Ibrahim El-Salahi laments that ‘for decades African artists have been working in a vacuum.’ Worse than being criticised, they have been ignored. Hopefully, though, things are changing. El-Salahi is the first African artist to get a retrospective at the Tate Modern. His work is a heady mix of paintings, illustrations, drawings and critical writing, drawing upon African, Arab and Western traditions. With his evocative, but identifiable, African surrealism, El-Salahi’s work makes for a fresh and challenging encounter.

Sudanese El-Salahi learnt Islamic calligraphy at a young age, which formed a major technique in later work. He studied at the Slade in London, where he discovered Western modernism. His style betrays a mix of academic training and traditional Sudanese practices; and the exhibit traces his artistic journey through Sudan, his international arts education, political imprisonment and consequent self-imposed exile.

Ibrahim El-Salahi at work today

El-Salahi deconstructed calligraphy to shape his work, mixing it with Islamic symbolism: ‘Animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from these once-abstract symbols.’ He wanted to bring out a recognisable element for an Arab and African audience – calligraphy can be found everywhere on the continent. Inspired by the technique, he applies it to different mediums – creating a perpetually free-flowing stroke. He doesnt differentiate between drawing and painting: ‘It’s all art, works of art.’

The context El-Salahi is placed in is immediately reflected in his work. With such a diverse background, the retrospective shows his style is a fusion of cultures. A recent trip to Alhambra in Granada, Spain, resulted in huge canvases of sinuous flamenco dancers captured in Moorish lines. His signature tones of burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, whites and blacks, he attributes to ‘the colour of the earth in Sudan’.

Between 1957 and 1972, he travelled around Sudan, looking to reinvigorate himself with cultural inspiration. The result is a mélange of mammoth ink drawings and earthy shading. The colours of the Sudanese landscape are heightened to primaries in some areas. Funeral and the Crescent (1963), hints a crescent moon in the corner – an Islamic motif that recurs throughout El-Salahi’s work. The painting is a tribute to the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination in 1961 was a pivotal event in the African struggle for decolonisation. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5) compromises huge contours – lending shape to the confusion of El-Salahi’s earlier works – and shades that mesh with greater calm. Suggestions of calligraphy and dripping paint echo earlier angst, but El-Salahi’s distorted faces are blended and hidden – masked and mask-like in their form.

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) – the crescent moon visible in the top left-hand corner

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5)

El-Salahi’s paintings are organic. He extracts natural forms out of the man-made medium of calligraphy, to give his portraits a cell-like nature. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II (1983) encompasses embryonic sinews to create the winding sense of scientific diagrams. This piece is more controlled and sparse than his first. Female Tree (1994) fuses the natural with the human through biology offering a vibrant but simple synthesis.

Female Tree (1994)

His earlier work shows a confusion of ideas. His pieces, in process and outcome, are puzzles – unsolvable to the viewer, or even the artist himself. El-Salahi reveals: ‘To tell you the truth, when I am working, I’m not at all aware of what it is going to look like.’ The final piece ‘shows me things possibly in my subconscious mind.’ His paintings have spontaneity about them, but also an inadvertent complexity. He creates gigantic ink drawings, alongside Freud-esque portraits. His work reveals a backdrop of inspiration from Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat, to Islamic manuscripts and Renaissance paintings. An early work, Self Portrait of Suffering (1961), shows a tribal mask-like face pained and confused with a mass of infinite, dizzy spirals. The earthy tones of the distorted visage are etched physically with sgraffito, and emotionally with suffering.

Self Portrait of Suffering (1961)

In 1972, El-Salahi returned to Sudan to take up a job as Director General for Culture at the Ministry of Information, despite Sudan being under a military dictatorship. In 1975 he was accused of anti-government activities and held without trial at the infamous Cooper Prison for six months. El-Salahi consequently entered a self-imposed exile from the country, commenting: ‘terrible as it was, I learned a great deal.’ The experience replaced his murky, philosophical tones with bold, introspective black and white. His drawings embody his view that ‘in the end all images can be reduced to lines.’ This powerful shift resulted in The Inevitable (1984-5), which greets the visitor to the exhibition with an imposing and intense collection of lines: modernist and lithe, displaying an angular emotion.

The Inevitable (1984-5), placed at the entrance to the exhibition

El-Salahi’s diversity of experience has calmed to a more reflective spirituality in his most recent work. He now lives in Oxford, and has turned to British countryside for inspiration (resulting in the series The Tree). His work is clearer and more ordered. Lines are sparser, and less curvaceous – perpendicular replacing the swirls. The Day of Judgement (2008-9) uses the blank white of the paper as much as ink – contrasting stark white to black filigree. The bold two-tone forces you to focus on emotion and shape, as colour is not there to overwhelm them. Here, shapes reign supreme, conveying emotion in contorted faces and mismatched bodies, as much as Giotto does through colour and storybook vibrancy in The Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel. One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008), is the final piece in the exhibition. The triptych depicts an authoritarian ruler, commemorating the day he took the throne. But El-Salahi undermines his unjustified rule by portraying him naked before his subjects – human as much as they are. Elaborate constructions of shapes parody crowns, displaying false pomp and materialism, and airy, ethereal colours highlight the tenacious nature of his power.

Part of the series The Tree, one of El-Salahi’s more recent series

One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008)

El-Salahi is well aware of the lack of direction he experiences when starting a piece. But this need not make his work void of a message. He addresses the visitor thus: ‘What the work means to you is, for me, far more important.’ The pressure on this exhibition to engender interest in African Modernist art is high. To me, this exhibition was an organic offering of another culture – one of vitality, complexity and beauty – and I can rest assured that El-Salahi would be happy with my conclusion.

With thanks to The Guardian, The Independent,  theupcoming.co.uk and Cornell University for photos.

‘Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist’ is on at the Tate Modern until 22 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ibrahim-el-salahi-visionary-modernist.

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