Ibrahim el-Salahi: Out of Africa

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As a student in London in the 1950s, Sudanese-born Ibrahim el-Salahi was influenced by Western art. But it is the images from his homeland that most fascinate, says Adrian Hamilton

Tate Modern is going African with parallel shows from two entirely different artists from across the continent. Ibrahim el-Salahi, born in 1930 and now retired to Oxford, is a veteran of the postwar renaissance in African art and its troubled politics. A minister one moment, imprisoned the next, his painting is a deeply personal search for forms that express his innermost yearnings and the anguish of his prison experience. Meschac Gaba, born in 1961, comes from Benin in West Africa, and is an installation and multidisciplinary artist intent on expressing what Africa means today.

There's not much doubt as to who is the more significant. El-Salahi's is the journey that painters have made through the ages and it is fascinating, and at times moving, to follow him on his. Born in Omdurman, where his father taught at a Quranic school, he studied art first in Khartoum, then at the Slade in London with time spent in Italy, before returning to teach in Khartoum. So far, so conventional and, indeed, the early works on display here show a talented graphic artist trying out the modern art learnt from the Western masters. Cubism, Picasso, Surrealism, a touch of Miró are all here. The Tate describes him as "a Visionary Modernist" and that is how he first projected himself on to the broader African art scene, both as a founding member of the Khartoum School, which took the calligraphy of Arabic scripts and broke them up into fragmentary shapes, and as an associate of the Mbari Club in Ibadan, Nigeria, which sought to make a wider-ranging African art.

What makes him such an interesting artist, however, is less his experiments with form, striking although some of them are, than the sense of tension in his work between an intellect that seeks purity of expression and an imagination which wants to free itself from constraint. One is tempted to say that there is something very Islamic in this combination of the rigours of outward form and the intensity of inner yearning. Throughout his career, El-Salahi has incorporated into his pictures the crescent and moon of Muslim iconography along with the bird that is so often the symbol of hope and freedom in its tales.

But then there is also something very African in the earth colours and mask-like faces he chooses in works such as the Tate's monumental Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1 of 1962-3, They Always Appear from 1966-8 and the touching The Last Sound of 1964, painted after his father's death in which the spirit of the dead explodes with the dots and curves of Kufic Arabic writing.

El-Salahi's own description of the way he manages his compositions is that he starts with a shape or image at the centre of the canvas and then works outwards, relying on spontaneous whim and urgings to fill out the picture. That helps to explain the vertical emphasis at the middle and the horizontal and carved shapes towards the sides. But they are still held by an overarching control which never allows the totally free association which the Surrealists sought. Like the Sufi singer, the ecstasy comes with the repetition and the chanting.

Control and imagination were both at a premium when the artist was suddenly imprisoned without charge in Sudan in 1975. He'd returned to Sudan with a growing international reputation from London, where he'd been assistant cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy, to become director of culture and then the under-secretary in the ministry. His dramatic incarceration was unexpected and humiliating. One moment a figure of rank, he became just another political prisoner in the notorious Cooper Jail in Khartoum North.

Anyone going to this exhibition should spend the 20 minutes or so looking on-screen at the successive pages of his prison notebooks along with his recorded explanation of the images and accompanying text.

The sketches and the poems, scribbled on paper scraps hidden in the dirt from the guards, tell of brute power, iron gates and blank skies, but also of the onion planted by the water gourds, the animal fables of his childhood and the presence of the little bird signifying liberty and conscience. Released as suddenly and wordlessly as he was arrested, El-Salahi eventually got out of the country to Doha and then to Britain. His pictures since leaving prison show an explosion of colour that freedom has brought but also a return to the black-and-white, thickly outlined, surrealistic figures of his earlier works, building on the graphic concentration he was forced into during prison.

A brilliant series of drawings on square sheets entitled Visual Diary of Time-Waste Palace show the artist trying to figure out his life in abstract diagrams, Picasso-like figures and cartoon-like doodling. The end result of this self-examination was, in 1997, an emphatic decision to give up all diversions and to concentrate on his art. A wry self-portrait, Head of the Undersecretary from 2000, has him turbaned in the greens of Islam, double-eyed with the bird whispering (or is it pecking?) into his ear.

Two themes have dominated his work since. One is versions of trees based on the haraz tree of the Nile, which conserves its moisture in the rainy season by letting its leaves brown and then burst into bloom when it is dry. More recently, he has done a series of paintings of flamenco dancers based on a visit to Granada in which he tries through thick outline to capture the stamping and furious energy of the gipsy dancers.

There's too many of both trees and dancers to keep the Tate's retrospective on an even keel, certainly with the dancers when he seems at times to be repeating himself for failure to quite express quite what it is that he wants. But one is never in any doubt that this is a creative mind in its eighties still trying to resolve itself in paint and to find the universality he reaches for. A fine artist, whatever his nationality.

After this it is a bit of a letdown to wander into Meschac Gaba's 12-room Museum of Contemporary African Art on the same floor. There's nothing wrong with it. There's an architecture room in which you, or your child, can play with giant bricks, an art and religion room in which the popular symbols of every faith are mixed up on shelves, a museum shop, a music room with worn gramophone records and so forth, all heavy with the artefacts of African life and laced with the banknotes and security dots which are Gaba's trademark indicators of the commercialisation dominating all of modern life. "Questioning the nature of the museum and the perceptions of African art" is how the curators like to summarise it.

But it all has a dated feel to it, starting life in 1997 in Amsterdam and expanding as it has toured since. It may wish to subvert the notion of museums but it seems very much a product of them. The Tate should have kept to El-Salahi. He's worth it.

Ibrahim el-Salahi: a Visionary Modernist and Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art, Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888) to 22 September

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain