonment of colour. Not only is black “a colour itself,” El-Salahi explains, but it “has the potential to represent other colours as well, within it.” For these works, at once starkly introspective and pulsing with energy, the restricted palette becomes a source of power. We may not see those colors of the earth, but we can feel them.
A 2013 solo retrospective at London’s Tate Modern brought El-Salahi’s work to extraordinary prominence in the museum’s first exhibition devoted to African modernism. Then, this year, El-Salahi was honoured on a significant scale once again at the Armory Show’s “Armory Focus: African Perspectives— Spotlighting Artistic Practices of Global Contemporaries,” where the 85-year-old artist was featured alongside 14 other African and African diasporic peers.
El-Salahi studied art in Khartoum before earning a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. After returning to Sudan in the late 1950s, he became a central figure in the seminal African modern arts movement that came to be known as the Khartoum School. After a false accusation that he participated in a coup led by his cousin, El-Salahi was jailed without trial for more than six months, an experience that would have lasting impact on his life and work. Upon his release, he went into self-imposed exile in Qatar, later moving, again, to England, where he lives and works today.
During his imprisonment, a resolute El-Salahi courageously continued to work, left only with scraps of cement casings to draw on with a pencil he kept buried in the sand. It was precisely this “limitation of time and space,” as El-Salahi says, that led to the breakthrough that has proven essential to his work ever since. It can be seen in both theory (what he terms “the organic growth of a picture,” often from a central nucleus that radiates outward as the work develops) and practice (the multiple panels that make up many of his works post-imprisonment). El-Salahi doesn’t know how the work will come out until the very end, he says; his tendency to work on a single piece at once allows him “the time to empty myself of the idea, and let it grow, until it comes to a finished shape.”
While traveling throughout Sudan, El-Salahi was, as he told the Tate, “looking for any element, any sign, of something which replaces that idea of beauty and aesthetics in the mind.” He found it in calligraphy and African and Islamic motifs—the crescent moon, native animals, African masks and the veils worn by women in the Islamic north—the iconography of his homeland. This imagery, combined with both calligraphic and human forms, comprise his own visual language, each element in dialogue with the others. The human figures, El-Salahi says, come from within himself, absorbed from an “accumulated visual experience.”
As a reflection of his own aesthetic reality, El-Salahi’s work is inherently personal. Yet it reaches across the cultural divide; art, as he says, “is a human experience.” Though his work is often viewed through an anthropological lens, its bold modernism resists pigeonholing. As the art historian Salah Hassan has said, he is not only a pan-African modernist but a transnational one. El-Salahi further rejects the artificial boundaries between African and Western art: “I prefer to look at it either as art or no art.” An artist, he says, “wherever [he or she] might be, whether in Africa, or in Asia, or somewhere in the blue skies ... is experiencing something which is human, and it is a human contribution, irrespective of where it is taking place.”
For El-Salahi, the meaning behind his artwork is changeable, malleable, in constant motion rather than something fixed. “I believe the work itself has a message,” he says, “which vibrates and tells its own story to each person differently.” That interplay between art and spectator forms a symbiotic relationship, in which the viewer’s own interpretation adds another layer of meaning. El-Salahi invites this, believing “in the intelligence of the human being” as the viewer, and the artwork as a critical site of interaction between artist and audience.
El-Salahi’s 2015 masterpiece “Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams III,” the third in a thematic series begun in the early 1960s, illustrates this belief, with each viewer adding context as if in layers of invisible ink. The work is, as its title suggests, a meditation on El-Salahi’s memories of his childhood, as well as the memories, as he says, “told to us in stories at night, before we go to sleep.” Memories built on experience both lived and imagined, with dreams the scaffolding to a communal sky: the specifics are intensely personal, but the framework is universal.
These are his stories, yes, but they are also yours.