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Ibrahim El-Salahi

By Liz Bruchet, on 2 August 2013

‘The provision of new tropes of self-expression and self-representation that traversed frontiers of environment and geography was one of this visionary artist’s major achievements.’

Salah M. Hassan, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist p. 12.

Pioneering artist and Slade alumnus Ibrahim El-Salahi is the subject of a groundbreaking exhibition that marks the first time Tate Modern has given a retrospective to an African artist.

As a young Sudanese artist and teacher, El-Salahi was sponsored by the Sudanese Government to study at the Slade from 1954-57. Already an accomplished artist (having obtained a Diploma from Gordon Memorial College, and been appointed drawing master in the Department of Art), El-Salahi’s period at the Slade expanded his awareness of modernism and western art history. But when he returned to Sudan at the end of his studies, he encountered local indifference to the work he’d produced in London. It was a reaction that would prompt the burgeoning artist to venture into altogether new artistic territory. He began to fuse aspects of European art movements with elements of Islamic, Arabic and African art in a revolutionary re-imagining of the various artistic traditions around him. Through this cross-pollination El-Salahi become a pioneering figure in African Modernism; not only as an artist, but through his work as an activist, writer, diplomat and even as a presenter on a national television programme.

El-Salahi (centre) and fellow students at the Slade, 1956.

El-Salahi (centre) and fellow students at the Slade, 1956.

While a student at the Slade, El-Salahi won the Slade Prize ‘for the illumination of lettering’, a fitting award considering Arabic calligraphy would become a key source for much of his later work.

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist is at Tate Modern until 22 September 2013.

Both El-Salahi and his co-exhibitor at Tate Modern, Meschac Gaba, are the subject of a recent episode of The Culture Show on BBC 2, and the exhibition’s curator, Salah M. Hassan, discusses El-Salahi’s work on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves.