Artists & Exhibitors

Ibrahim El-Salahi: the father of African modernism

This feature was originally published in the October 2016 issue of NewAfrican, pp. 90-91, to coincide with the fourth London edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

As part of the special projects program at 1:54, Modern Forms presents The Arab Spring Notebook by Ibrahim El-Salahi. Here, Nick Hackworth profiles an artist widely regarded as a godfather of African Modernism.

“To come in from the cold after all this time is a wonderful thing,” Ibrahim El-Salahi said of the level of international recognition recently afforded his work. Having just celebrated his 86th birthday, El-Salahi is now widely seen by curators and museums around the world as one of the world’s most important, living artists and a godfather of African and Arabic modernism. It’s a judgment that was underscored by depth and range of his work at his retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2013, the first retrospective given by the Tate to an African born artist.

The Tate show was the last stop of the travelling retrospective that had previously visited Sharjah and Doha. Curated by Professor Salah Hassan, it was the first major, survey exhibition dedicated to El-Salahi’s work and, in critical terms, forcefully argued the importance of El-Salahi as an exemplar of Modernism in general and contextualized his “foundational contribution to the modernist movement in African visual arts” – a long overdue and highly successful act of revisionism necessary after decades of Eurocentric narratives about modernity. Since then the spike of attention on El-Salahi’s work from both the critical and commercial communities of art world has been intense. The Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Sharjah Foundation have all added major works to their collections with a number of other museums pursuing the few major works still available. This December London’s Vigo Gallery will present El-Salahi at Art Basel Miami Beach, which will be the first time his work has shown at a Basel art fair, indicative of the depth of market interest in his work.

https://vimeo.com/185323719
Video produced by Modern Forms; Interview by Nick Hackworth.

From his early paintings influenced by his studies in London, to the elegance works from his ‘Khartoum School’ period inspired by the aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy, to the austere Minimal beauty of The Tree series, El-Salahi’s complex and nuanced practice has drawn upon and spoken to multiple cultural traditions, perspectives and identities; Sudanese, African, Arabic, Islamic (El-Salahi is a practicing Muslim), Western, Modernist and traditional. It is, perhaps, the self-consciousness with which El Salahi has navigated these meanings whilst allied to a commitment to formal experimentation, that characterises El Salahi as a paradigmatic Modernist.

The origin myth of El-Salahi’s practice, however, begins in a communication failure. Born in 1930 in Omdurman, Sudan, to an Islamic teacher, El-Salahi became fascinated with art whilst studying at Khartoum’s Gordon Memorial College, before winning a scholarship to The Slade School of Art in London in the 1950’s. On returning to Sudan after graduation he organized an exhibition at Khartoum’s Grand Hotel, displaying a body of paintings, landscapes, still-lifes, nudes and portraits all articulating styles learnt in London. El Salahi recalls, “The viewers I had in mind for the exhibition were my Sudanese compatriots, but although a lot of them came to the opening out of courtesy, they quickly vanished,” The works appealed to the Western audience in the city, several of whom bought works, but not to his compatriots. “I was astounded to find that the artistic tastes and concepts entrenched in the Sudanese personality offered no possibility of really appreciating the expertise I has acquired abroad and was so proud to show off. The shock was a revelation.” The communication gap presented itself to El-Salahi as a problem to be solved. He had returned, in his own words, as a “conceited young artist fresh from London” but, “Over time I came to see that conditions in Sudan required a very different approach on the part of the artist… If I was to have a relationship with an audience, I had to examine the Sudanese environment, identify what it offered…. As an artistic resource…”. Accordingly El-Salahi stopped painting for two years embarked on a long and open ended exploration of “what kinds of art were shown, and therefore appreciated, in typical Sudanese homes and public places… I was amazed to rediscover the riches I had seen all around me during my childhood, and whose value and rich meanings I had for years abysmally failed to grasp”.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, The Arab Spring Notebook (detail), 2011, Black Ink on paper, 10.5 x 14.5 cm, Courtesy of Modern Forms - A series of 46 black, ink drawings originally made in a single sketchbook, the work comprises El Salahi’s response to the Arab Spring. A former political prisoner, he felt a deep and immediate, common cause with the revolutionary events, “…when [The Arab Spring] happened I rejoiced… because it brought down a huge mountain of injustice… [and a] pyramid of authority… Power, as we all know, breeds greed and greed breeds corruption, injustice and prejudice and inequality. And inequality leads to oppression, and revolt.”
Ibrahim El-Salahi, The Arab Spring Notebook (detail), 2011, Black Ink on paper, 10.5 x 14.5 cm, Courtesy of Modern Forms – A series of 46 black, ink drawings originally made in a single sketchbook, the work comprises El Salahi’s response to the Arab Spring. A former political prisoner, he felt a deep and immediate, common cause with the revolutionary events, “…when [The Arab Spring] happened I rejoiced… because it brought down a huge mountain of injustice… [and a] pyramid of authority… Power, as we all know, breeds greed and greed breeds corruption, injustice and prejudice and inequality. And inequality leads to oppression, and revolt.”
Out of that search came a movement that became known as the Khartoum School, “hoping to fill the gap between the artist and his audience, the cumulative outcome of different historical, social and political factors, I began an experiment later called “the Khartoum School”. The common factor in the Khartoum School work was the abstract and representational symbolic potential of the Arabic letter”. Developed along with fellow artists such as Ahmed Shibrain and Kamala Ishag, the Khartoum school became then the foundational, visual language of Sudanese Modernism. El-Salahi carried this spirit of intellectual enquiry in a series of critical cultural engagements across Africa. In the early 1960’s the participated in the legendary Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan and, then working for the Sudanese government as a cultural advisor, led the Sudanese delegation to the first World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966 and subsequently to the First Pan African Cultural Festival in Algiers, 1969, both of which helped catalyze pan-African art movement, of which El-Salahi has remained a key figure.

