Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist
Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist is the first museum retrospective of the exemplary career of Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi. Bringing together approximately 80 works from five decades of the artist's career, the retrospective highlights one of the most significant figures in African and Arab Modernist art, and reveals his place in the context of a global art history. The exhibition traces a personal journey that originates in Sudan and leads to the artist's international schooling, his detention as a political prisoner in his home country, his self-imposed exile in Qatar, and his current life in the United Kingdom.
The exhibition begins with paintings made before and after El-Salahi's education at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art at University College, London. Inspired by art ranging from ancient Islam, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, to modernists such as Cézanne, Pissarro, and Braque, El-Salahi began to incorporate various techniques into his work, creating a new visual vocabulary. In 1957, he returned home to Sudan and infused his art school training with traditional Sudanese and Islamic art practices. This style would later become known as the Khartoum School, one of the most active movements of creative talent in Africa and a major contributor to the growth of a modern African art movement. Vision of the Tomb (1965), from the Museum for African Art's collection, exemplifies the Khartoum School movement with its somber colors and abstracted elements of Arabic script.
While employed as the deputy undersecretary for culture in Sudan, El-Salahi was falsely accused of anti-government activities in 1975 and imprisoned six months without trial. This experience would significantly change the artist's life and art, resulting in stark black and white drawings that reference his incarceration and reflect on the trauma of isolation. Much of his post-prison work from the 1970s and 1980s, made during his self-imposed exile in Doha, Qatar, begins on a single sheet of paper to which he would add panels from a central nucleus.
The exhibition concludes with paintings and drawings produced after El-Salahi's return to Oxford, England in 1998, including his ongoing Tree series inspired by the haraz tree that grows along the banks of the Nile. Reflecting his joy for life, his deep spiritual faith, and a profound recognition for his place in the world, art from this time is characterized by brilliant color, sense of movement, and a relationship to nature. A stunning, three-panel painting, One Day I Happened to See a Ruler, commissioned by the Museum for African Art and produced in New York while El-Salahi was an artist-in-residence at Cornell University in 2008, is one of the concluding highlights of the exhibition.
Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist is supported, in part, by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support has been provided by the Sharjah Art Museum and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.
It is guest curated by Dr. Salah M. Hassan, Goldwin Smith Professor of African and African diaspora art history and visual culture and director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University.
A richly illustrated catalogue edited by Salah M. Hassan accompanies the exhibition with contributions by Sarah Adams, Ulli Beier, Iftikhar Dadi, Hassan Musa, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, as well as special texts by El-Salahi himself.