My friend Sophie had sent me a text saying ‘Have you been to the El-Salahi at Tate Modern? African and Arabic… your faves. Quite a lot of pen and ink’. She knows me well.
I nipped in to the exhibition of Ibrahim El-Salahi’s work at Tate Modern before it closed last week. El-Salahi is Sudanese and though he now lives in Oxford his work is hugely influenced by Sudan, Islam and the difficult politics of his home country. You weren’t allowed to take pictures in the galleries, and the reproductions in the catalogue are disappointing with totally unrepresentative colours, so take my word for it that many of his paintings are extraordinary. I noticed this because I had left my children at home so could actually stand in front of pictures for longer than a second.
No Shade but His Shade (1968) has deep brown/ochre shades that reminded me so much of the colours of Sudan when we visited friends in Khartoum in 2008. They took us to camp on the banks of the Nile for a night so we drove out of the capital for an hour or two, tracked down the keys to a hut, and pitched our tents near the huge river. Obtaining the keys actually involved my husband (J) and our friend heading in to the local group of houses and talking to most of the residents before finding the man with the key; my husband speaking formal Arabic to everyone, them replying in colloquial Sudanese Arabic which was utterly incomprehensible to him. But eventually Hamid appeared bearing an enormous key, and we then entertained him with some amateur kayaking. Husband threw himself out a few times and Hamid clearly thought he was going to have to intervene, but J survived intact with only his dignity bruised.
(An aside: the second picture above of a bird is photo I took in Sudan but looks so like a painting I keep having to look twice.)
El-Salahi has recently done a series of drawings/paintings called The Tree, based on haraza trees in the Nile valley which are almost dead during the rainy season and then burst into leaf and fruit during the drought. He thinks of these trees as saying’I am me! I am an individual! I do not follow what everyone else is doing!’ which is an apt analogy for his life and art in Sudan. The paintings start from one point and grow as big as he feels they should be, often by El-Salahi adding more pieces of paper. They are intricate and beautiful.
It so happens that a Sudanese friend of ours also has an exhibition on this week. Khaled Albaih is based in Qatar and does political cartoons that are well drawn and extremely carefully observed. Obviously recent history in the Middle East provides rich material for someone with his eye and sensibility. You should go and see them – Khartoon! is on at the Edge of Arabia gallery, 40 Elcho Street, London SW11 4AU until 27 September.
Book pictured above: Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist edited by Salah M. Hassan; Tate Publishing 2013.