Amidst all his interactions with these different identities and traditions, El-Salahi works have always been intensely personal and, being a devout Muslim, also spiritual. “I know I draw on an unwavering spiritual origin in which I resolutely believe. I rely on and submit to the metaphysical and the invisible as ways to gain access to the hidden chambers of my innermost self”. It has been El-Salahi’s ability to make work that is radically and authentically personal, whilst engaging in a nuanced and generous fashion with wider cultural contexts that has marked him out as one of the most significant artists of his generation.

Ibrahim El Salahi, Calligraphic Forms III, 1989, Ink on paper, 135 x 135 cm, Courtesy of Modern Forms - One of El-Salahi’s most important abstract works on paper, Calligraphic Forms III channels elements of Cubism and Surrealism alongside Muslim iconography, especially the compositional forms suggested by Arabic calligraphy.
Ibrahim El Salahi, Calligraphic Forms III, 1989, Ink on paper, 135 x 135 cm, Courtesy of Modern Forms – One of El-Salahi’s most important abstract works on paper, Calligraphic Forms III channels elements of Cubism and Surrealism alongside Muslim iconography, especially the compositional forms suggested by Arabic calligraphy.

Announcing 1:54 NY 2016 exhibitors

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair will return to New York from May 6-8, 2016! The second U.S. iteration of the fair will take place at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where the New York edition of 1:54 launched in 2015, and will coincide with Frieze Art Week.

The 2016 New York edition of 1:54 will showcase 17 galleries from 9 countries, in addition to an impressive selection of works by over 60 artists working in various artistic mediums and who come from a unique blend of geographical backgrounds, comprising 25 countries: Angola, Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, France, Ghana, Italy, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Togo, Tunisia, United Kingdom, USA and Zimbabwe.

Participating Galleries:

Afronova (Johannesburg, South Africa)
APALAZZOGALLERY (Brescia, Italy)
ARTLabAfrica (Nairobi, Kenya)
Art Bärtschi & Cie (Geneva, Switzerland)
Axis Gallery (New York, USA)
David Krut Projects (Johannesburg, South Africa & New York, USA)
Galerie Anne De Villepoix (Paris, France)
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury (Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire)
In Situ / Fabienne Leclerc (Paris, France)
Jack Bell Gallery (London, United Kingdom)
Magnin-A (Paris, France)
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Seattle, USA)
Officine dell’Immagine (Milan, Italy)
Richard Taittinger Gallery (New York, USA)
Sabrina Amrani Gallery (Madrid, Spain)
(S)ITOR / Sitor Senghor (Paris, France)
Tafeta (London, United Kingdom)

This year, 1:54 New York’s impressive roster of over sixty African and African diaspora artists will include internationally renowned figures such as Derrick Adams (USA), ruby onyinyechi amanze (Nigeria), Joël Andrianomearisoa (Madagascar), Sammy Baloji (DRC), Edson Chagas (Angola), Ayana V. Jackson (USA), William Kentridge (South Africa), Otobong Nkanga (Nigeria), and Billie Zangewa (South Africa).

