Ibrahim El Salahi

The Prayer

El Salahi The Prayer Iwalewahaus 1500 - © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016. DEVA, Universität Bayreuth
  • Ibrahim El Salahi
  • The Prayer
  • 1960
  • Oil on Masonite
  • 61.3 × 44.5 cm
  • Iwalewahaus, Universität Bayreuth - © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016. DEVA, Universität Bayreuth

Trained in Sudan and at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, Ibrahim El Salahi received only a lukewarm reception for his first exhibitions after returning to Sudan. Like many artists of his generation, he struggled to find a productive balance between regional and international influences, as well as an audience with whom the work would resonate. Eventually finding his niche by integrating his formal Western training with the sinuous line derived from Arabic calligraphy, El Salahi discovered a modern art that would speak not only to his compatriots in Sudan, but also to his fellow modernists across North and West Africa. 

The Prayer (1960) and Vision of the Tomb (1965) are built on the precision and grace of calligraphic lines. The Prayer explores the graphic qualities of written language, taking a verse from the Qur’an as the painting’s subject: “Pray do not change our hearts having shown us the light, and have mercy on us, giver of all.” Interspersed with the script are Sudanic folk art patterns, demonstrating that the cosmopolitanism of certain modern artists was not always dictated by their interaction with European cultures. In Vision of the Tomb, the artist’s palette varies from strong blue, black, and red to thin washes of gray and ivory. Set against a dusty brown, the tower of gently ascending forms evokes Arabic script and seems to materialize before the viewer like a mirage.

Joseph Underwood

Biography of Ibrahim El Salahi

  • Born 1930 in Omdurman, Sudan
Ibrahim El Salahi developed a profound interest in Arabic calligraphy, both as a means of communication and as purely aesthetic form, and engaged with the natural colors, symbolism, and decorative traditions of his homeland. He studied at the School of Design at Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum (1949–1952) and in 1954 received a scholarship to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. After he returned to Khartoum in 1957, following Sudan’s liberation from British colonial rule, he began to teach at Khartoum Technical Institute. For the next three years (1958–61) he struggled to discover his own style within the many aesthetic and cultural influences to which he was exposed (Islamic, African, Arab, and Western). He emerged as a leading artist of the Khartoum School and associated with the Mbari Club in Ibadan, Nigeria. After his release from a sudden imprisonment without trial in Sudan (1975) he moved to Doha, Qatar, and later settled in Oxford, England, in 1998. Based on his experiences in prison, El Salahi adopted a graphic black-and-white style between the late 1970s and mid-1990s. In 2013 he became the first African artist to be honored with a retrospective at Tate Modern, London.