Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist at Tate Modern constitutes an extensive retrospective of an artist who has long deserved to be shown in a British institution
Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, Tate Modern’s recently-opened exhibition of Ibrahim El-Salahi’s oeuvre, constitutes the first ever retrospective of an African artist at this museum. The 83-year-old artist demonstrates a voracious output, and the exhibition at Tate picks works that span a 50-year career. Born in Omduran, Sudan’s second city in 1930, El-Salahi studied painting at Khartoum’s School of Design between 1949-52 and was subsequently awarded a scholarship to study calligraphy and painting at the Slade in London. He returned to Sudan in 1957 and candidly describes how his early exhibitions upon his return fell somewhat flat. He describes how “the attitude of an extravagant, conceited young artist from London” restricted his work, and thus the reception of it. Through a reassessment of his practice as a result of these ‘failures’ – a pivotal moment in most artists’ careers, El-Salahi began to assimilate different tropes, themes, and techniques into his continually developing artistic language. Qur’anic calligraphy, of the kind that he first found an artistic affinity with as a child learning the Qur’an at his father’s school, and of the sort that surrounded him in Sudan; in literature, on buildings, in public and private spaces, was a key inspiration. And the abstraction and interrogation of these motifs proliferates through the work in the exhibition.
This exhibition, along with a concurrent solo exhibition by Lebanese Saloua Raouda Choucair, Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art, and the provision of an Acquisitions Fund for African Art, are part of a broader strand of programming and collection strategy at Tate Modern. Catching up with international collections of African art of the likes of New York’s MoMA and Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Tate, as the UK’s most significant collection of modern and contemporary international art, has historically been somewhat inactive on this front. Further, the African continent is the source of a burgeoning generation of artists and organisations that are, and have been, contributing to a wider global art discourse and narrative. With regards to El-Salahi, who himself has had a long relationship with Britain, and has been resident in Oxford for 15 years, this retrospective is overdue. However, in terms of making amends to the cold, biased subjectivities of history and the art historical canon, this is a promising start to what one hopes will be a continuing conversation.
Taking a generally chronological approach, the exhibition highlights specific events or periods in the artist’s life; such as his time at the Slade, his association with the Khartoum School and his 6-month prison term in Sudan, for supposedly colluding with anti-government forces. The viewer is given an overarching view of how his work has developed over time, with the inevitable vacillations and detours, the sign of an artist experimenting with styles and amalgamating a specific visual lexicon. Such anomalies appear in the form of Portrait of a Young Man (1950-54) and Portrait of Woman from Egypt (1950-54) which stand out clearly from the rest of the exhibition in their affinities with Realism and Impressionist leanings, both academic styles prominent at the Slade and in London at the time. Room 4 of the exhibition, dedicated to his ‘Imprisonment Expatriation and Exile (1972-98)’, provides more of a social history for the artist, in which Perspex vitrines display his notebooks, fragments of paper, and other ephemera produced covertly while imprisoned and after his incarceration. As opposed to his studio works which are large-scale and canvas-based, these images and texts are sketched with an urgency necessitated by his circumstance, providing a sense of intimacy, and highlighting his changing perspectives as a result of isolation. After this period, his work is cited to shift to a more oblique philosophical mode that eschewed earthy tones and expressive sensibilities for a monochromatic austerity of form. But colour and form certainly return to his work, particularly evident in his most recent pieces. The final series shown in the exhibition, the triptych One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008) can be read as a subtle critique of a decorated leader, naked and bound, as it were, to his elaborate throne. The unmarked white of the canvas shines out and demonstrates an artistic economy and technical efficiency alongside a deft use of colour that glows and pops out of the canvas.
The retrospective has a remarkably serious and almost sombre tone. These attributes are just one facet of his character, not to forget his dalliances with pop culture, and his entrepreneurial spirit, evidenced by ‘The House of Jack’, a talk show he hosted in Sudan in the 1970s, dedicated to the outcasts of Sudanese society. Further, works such as Untitled (1984) or Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II (1983), the most striking works on display, as well as referencing Modernism in its broadest sense, also speak to the expressive, buoyant, curvaceous figurativism of artists who worked across disciplines that included art and music – such as Ernie Barnes’ Sugar Shack (the cover of Marvin Gaye’s LP “I Want You”, 1976) or the paintings of Aaron Douglas. There are frequent references to how El-Salahi masterly combined local ‘Sudanese visual vocabulary’ and Western Modernism, but not necessarily of a wider conversation between these two movements and other aesthetic tendencies such as Futurism and ‘Afromodernism’ (which was also the subject of a group exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2010).
Ultimately, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist constitutes an extensive retrospective of an artist who has long deserved to be shown in a British institution, and to participate in an expanded discussion about modern and contemporary international art. It is in the aftermath of this exhibition that we will see if institutions and curators will reappropriate this extraordinary artist in conversations about modernism and all the agents that contributed to the story.
Daniella Rose King is a writer and curator based in London.
Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, Tate Modern, London 3rd July – 22nd September 2013. Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist is organised by the Museum for African Art, New York, in association with Tate Modern, London. The exhibition is curated by Salah M. Hassan, Goldwin Smith Professor, Cornell University. The presentation at Tate Modern is curated in collaboration with Elvira Dyangani Ose, Curator, International Art.
 Ibrahim El-Salahi, A Visionary Modernist, “The Artist in His Own Words”, edited by Salah M. Hassan, p. 84.