1:54 NY 2015 at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn © Katrina Sorrentino

The fair’s unique lecture series and panel discussions, curated by Koyo Kouoh, founding Artistic Director of RAW Material Company (Dakar) and Curator of the 37th edition of EVA International – Ireland’s Biennial, helps brings visibility to emerging and established talents from Africa and the African diaspora. Past speakers and panelists include: Rujeko Hockley (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York), Naima J. Keith (Associate Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York), Julie Mehretu (Artist), Franklin Sirmans (Director, Perez Art Museum Miami), and Hank Willis Thomas (Artist). More information about the 2016 Forum program will be released in April 2016.

“We are thrilled to be back at Pioneer Works for the second New York edition of 1:54 this year,” notes fair Founder, Touria El Glaoui. “The energy, interest, and overall success of the inaugural US fair in 2015 has lead us to return this May in hopes of broadening our reach and expanding the art world’s knowledge of Africa and the ever-evolving African art market.”

For the third consecutive year, Artsy is the official online partner of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Using the official online catalogue, collectors, fairgoers, and art enthusiasts will be able to inquire directly with galleries about exhibited artworks, explore comprehensive editorial coverage, and find programming and visitor information about the fair.

Afronova Gallery at 1:54 NY 2015 © Sasha Arutyunova
Billie Zangewa, exhibited by Afronova Gallery at 1:54 NY 2015 © Sasha Arutyunova

2016 Opening Hours:

Thursday, May 6th to Sunday, May 8th, from 12-8pm daily

Pioneer Works’ monthly event Second Sunday will take place from 4-8pm on Sunday, May 8, in collaboration with 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair.

Admission:

Day Ticket: $20 (tax included)
Concession Day Ticket: $10 (tax included)

Magnin-A at 1:54 New York 2015 © Katrina Sorrentino
Magnin-A at 1:54 New York 2015 © Katrina Sorrentino

1:54 NY 2015 Exhibitors and Artists Announced

1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, a leading transnational platform dedicated to promoting African and Africa related art practices and projects, will make its New York debut on May 15-17, 2015, with a VIP preview on Thursday, May 14. The fair will take place at Pioneer Works Center for Art + Innovation in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and will be designed by RA Projects, award-winning London-based architecture and design studio.

Dandelia #1, 2012. Photographic print mounted on light box, edition of 2. 60 x 90 cm / 23.62 x 35.43 in. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury
Dandelia #1, 2012. Photographic print mounted on light box, edition of 2. 60 x 90 cm / 23.62 x 35.43 in. Courtesy of Galerie Cécile Fakhoury

A reference to fifty-four countries that constitute the African continent, the title of 1:54 establishes the parameters of the fair’s ethos: as a platform that strives to represent multiplicity and showcase the diversity of contemporary African art and cultural production on an international stage. The New York edition will present a wide range of artistic voices including established and celebrated artists who have paved the way for future artistic generations, and a fast-growing number of promising emerging talent. Spanning several generations and diverse mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography and installation, the selection includes works by Edson Chagas, star of the Angolan Pavilion – awarded the prestigious accolade for Best National Participation at the 55th Venice Biennale; Prix Pictet shortlist photographer Sammy Baloji; Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté; Tunisian artist and researcher Nidhal Chamekh; Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama; and artist Lavar Munroe from Bahamas; many of which have been selected for presentation at this year’s 56th Venice Biennale. New York art-goers will likely recognize numerous artists establishing a global presence, such as Aboudia and Boris Nzebo from Jack Bell Gallery (London), Maïmouna Guerresi and ruby onyinyechi amanze from Mariane Ibrahim Gallery (Seattle), and Joël Andrianomearisoa from Primo Marella Gallery (Milan).

For the second consecutive year, Artsy is the official online partner of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Collectors and art enthusiasts can explore 1:54 NY, inquire on works for sale, and view special features such as highlights selected by art-world insiders on Artsy.net and the Artsy iPhone app.

1:54 NY Opening Hours:
Friday, May 15: 12-8 pm
Saturday, May: 16 12-8 pm
Sunday, May 17: 12-6 pm

Admission:
Day pass: $10
Students: $5

Participating galleries

A Palazzo Gallery, Brescia
Afronova, Johannesburg
Art Twenty One, Lagos
ARTCO Gallery, Aachen
Axis Gallery, New York
Bennett Contemporary, Cape Town
CIRCA Gallery, Johannesburg
David Krut Projects, Johannesburg
Galerie Cécile Fakhoury, Abidjan
Jack Bell Gallery, London
Magnin-A, Paris
Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Seattle
NOMAD Gallery, Brussels
Primo Marella Gallery, Milan
SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
VOICE Gallery, Marrakech