Skoto Gallery Presents Ibrahim El-Salahi: From Time To Time
Ibrahim El-Salahi: From Time To Time
April 14th – May 21st, 2011 6-8pm.
529 West 20th Street, 5thFL
New York, NY 10011
Skoto Gallery is pleased to present From Time to Time, an exhibition of drawings by the Sudanese-born artist Ibrahim El Salahi. This will be his first solo exhibition at the gallery. The reception is on Thursday, April 14th, 6-8pm. The artist will be present.
Ibrahim El Salahi is a world-renowned artist and pioneer in African modern art whose work is embedded with a resonance of personal truth and an artistic vision that is firmly rooted in the fissure between the natural world and the world of imagination. He draws on the rich literary and visual heritage of his homeland combined with a rigorous compositional organization that seek to balance spatial and structural concerns with an ability to reconcile intelligence and sensibility, knowledge and intuition as well as matter and spirit. The sensitive and exploratory lines in his work are highly characteristic and clearly recognizable, often using them as strokes in space to delineate, elaborate and circumscribe his images into endless organic forms. He is aware of the creative process as a restless engagement with fleeting properties and strives to convey to the viewer the mental and physical engagement of the artist with his work. Closely viewed, his work evinces serene simplicity that is matured as thought and invitation to contemplation.
Ibrahim El-Salahi was born 1930 in Omdurman, Sudan. After studying at the School of Design at Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum (1948-51), he worked as an art teacher at Wadi Seidna Secondary School near Omdurman. In 1954 he was sent on a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, and while in Europe he visited Florence to enhance his knowledge of Renaissance art. In 1957 he returned to Sudan and became head of the Painting Department at the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum. In 1962 he was sent by UNESCO on a tour to the USA, South America, Paris and London. After returning to Sudan, he searched for a Sudanese artistic identity by traveling throughout the country recording local architecture and designs used in the decoration of such items as utensils and prayer rugs. He also explored various manuscripts, trying to discover the arts of Africa and Sudan through them. During this same period he became fascinated by the ingenuity of Islamic art. His previous knowledge of calligraphic forms, which he studied at the British Museum Library during his Slade years, led him to experiment with Arabic calligraphy, which he saw as both a means of communication and a pure aesthetic form. In the 1950s he was one of the first Arab artists to include Arabic calligraphy and signs in his paintings. After political imprisonment in his country in the mid-1970s, he lived in exile in Qatar, where he was an adviser to the government on communications, and in England. Working in all media, he defined his Arab-African heritage by synthesizing Arabic calligraphy with African forms.
His work is in numerous private and public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Neue National Galerie in Berlin, the National Gallery of Victoria in Sydney, the Newcastle Art Gallery in Australia; the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, the Iwalewa-Haus in Bayreuth, Germany, Hampton University Art Museum, Virginia, and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Awards include Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, 1964-65; Order of Knowledge, Arts and Letters, DR Sudan, 1975; Honorary Award, Prince Klaus Fund. 2001. Recent exhibitions include The Short Century, PS1, New York, 2002; Interventions: a dialogue between the modern and the contemporary, curated by Nada Shabout, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar, 2010; The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of Future: Masterpieces of Muhammadan Art, Haus der Kunst, Berlin Germany. 2011. A major retrospective of his work, with art-historian Salah Hassan as guest curator is planned for 2012 at the Museum for African Art, New York. He lives in Oxford, England.
A Visual Diary of the Palace of Lost Time
A moment devoid of self-control and self-examination became a period that lasted long beyond reason. I became like a bird in a gilded cage, held prisoner by a job housed in an elegant, luxuriously furnished room in a lofty palace on the Arabian Gulf, also known as the Persian Gulf. I was hired to work there for an illusion that eventually slipped through my fingers like desert sand. It felt as if the flowers of my youth were desiccating all around me.
A reshuffle at the top of a ministerial council removed my boss from his post. This resulted in my transfer from “expert adviser” to translator. In this new function, I was charged with completing a documentation project to rewrite the history of that Gulf country, but based now on the life story of its emir. The officials running the palace made it clear that my job was limited to translation. Accordingly, I was required to translate from English into Arabic and vice versa, although English was not my mother tongue. But a hired hand has no choice.
Things continued thus, year after year, for a period that was beyond reasonable, until one day, on the pretext of a need to renovate, I was transferred from a large, comfortable office to smaller quarters. Further transfers followed until I ended up in a document storage building. The hallways and shelves were covered with a deep layer of dust, blanketing piles of anything considered obsolete. I accepted all this with stoic patience, carrying out with oblivious diligence my responsibility to document and translate. Though I gave them the days, my consolation was that nights left me free to draw, without anyone knowing that I was a picture maker.
