Ibrahim El-Salahi is renowned as one of the key figures of African Modernism. El-Salahi founded the so-called Karthum School and travelled throughout the USA, Mexico and Brazil in the 1960s, where he met the artists of the Spiral Group, as well as Rufino Tamayo and many others. He was a cultural attaché for Sudan and later the Sudanese Director of Culture, as well as being a member of the legendary Mbari Club in Nigeria with future Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Nagib Mahfuz. And in 1976 El-Salahi was imprisoned for six months without charge in connection with an attempted coup he had nothing to do with, before going into exile in Qatar, where he worked as an advisor to the Emir.
Most importantly, El-Salahi was one of the first artists to deliberately try to un-learn the art of Europe (where he had studied at Oxford) in order, from the end of the 1950s onwards, to arrive at a new art through his head-on engage- ment with his origins and Sudanese traditions. This is what makes him more relevant today than ever. El-Salahi is a key figure of Modernism per se, for his work reflects an entire century with its ruptures, hopes and claims. Not least because of this, El-Salahi was honoured with a solo exhibition at Tate Modern in his adopted home, Great Britain, in 2013.
The Kunsthalle Zürich is showing a precise selection of Ibrahim El-Salahi’s sixty-year oeuvre: a group of 89 small-format Pain Relief Drawings, which the artist has been creating since 2016. At first glance they appear light and ludic, like drawings made in passing while on the telephone. But they are much more than absent-minded doodles. Drawn on medicine packets or envelopes, the Pain Relief Drawings are focused, concentrated miniatures of the kind that thought, drawing a line, produces; they are associative, agile and meditative.
Ibrahim El-Salahi: Pain Relief Drawings is organised by Laura Hoptman, Execu- tive Director at The Drawing Center, New York, and is curated at Kunsthalle Zürich by Daniel Baumann, Director / Curator.
About the Pain Relief Drawings
When I am drawing, my mind is concentrated, and I can forget about the pain. […] It’s a mental thing – when I concentrate, my mind goes from the pain to what I am drawing. Drawing for me is a kind of meditation. (Ibrahim El-Salahi in conversation with Anna MacNay, Studio International, 26/06/2019)
Drawing has continued to be the focus of El-Salahi’s production over the last several decades, and in the past five years he has created an extraordinary series of small works that he calls pain relief drawings. El-Salahi started the series in 2016 when back pain reduced his mobility and caused him to rely on medication for relief. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease further hampered his movement and added to his intake of prescription drugs. As he explained in an interview from 2019, “I am surrounded by packets of medicine, so I said, ‘What a waste. Why don’t I use them?’ I started opening them and chopping them to size, and I started working on them. I had a number of pens with waterproof and fade-proof ink, which the material of those kinds of packages takes very nicely.” In the past half-decade, El-Salahi has produced hundreds of Pain Relief drawings, despite his advanced age and compromised physical ability. Throughout his career, El-Salahi has emphasized the connection that exists for him between making art and praying, as if the act of creation carries with it some spiritual power to com- fort and maybe even to heal. (Laura Hoptman, in Ibrahim El-Salahi: Pain Relief Drawings, p.12)
These Pain Relief Drawings are mostly in black and white, but sometimes also in blue and red, on very small medicine packets and envelopes. They link with El-Salahi’s diaristic practice and feature similar motifs, patterns and biomorphic forms. The series includes abstracted scenes that reflect so- ciopolitical incidents and world news that concerned the artist when he created the work. For example, one small drawing features a conglomeration of countless stick figures in an ornamental composition arranged on five different levels. On second glance the drawing presents the viewer with boats and staircase-like structures that recall and symbolically reference the images of refugees arriving in crowded boats in Europe. A striking new aspect of this series is the use of deliberately mundane material such as old medicine packets and envelopes. Also interesting is the new inclusion of found imagery, text and structures. Envelope drawings incorporate the name of the sender or a transparent window into the artistic composition; debossed structures of medicine packets become part of an artwork’s pattern. Images from the artist’s own experience or seen on television, as well as everyday forms and materials, are inextricably intertwined and transformed into art. (Lena Fritsch, in Ibrahim El-Salahi. A Sudanese Artist in Oxford, p. 41)