Memoirs of Ibrahim El-Salahi | Apollo Review

Excerpt from the October 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Born in Sudan in 1930, Ibrahim El-Salahi is one of the most important modernist artists of the 20th century. He is best known for his paintings and drawings, which incorporate the refined strokes of Arabic calligraphy with African motifs and a mastery of European artistic traditions. He is a founding member of the Khartoum School, one of the most important modern art centers in Africa.

At home in the world presents the artist’s own account of his life for the English-speaking world. His memoirs in Arabic have already been published in Sudan to coincide with his traveling retrospective, “Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist” in 2012-2013. It begins with El-Salahi’s childhood in colonial Sudan and goes through different periods: in London, the Americas, Sudan, Qatar and Oxford (where he currently lives). El-Salahi focuses on moments and experiences “that stuck in my mind and learned a lot from.”

A multitude of extraordinary people and interactions have shaped his opinions. Among the most telling are the encounters he describes while traveling in the Americas in the 1960s (as a recipient of a UNESCO fine arts fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation residency ). His memories of encounters with artists like Jacob Lawrence are interspersed with encounters with ordinary people. He encounters struggling Puerto Rican immigrants and spends an evening with a nervous young man about to join the paratroopers, anticipating a deployment to Vietnam. Race and religion are also key themes. There is a vivid account of a conversation with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, in Chicago. They discuss Sudan (where Muhammad had been), Islam and the United States. He reflects on the struggles and contradictions of the American civil rights movement and on being an African observer of these transformations.

El-Salahi also reflects on the pivotal moments of his development as an artist. He describes, for example, his return to Sudan in 1957 (after studying at the Slade School of Art in London) and his bewilderment that all the works he produced were bought by Western expatriates. With an ethnographic eye, he investigates the images consumed and appreciated by the Sudanese. He finds them in Arabic calligraphy and the African motifs of everyday life. This research led him to create some of his most important works, such as Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961–65; Fig. 1), which integrate the “Arab” and “African” forms. Reborn Sounds sums up this way of working – with its strong lines and negative spaces inspired by calligraphy and the ghostly imagery of African masks. It is painted in oil and enamel on Sudanese cotton called dammouriya, further invoking the past, tradition and place. El-Salahi recalls how his hands moved across the canvas “as if I had no will of my own and had been totally overpowered by this unknown spirit working within me.” Despite its importance, El-Salahi notes that Alfred Barr Jr, in his role as Director of Collections, had been on the verge of acquiring this piece for MoMA in the 1960s, but had declined due to the quality of the fabric. traditional.

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I, (1961–65), Ibrahim El-Salahi

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I , (1961-1965), Ibrahim El-Salahi. Tate, London

While El-Salahi is “at home in the world”, his life (and his works) have been shaped by the cultural history, landscapes and political upheavals of his native country. But this relationship was not easy. A turning point came when he returned to Sudan in 1972 (after working as a Sudanese cultural attaché in London) to take up a position in the Ministry of Culture. Sudanese friends in London warned him against returning due to the tense political situation. After a failed coup, El-Salahi (wrongly accused of being involved in anti-government activities) was imprisoned for six months in 1975. Writing and drawing were banned, but he did drawings on tiny pieces of paper and buried them in the sand on the prison floor. He left the drawings in the sand, but took with him the ideas he developed in prison and the practice of dealing with pain and trauma through art. El-Salahi describes the production of a collection of abstract line drawings and poems (prison notebook, 1976) after his release from prison but still under house arrest. He notes, “I had to try through abstraction to figure out why things were happening to me unexpectedly and bring some order back…”

El-Salahi has not lived in Sudan since 1977, although he was a prominent figure in the country’s cultural and diaspora life. He worked in Qatar (a role facilitated by his friend, Sudanese author Tayeb Salih), but found it unsatisfying. He returned to England in 1982 to be with his family and work more on his art. The artist describes having no money and going to the job center in Hackney. The only vacant position was that of a poorly paid sausage packer. He tried to apply, but was turned down on the grounds that he was overqualified, too old (he was 52 at the time), and lacked sausage wrapping experience. He still practices from his home in Oxford and remains engaged with the world around him; his most recent works are a series of mask against coronavirus drawings. All of these keepsakes are delivered with a light and thoughtful touch. El-Salahi does not tell us what to think of his life, but spreads the pieces before us, inviting us to see the many links.

At Home in the World: A Memoir by Ibrahim El-Salahi is published by Skira/The Africa Institute.

Excerpt from the October 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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