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
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there