THERE is a demand and a prayer made in each of Ibrahim El Salahi’s designs. This pioneer of Sudanese modernism has fused the diverse traditions of Sudan to make an art that is universal in its importance. His monumental painting The Inevitable (1984) is an uncompromising condemnation of civil war and injustice. The comparison with Picasso’s Guernica is not misplaced: indeed, the painting can be seen as an African counterpoint to it.
Born in 1930, El Salahi trained in Sudan and at the Slade in London, before travelling through Europe and returning to his home country to become a professor and Minister of Culture. He was one of the early members of what is now called the ‘Khartoum school’, which tried to define a cultural identity for the nation after the end of British colonial rule.
Sudan is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse countries in Africa, and the early Khartoum school stressed this inescapable plurality. The grouping of poets and literary critics who called themselves the ‘School of the Desert and the Jungle’ recognised that their Sudanese heritage is a synthesis of these landscapes. The poet Salah Ahmad Ibrahim puts it unequivocally:
Liar is he who proclaims: I am the unmixed, the pure pedigree.
The Only. Yes!, a liar!
El Salahi’s early pictures are decorative versions of Koranic verses. After time away from his homeland, the artist felt estranged from Sudan, and so travelled throughout the country, looking again at the patterns in handicrafts and the local landscape. In the early 1970s, his art takes on the crimson colours of the Sudanese earth. El Salahi’s calligraphy spirals and unwraps into patterns, and finally into representations, maintaining the rhythm and structure of the Arabic alphabet, whilst also introducing the mask-like faces from the country’s southern culture. His paintings become peopled poems.
The result is a re-appropriation of the African traditions which influenced early European modernism and cubism, re-infused with their spiritual significance. El Salahi has on occasion defended himself against the charge that representation in the arts is not Islamic: “Islamic scholars say there is nothing at all to restrict you from reproducing the human image. In a way, it’s a kind of prayer too, because you are appreciating God’s creations and trying to think about them and meditation on His creativity”.
In 1975, El Salahi was imprisoned for six months without trial under the dictatorship of General Numieri, accused of anti-governmental activity. Deprived of even pen and paper, El Salahi secretly drew designs in the sand during his daily 25 minute exercise break, protected by other prisoners, and quickly erasing his work as the guards approached. Upon release, he went into exile in Qatar and Oxford. After this time, his paintings lose their earthly colours and are almost always expressed in black and white, pen on paper. By now, El Salahi had abandoned all distinction between design and representation.
The Inevitable is El Salahi’s reaction to his time spent in prison:
the canvas is divided into nine separate sections that represent the different
periods of time incarcerated, and act as a condemnation of the civil strife
which ravaged the country after the end of British rule. Arabesque and Coptic
motifs underlie and structure pained and distorted faces. Sheltering curves
upsurge into rebellious arms and fists. The flood of white-space is channelled
and complicated by the black ink.
Unforgettable in many of El Salahi’s later works are the hypnotic eyes which pose unavoidable questions to the viewer. In ‘Funeral and Crescent’, for example, where under an Islamic crest of a moon the huge emaciated faces of the cortège seem to carry the corpse on their own, every joint of a body is spiralled into an eye. In the simply named ‘Faces’, eyes and ears and noses and mouths all swirl deliriously outwards toward the viewer. In The Inevitable, eyes are either shaded-out into black voids, or are averted from the viewer. Only a soldier keeps a sideways watch on us. The picture is machine-like, sharp and cold. For there is a demand and a prayer made in each of El Salahi’s designs, and in this picture the questions posed are the same, but here the responsibility is even greater: who will dare to look at this? Who will dare to do something to avoid The Inevitable?