Ibrahim El-Salahi Retrospective @ Tate Modern

I have recently visited  Tate’s retrospective of Ibrahim El-Salahi’s works that’s still on until 22 September. I am not going to analyse it here or review it in any depth. I haven’t paid enough attention to many of the aspects that I’d need to consider. In my defence: I was taken in by the works. Not all of them. Naturally, there were works that I liked better than others, works that captured my attention while others left me cold. That’s the way exhibitions work, at least for me. And, this particular one I visited as a private person. I tried very hard to leave my ‘art historian goggles’ at home and to simply enjoy (rather than analyse) the exhibition. Hence, this is not going to be a review. Not really.

Of course, I can’t quite help it. I cannot but make connections between his work and what I know about him and different contemporary approaches to making modern African art. And, of course, the way that El-Salahi works Arabic calligraphy into his paintings and drawings, well at least those I like best, has me thinking of the Zaria Art Society in Nigeria, Natural Synthesis and Ulism (is that actually a term or does my memory play tricks on me?). In particular, Ulism as some of the work reminded me of the graphic qualities of some works by Uche Okeke and Obiara Udechuckwu. In particular Sounds of Childhood I which for some reasons rather reminded me of the illustrations of refugees during the war for Biafra. Some of that probably reflects my personal biases (and that’s fine, that’s at least partly how art works, at least for me) rather than actual relations. On the other hand, (puts on art historian’s hat) El-Salahi did spend some time at one of the Mbari workshops, Ibadan if I am not mistaken. So, the connections are not solely in my head.

This said, there nevertheless were some works in the exhibition that had me completely ditch my art historian persona and get lost in the work. Simple visual pleasure. Day of Judgement was one of them. Love it. The clarity of the lines. The detail.

And, then there is the pleasure of trying to decipher the little bits of Arabic that made its way into most of the works in the exhibition. Yes, I started learning Arabic. I am still very much a beginner so the little bits and bops that El-Salahi includes actually proof a challenge but it’s very satisfactory to identify some words, to recognise that a work actually praises God. – Which gets me to one of my quips with the exhibition: Why weren’t any translations of the calligraphy provided? Even with the little that I understand I felt it added an important new dimension. (adjust art historian’s had) The artist not only happens to be Muslim, he actively engaged with his religion in his work.

Actually, the exhibition does touch upon that. They identify the crescent shape in Funeral and the Crescent as a recurring Islamic symbol but do not provide any clues of how that fits in with the picture being an homage to Lumumba. Or maybe, here, it really is just the moon? They do inform us that the epigraphy in one of the paintings, the title of which escapes me right now, is a prayer. And, they let us know that the Flamenco dances El-Salahi encountered in Spain and that he drew reminded him of the Sufi dancers of Sudan. Personally, I don’t feel that’s enough. I think it gets lost. Considering that all this Arabic epigraphy and the recurring praises of God suggest that religion is a large part of who he is and that that is inflected in his work.

Of course, it’s the Tate Modern and not an anthropological institution. Maybe I do spend too much time in the latter and have forgotten how to enjoy art just for its formal qualities’ sake. But, that’s not true. Not quite. I very much got lost in some of the works, just lost in the visual pleasure of following lines and finding details … and, of course, making sense of them in relation to my own life, once the brain is switched back on. I just strongly feel that a little background really adds depths to a work of art, many a time – and may have in the case of the El-Salahi exhibition. Many of these works are pretty great already, now imagine how great they might be with a little added background knowledge.

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