Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist

I first came across this artist at Tate Modern in 2013, surprised that this was the first exhibition there dedicated to African Modernism. Ibrahim El-Salahi has recently had a solo exhibition at the Ashmolean, Oxford where he now lives.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, ‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I’ 1961–5

I stood in front of this 8 foot square painting: Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I

(1961–5) for a long time, entranced by the otherworldly beings that coalesced into a haunting, multi-layered composition. It reminded me of elements of abstract expressionists and surrealists I admired, but with a potent style of its own. There seemed to be an integration of Islamic, African, Arab and Western artistic traditions, with the utilization of spaces and forms in Arabic calligraphy that I read were woven into memories of El-Salahi’s childhood in Sudan where his father ran a Qur’anic school in his house.

Interestingly, working closer with text brought a breakthrough for El-Salahi. As he began breaking down the letters to find what gave them meaning, animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from the once-abstract symbols. “That was when I really started working. Images just came, as though I was doing it with a spirit I didn’t know I had,” he says.

An early work, exhibited at the Ashmolean, represents the time when the artist was finding his own visual narrative, developing his own artistic identity. In Untitled, 1957 (below), he paints his own face, influenced by abstract writing and African and European visual culture, continuing to develop this style in his 1961 portrait  Self-Portrait of Suffering.

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                                                                                                     Self-Portrait of Suffering,1961

Other figures in El-Salahi’s works come into existence through an intuitive artistic process relating to the artist’s inner self rather than the outer world, the faces suggesting a spiritual dimension where human existence is linked to a world of dreams and meditations.

 

Pen and ink drawings on watercolour paper.

Meditative drawings that El-Salahi has made on envelopes and medicine packets when suffering from physical pain.

 

In the Oxford exhibition, El-Salahi’s works are placed in dialogue with specially selected ancient Sudanese objects from the Ashmolean’s collection that reflect El-Salahi’s use of rich earthy tones, a conscious attempt to create a Sudanese aesthetic.  Examples of pottery, decorated with images of the people, plants and animals of the region, were chosen together with the artist.

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                          ‘Untitled’, Ibrahim El-Salahi, 1967                ‘No shade but his shade’, 1968

The exhibition also featured works from El-Salahi’s Tree Series, the tree being a major motif in his work. He became interested in the haraz tree, an acacia indigenous to Sudan that grows in the Nile valley, when exploring the nomadic nature of Sudanese identity. The haraz becomes a symbol of the Sudanese and their resilience. It is uniquely contradictory, remaining leafless and bare during the rainy season and being the only plant that blossoms in the dry season. El-Salahi uses the tree metaphorically as a link between heaven and earth, creator and created.

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https://www.ashmolean.org/event/ibrahim-el-salahi-a-sudanese-artist-in-oxford

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Creative Sessions at the YMCA

Recently, I have been asked to run a couple of taster sessions for YMCA Cardiff Design For Life. The learners were keen to work with clay, as this is something they hadn’t tried before.

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Clay is so tactile, soothing and grounding. Several learners commented that they had come reluctantly to the session, thinking it would be ‘boring’, but they had actually found it ‘relaxing and enjoyable’. The time passed very quickly, and seemed to open up a space for discussion about significant things. I asked the participants to create something that represents them, and one man sculpted miniature versions of the tools that he had used as a woodcarver. He included a mallet, two types of gauge with handle, and his unfinished sculpture.

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Another learner had the use of only one hand due to a stroke, but was able to create two pieces that were meaningful to him. An ashtray, signifying his struggle to give up smoking, transformed into a clam shell into which he inserted a perfect pearl.

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we pass the clay from hand to hand, raw and smooth,

shaping something unseen, something buried.

something is bypassed, something is regained:

an ashtray becomes a clam shell with a pearl,

a woodcarver recreates his tools.

the sea washes up a shoe, stones for skimming,

a rabbit’s remains

Natural Abstracts

Some stunning paintings made in response to two stories from Africa today on the Children’s Art and Storytelling course that I am running at Llanover Hall Arts Centre. ‘Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky’ – a Nigerian folktale, and ‘The Lion’s Whisker’ – an Ethiopian Folktale.

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Elements by Jim age 9

 

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African landscape by Paddy, age 9

 

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Camouflaged Lion by Iolo, age 6

 

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Sun by Paddy, age 9

 

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Witch Doctor by George, age 7

 

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Witch Doctor Dance by Jim, age 9

 

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Elements II by Jim age 9

 

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African Landscape By George, age 7

Preliminary Drawings:

Lion, by George; Winged Lion with Horn by Paddy, Mask by Paddy, Compound of Sun and Moon for the Water by George, Sun and Water by Iolo.

This Is What I Would Turn Into At Night

Here are some of my favourite art works by children I have been working with over the past months. They have been responding to old folk stories from many cultures.

The Lady of the Lake (Wales)

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Maui’s Magic Fishing Hook (Maori)

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The Fox Maiden (Korea)

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Guardian Totems (Korea)

Medusa (Greece)

 

Gelert (Wales)

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Baba Yaga (Russia)

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Blodeuwedd and Twm Carnabwth (Wales)

Aztec Gods (Mexico)

The Bird with Two Heads, and Ganesha (India)

Huitzilopochtli (Mexico)

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Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave

For the last week of this five week cycle of storytelling and art from around the world, we travelled to Russia to hear about the enigmatic Baba Yaga.  She is a many-faceted figure, variously seen as a Moon, Death, Winter, Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, or archetypal image.[4]

After discussing some of Baba Yaga’s traits: iron teeth, lives in a house that walks around on chicken legs, sails through the sky in a mortar yielding a pestle,  the children listened to one of the many tales involving Baba Yaga: Vasilisa the Brave. It exhibits Baba Yaga’s ambiguous nature – scary, yet wise, and the choices of a girl who triumphs through courage and perseverance.

Below is a selection of the wonderful illustrations of Baba Yaga by children on the course. I’m always amazed at the detail, personality and energy of these drawings that the children do without hesitating as they listen to the stories.

 

Vasilisa’s magic doll by Lily.

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