The numbing routine required me to stay entombed in the old storage building from 7 AM to 1:30 PM six days a week – translating, sending texts to a typist, revising the typescripts and sending them to the originating office. If the originating office was in my storage building and I received something concerning the documentation project, I had to keep a copy and send the original to the higher authority in the palace, trusting that it wouldn’t be neglected and destroyed. This almost happened on one occasion I knew of: All the materials, documents and references I collected, recorded and catalogued from interviews I did both locally and abroad, would have ended up in the municipal incinerator had I not stopped the garbage trucks. I’d been told by a janitor just as I returned from a visit home: “Hurry up, man. All those pieces of junk you collected have been tossed in the kashara (trash)! Everything’s been thrown out. Everything! Today the trucks are coming to take it.
All in all, my situation was not so bad, at least as far as refreshments were concerned. While engrossed in relentless research and translation, I was treated to torrents of exquisite, reddish-orange suleimani tea, sometimes with milk. Sometimes it was Arabic coffee heavily scented with cardamom, for which I eventually developed a taste. At other times it was strong, aromatic Turkish coffee. Not to forget the fresh lemonade and ice cold or boiling hot karkaday (hibiscus) drink, as well as flavorful aniseed or fenugreek tea, whether I asked for it or not.
Walking through the building one day, I came across a stash of very dusty, square books with smooth blank pages and hard cardboard covers. They were very suitable for drawing. I asked the storage manager why they were discarded. He said they’d not been cut correctly and thus were worthless, so I could take whatever I wanted. That’s how, between translations, revisions and being plied with hot and cold drinks, I ended up using them for drawing with black or colored ballpoint pens, with no purpose other than to overcome boredom and kill time.
The sequence began on 5 September 1996 – my 66th birthday. The first drawing derived from a phrase that came to me (I’ve no idea how): “The innermost memory within the subliminal memory of a lost paradise.” I wondered, was I crying over spilled milk or for the paradise lost when I reluctantly accepted to leave my country and take a position that did not at all fit my job as picture maker? What was it? I don’t know.
Dutifully dating and numbering, I continued drawing until, by 28 April 1997, I had 57 small works. Styles and themes ranged from simple linear forms to semi-abstract arabesques. Those drawings contained signs that came from within, alerting me that it was time to wake up – they sounded a warning, before it was too late, against resigning myself to a situation not meant for me. It was no one but me who put myself in a cage in which I kept feeding my anxiety – still yearning to break the habit, each time I tried to free myself, of staying by yielding to the counterpressure of kindness and companionship. In all the years there, such good feeling echoed in my ears through the words of local friends: “What are you saying, man? Where are you going, Abu-Khaleel (affectionate nickname for Ibrahim)? Stay with us, man!” Nonetheless, I kept looking for an opportunity to leave each time the wish to be free from the chains of habit moved me. I counted minutes, hours and days for 15 long months.
One day it finally happened. I handed in my resignation and my cage fell open. I felt like the fox making haste from the fruit-filled orchard but this time able to exit using the hole in the wall through which he’d entered. Thank God, I left with 57 drawings dated by day, month and year.
To me, these drawings are abstract daydreams. They’re visions from within inner memories that were veiled from my consciousness by my own obliviousness and numerous worldly concerns. Need, as we know, is a form of slavery. Looking now at these drawings, I recall that they came into being from the frustration and isolation of that death trap of a storage building. Leaving that dungeon meant being reborn. And like every newborn in this world, I needed a certificate stating my name and place of birth. The motive for my rebirth was clear in the last drawings that show cobwebs – the straw that broke the back of my camel – cobwebs that cover the pages as well as the eyes, mouth and head of a person that reminded me very much of the head of the archive staff member who was stationed at a desk outside my dusty storage depot.
Most of all, I deeply feared ending up, as suggested by drawing 57, as a neglected being, dragging behind him clouds of loss and oblivion, an old decrepit man plodding along in a dark tunnel toward a locked gate, behind whose bars stands a nameless guard. That was the symbol and the motive that pushed me to escape a situation that appeared to many as comfortable and very profitable. That day was 2 August 1998. At 67 years old, I decided to dedicate my life solely to art and production, with God’s help.
Ibrahim Mohammed El-Salahi
Ithaca, 26 October 2009