Ibrahim El-Salahi

Forests and Spirits: new show at Saatchi Gallery highlights the influence of African art
Creative BoomSarah Tulley

Work by a trio of Sudanese artists - Salah Elmur, Kamala Ishaq and Ibrahim El-Salahi - will be on display at SALON at Saatchi Gallery's next show, Forests and Spirits: figurative art from the Khartoum School. Whilst El-Salahi was the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern in 2013, this landmark presentation is the first to introduce the work of these three major contemporary African artists to London.


Forests and Spirits seeks to bring wider attention to contemporary African art, and in particular the enduring influence of the Khartoum School, an art movement centred around the city’s College of Fine and Applied Arts in Sudan. Formed in 1960 by Ishaq, El-Salahi and Ahmed Shibrain, all three artists in the show studied at the College - Elmur was even a pupil in the 1980s when Ishaq, a former graduate, was head of painting. As in its title, the show looks at themes of nature, tradition and spirituality, and consists of paintings by Elmur and Ishaq, and a new sculpture by El-Salahi.


Many of Elmur’s paintings are drawn from his celebrated ‘Forest’ series, inspired by the Sunut Forest, a place on the junction of the White Nile and Blue Nile where people go to celebrate and picnic. His work exudes intrigue and mystery, with his subjects often sitting or standing motionless, as though they are presenting themselves to a camera for an official portrait. Ishaq, meanwhile, has long been preoccupied with the cult of Zar, the term for a demon or spirit assumed to possess individuals, mostly women. The ceremony to drive them away is not an exorcism as perceived by Western sensibilities, it typically includes music and dancing and is effectively an exercise in social restraint, as the ‘demon’ is often nothing more than an undesirable personality trait such as rudeness or licentiousness.


Elmur and Ishaq’s paintings will be displayed around El-Salahi’s first sculpture, Meditation Tree, which fulfils the artist’s long-held ambition to render his drawn images in three dimensions and to play with their scale. The work, part of his ‘Tree’ series, was inspired by the characteristics of a particular type of acacia tree called Haraz. Indigenous to Sudan, the Haraz is of great cultural, spiritual and economical significance – the country’s largest export, gum Arabic, is harvested from it.


"At a time of great interest in African art, it is a special privilege to bring these three unique talents together, and in particular to place the spotlight on Kamala Ishaq, one of three founders of the Khartoum School and a seminal figure in the development of modern and contemporary African art," says curator Roubi L’Roubi. "Like El-Salahi, both Ishaq and Elmur draw on older traditions for inspiration – Ishaq with the ceremony of Zar and Elmur, in the works presented here, on the delicate interplay between nature and humanity, the spiritual and the temporal, a line of investigation that unites the practices of all three artists."


Forests and Spirits: figurative art from the Khartoum School opens at SALON at Saatchi Gallery on 28 September and runs until 25 November 2018.