Ibrahim El-Salahi

'Prison Notebook': How Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi transformed his suffering into seminal works
The National Alexandra Chaves
 


The modernist's incredibly important series of works has been translated into English by Sharjah Art Foundation

 

On a sweltering day in September 1975, without charge or explanation, renowned modernist artist Ibrahim El Salahi was arrested and taken to prison.

 

He recounts details from that day clearly, from the puffy cheeks of one of the security officers who detained him to the bare floor of the room in Khartoum’s Kober (Cooper) prison, where he would spend the next six months and eight days without trial.


At the time of his detention, El Salahi – who turns 90 next month – was working as an undersecretary in Sudan’s Ministry of Culture but was accused by the Jaafar Nimeiri regime of being involved in a coup attempt.


After his release, El Salahi was placed under house arrest. During this period, he began creating a series of 39 pen-and-ink drawings – his first group of works in black and white – to record his prison experience. These works, compiled in the 1976 publication Prison Notebook, contain haunting and surreal self-portraits alongside Arabic poetry and prose written by El Salahi as well as Quranic verses.

 

Sharjah Art Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art republished these drawings in 2018, translating his writing and commentary into English for the first time. The slim volume documents how transformative this period was for El Salahi, personally and artistically. Years earlier, in 1957, he had returned to Sudan after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, completing a scholarship programme in the US and touring the world to represent his country at cultural festivals.

 

One of the 39 ink drawings by Ibrahim El Salahi, made during house arrest after he was released from Kober prison in 1976. His drawings are compiled in 'Prison Notebook', published by Sharjah Art Foundation and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. All images of 'Prison Notebook' courtesy Sharjah Art Foundation and The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

On a sweltering day in September 1975, without charge or explanation, renowned modernist artist Ibrahim El Salahi was arrested and taken to prison.

 

He recounts details from that day clearly, from the puffy cheeks of one of the security officers who detained him to the bare floor of the room in Khartoum’s Kober (Cooper) prison, where he would spend the next six months and eight days without trial.

 

At the time of his detention, El Salahi – who turns 90 next month – was working as an undersecretary in Sudan’s Ministry of Culture but was accused by the Jaafar Nimeiri regime of being involved in a coup attempt.


After his release, El Salahi was placed under house arrest. During this period, he began creating a series of 39 pen-and-ink drawings – his first group of works in black and white – to record his prison experience. These works, compiled in the 1976 publication Prison Notebook, contain haunting and surreal self-portraits alongside Arabic poetry and prose written by El Salahi as well as Quranic verses.

 

Sharjah Art Foundation and the Museum of Modern Art republished these drawings in 2018, translating his writing and commentary into English for the first time. The slim volume documents how transformative this period was for El Salahi, personally and artistically. Years earlier, in 1957, he had returned to Sudan after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, completing a scholarship programme in the US and touring the world to represent his country at cultural festivals.

 

Intent on making his name in Sudan, El Salahi turned to styles that would resonate with his countrymen. In 1960, he co-founded the Khartoum School, a group of artists whose works melded traditional Islamic calligraphy and motifs with modernist abstraction.

 

Born in 1930, he was in his forties when imprisonment disrupted his life and career. The works in Prison Notebook illustrate the anguish and pain of El Salahi’s experience in Kober. He recounts not only physical hardship – sleeping in a cell with 10 people “packed like sardines” with no beds – but also the emotional turmoil of hearing prisoners being hanged in the early hours of the morning and the fear of being next.


In one drawing, he depicts prison guards lining up inmates for body searches at dawn. “Lucky is the one who would be brought back to jail,” he writes in a poem. 

 

Deprived of the materials needed to create, El Salahi cut up cement bags and drew on them with a pencil. He would bury these drawings in the sand, knowing that punishment would come if they were discovered. This process of piecing together scraps of sketches forged a new approach to his work.


“That gave me an idea, which I used later in my work: the organic growth of a picture,” El Salahi writes. “I worked on a nucleus, something in the middle. Then I added one piece to the right, the one piece to the left, one piece above, one piece below, until the picture grew into another image.”


The most striking element of the artist’s prison drawings is his use of metaphorical motifs and his recollections of the nightmares that plagued him after his release. The Onset of the Nightmare shows a “bird of evil” hanging over his head, representing trauma and the lingering fear of returning to prison. “When I was released at last, every night I woke up from these horrible dreams,” the artist writes. It was from this point, he says, that he began making small abstract works in full colour