Ibrahim El-Salahi: from Khartoum to Oxford, with art and love

The first retrospective of El-Salahi’s work has opened in Oxford – the English town where the artist has lived with his family for 20 years. Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Sudanese Artist in Oxford is the inaugural show by the Ashmolean Museum’s first curator of modern and contemporary art

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In February last year, in protest against President Trump's so-called Muslim Ban, the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought works by artists from the nations on Trump's ban out of storage and put them on public view.

It was a display of solidarity with the listed countries and the American Muslim community.

Among these was the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi's Al Masjid (1964), a dark painting of circular and crescent motifs in which an elongated face peers outward, next to a geometrical, abstracted mosque.

The work hadn't been shown at MoMA in 30 years, the curator and art historian Salah Hassan recounted last week, during a riveting lecture organised by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Hassan paused a moment, and then asked: "Why was it in storage in the first place?"

The crowd roared. Hassan curated the first retrospective of the major Sudanese modernist's work, in 2012, which he said he had proposed to institutions for about 15 years until Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, helped bring it to the Sharjah Art Museum. It then travelled to Tate Modern in London.

Now, the first retrospective of El-Salahi's work has opened in Oxford – the English town where the artist has lived with his family for 20 years. Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Sudanese Artist in Oxford is the inaugural show by the Ashmolean Museum's first curator of modern and contemporary art, Lena Fritsch.

"El-Salahi is a pioneer of African and Arab modernism," Fritsch says. "I wanted to provide an introduction to his work, and at the same time to provide a new view by connecting his works to the Sudanese objects in our collection."

The beloved Oxford institution, the world's first university museum, has one of the best collections of ancient Sudanese art outside Khartoum.

Fritsch and El-Salahi sifted through these objects together, picking out ancient Sudanese pottery – one artefact dates to 2250BCE – to accompany his 20th and 21st-century works. It was an echo of the period, Fritsch says, when El-Salahi went back to Sudan after studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

"When he returned, in 1957, people in Sudan were not interested in showing his work," she says. In order to connect more to Sudan, "he went around looking at Sudanese objects that people had in their homes – the Quran, folk art, calligraphy – and created links to them in his work".

Fritsch says the juxtaposition made "absolute sense". El-Salahi chose objects with typical Sudanese motifs, such as the snake, the crocodile or plants, and the relation between his colour palette, with its dark browns and ochres, and that of the pottery is unmistakable.

Fritsch's curation and Hassan's lecture show two sides of the artist, whom Hassan describes as a meticulous man of deep faith. His father taught Islam in Omdurman, and his first job was decorating the school's writing slates.

In 1960, he co-founded the Khartoum School, a group of artists whose work blended modernist abstraction with traditional Sudanese and Islamic motifs, particularly a form of calligraphy that became known as ­hurufiyya. El-Salahi and the Khartoum School were also at the forefront of the political project of decolonisation: the eradication of not only the structures of colonialism, but also its mindset. This project united writers and artists across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, in events and movements from the 1950s to the 1970s such as the Bandung Conference, the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, Negritude, the Tricontinentale, and Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pan-Arabism.

For Hassan, one of the foremost scholars of contemporary African art, this is what separates African modernism from its western counterpart: "It was a project of true liberation."

In Sudan, El-Salahi was active in politics. In the 1970s, he was the undersecretary for culture, and spent time in jail. He used that period to create a stunning book of illustrations and calligraphy, Prison Notebook (1976), that is now also in the collection of MoMA. Although his artwork was political, it was imbued with personal feeling, such as the paintings Self-Portrait of Suffering(1961), of a figure whose cheeks appear to be sunken by anxiety, and The Last Sound (1964), in which a dark red spot of paint emanates from the centre of the canvas, and drips downwards.

Hassan's discussion, as part of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi's Talking Art series, opened with El-Salahi's Untitled (1964). Painted while he was on a residency in New York, it is unusual within his work for its use of a spray can to create the vivid patches of blue that undergird the painting's almost architectural black design. According to Hassan, Skunder Boghossian, an Ethiopian artist on the same residency, lent El-Salahi the spray paint – but El-Salahi seems to have forgotten about the new method afterwards.

UAE viewers can see El-Salahi's Untitled at Louvre Abu Dhabi, where it is on loan from the collection of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The Last Sound, which is owned by the Barjeel Art Foundation, will go on view at the Sharjah Art Museum when the Barjeel's collection moves there on long-term loan on May 12.

At the Ashmolean, one can see later work by the artist, such as his geometric sculptures and multi-panelled paintings. Fritsch has also included the small drawings that El-Salahi is currently making, which he executes on discarded envelopes and medicine packets, and titles, poignantly for the 87-year-old master, "pain-relief drawings".

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Sudanese Artist in Oxford is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, UK until September 2. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday,10am to 5pm


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