Ibrahim El Salahi’s exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford is a Janus-like two headed beast that challenges those who see his works as an example of ‘post colonial modernism’ (critic Chika Okeke Agulu, for example). Born in Omdurman, Sudan in 1930 to a family with a long history of Islamic scholarship, El Salahi became fascinated with calligraphy as a child. After attending the School of Design at Gordon Memorial College at Khartoum, he received a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London between 1954 and 1957 where he encountered European tradition, ranging from Giotto to Cezanne to Mondrian. Returning to Khartoun, he began teaching at the Painting Department at the College of Fine and Applied Art and, together with fellow painters Ahmed M. Shibrain and Kamala Ibrahim Ishag became a member of the renowned ‘Khartoum School’ which actively contributed to the growth of modern art in Africa. But what does ‘the growth of modern art in Africa’ means? Who was supposed to be the audience to that kind of art? As in the rest of the world, modernism was a way of translating local iconography in a modern idiom in order to satisfy a market that needed to believe that globalisation was on its way. From this point of view, can we really refer to El Salahi’s efforts as post-colonial or as an actualisation of colonialism?
This kind of question might come across as anathema for, like Ai Wei Wei, El Salahi was imprisoned in 1975 by Gaafar Nimeiry for over six months after what he moved to Qatar where he worked in different expert roles for the Ministry of Information and Culture and then as a translator and biographer at the Diwan Amiri. Since 1998, El Salahi has lived and worked in Oxford and his memories of Sudan are somehow defined by his role as a institutional cultural bridge between what could be considered Modern Britain and Pre-Modern Sudan.
This exhibition at the Ashmolean is the first solo show by Ibrahim El-Salahi’s work in Oxford and presents him as a refined champion of modernism in a time of post-colonial globalisation. In the show, works on paper never exhibited before are presented as well as the distinctive multi panel paintings for which he is best and I would add, infamously, known. I believe that his work has two very different paths: the one of calligraphy and the one of abstraction mainly linked to the shape of the tree a symbol of Sudanese unity and spirituality. Although his calligraphic works are exceptional, the latter is a visual materialisation of what seems to be his actual life project of becoming a bridge of sorts between the incipient Sudanese art scene and the main arenas of International modernism. As a matter of fact, his work is part of the permanent collection of globalised art cathedrals such as Tate or MoMA. In other words, it is very difficult to refer to this Sudanese artist trained in Oxford who, actually, lives there as a postcolonial artist because even the idea of authenticity ends up being a Post-Romantic Western invention. The question keeps coming back over and over and is: who is the audience for his abstract paintings?
El Salahi’s taste for abstraction can be found in his Tree series which also, and unproductively, works as a symbol of the link between heaven and earth. The show include his meditative small scale drawings made on envelopes of medicine packets since last summer and his very recent first sculpture work, The Tree, 2018 which is the type of art that caught the attention of uneducated and moneyed collectors such as the Saudi Hussam Otaibi, founder and managing partner of Floreat Group (merchant banking, real state, wealth management, public equity and private debt, in other words, usury) who advised by Nick Hackworth, former art critic for the London Evening Standard and director of Paradise Row Gallery, added this last works to his collection. About his initial meet with Hackworth, the Saudi collector told the Financial Times: ‘I wanted to understand the Turner Prize’. Surprisingly, the Ashmolean catalogue mentions Hussam Otaibi’s collection as a way of legitimising El Salahi’s work. I must confess finding it difficult to understand why they did this unless there was money involved and if that was the case, the Ashmolean’s credentials of intelectual integrity are compromised.
The Ashmolean catalogue, however, dangerously misses the point by insisting on the post colonial thesis in the following terms: “What we traditionally understood in Western Europe as the canon of twentieth century art is intertwined with Western imperialism. It neglects artistic developments ocurring beyond North America and Western Europe and it has been exported to the rest of the world. In the words of Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism, ‘most histories of European aesthetic modernism leave out the massive infusions of non European cultures into the metropolitan heartland during the early years of the century, despite the patently important influence they had on modernist artists like Picasso and Matisse. A huge and remarkable adjustment in perspective and understanding is required’. This adjustment has begun, since Said wrote this text in 1993, and great progress has been made in art museums and historical scholarship’. Is that so? Aren’t we mistaking post-colonialism for financial globalisation? It is from that point of view that El Salahi’s Saudi collector in London should be understood. Which are his views on Saudi’s violations of human rights? Do they coincide with the artist? In fact, the collector presents himself as a champion of financial globalization which is not post-colonialism but a colonial actualisation through the descentering of that old idea of Empire. So the question is which place El Salahi’s work occupy here. One word would be that of the ‘sepoy’. In fact, he has expressed his disappointment for the way the Arab Revolution did not ended up implementing the sort of Pax Americana that Obama tried to implement which, if we look at it a little closer, was the impotent result of America’s own incapacity to manage his imperial pretensions between Shiites and Sunnis and, of course, by financing the Caliphate in its attempts to oppose Bashar Al Assad. This is why his The Tree (2008) which consists of seven equally sized panels presented close together, one panel at the top, two panels below, followed by three below and a single panel at the bottom, recreates the shape of a tree in abstract form trying to achieve clean geometric forms that impose a sort of transparency impossible to achieve in the real Arab world. That taste for cleanliness mirrored that of Venezuela collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, also reviewed in this blog.
It is in his calligraphic works, however, where he reaches excellence. These are the drawings that are, in a nutshell, El Salahi’s true legacy. They range from his personal drawings in diary notebooks to commissioned illustrations in books and magazines. The refinement and sophistication with which he deconstructs calligraphy and flirts with modernism is joyful to watch. His ‘Untitled’ (1976) is hands down the best work in the show. It is as if the more he tries to get iconic the less subtle and sophisticated he becomes and his political ideas come to the fore as an actualization of the British Imperial ideas transformed into the financial globalism of today which as we know do not convince anyone any longer. J A T