The Work of Sudanese Artist Ibrahim el-Salahi

As an art enthusiast and fellow of the Duke of Edinburgh Fellowship, Tunde Folawiyo will certainly be aware of the work of Sudanese artist and former diplomat Ibrahim el-Salahi. Born in 1930 in Omdurman, where his father taught at a Quranic school, el-Salahi embraced the art world by decorating writing slates at his father’s school. He then went on to study in Khartoum, extending his education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London during the 1950s, before returning to Sudan in 1957. It is said that many African artists develop their artistic identities in the West, and Tunde Folawiyo will be able to recognise the mixture of Muslim iconography with western influences in el-Salahi’s work.

Although el-Salahi is recognised as one of the most significant figures in African and Arab Modernism, his initial output moved between a number of different styles. This was a direct result of his time spent in London during the 1950s, where he visited numerous galleries and museums to find inspiration and influence from renowned artists. Over time, however, el-Salahi began to develop his own artistic style.

In 1961, el-Salahi visited Nigeria, where he recognised that an artistic renaissance had begun to sweep across the continent, with traditional art being used by writers and artists to create new forms. During this time, el-Salahi also travelled extensively through his own country of Sudan, looking for inspiration and a way to define and express a new artistic voice for the nation. Taking the calligraphy of Arabic scripts, the artist created fragmentary shapes, which utilised the crescent and moon of Muslim iconography. Speaking of his past methods, el-Salahi has explained that a piece of work often starts with an image at the centre of the canvas before moving outwards, relying on artistic spirit and spontaneity as a guide.

2013 saw el-Salahi become the first African artist to be given a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The exhibition collected over 100 works from the artist’s international career, spanning five decades of output, and helped to highlight el-Salahi’s place in the broader context of art history. Some of the more recent paintings on display during the exhibition reflect the artist’s passion for life, his spirituality and faith, and an acute recognition of his place in the world. Ibrahim el-Salahi has lived in Oxford since 1998 with his anthropologist wife Katherine.

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