Africa looks to be having its day. In the art world, that is, and not before time you might say. What with Angola winning the prize for the best national pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, and Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s gigantic shimmering installation hanging in all its glory outside the Royal Academy, perhaps it’s not by coincidence that the first work you see at Tate Modern in the concourse outside a major retrospective of Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi has the title The Inevitable.

It is inevitable that museums and galleries take a more globalised view of art. Last November, Tate Modern launched a two-year project showing African artists as part of a global history of modern and contemporary art, and this summer the two major shows by African artists at Tate Modern are part of that push.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, born in Omdurman, Sudan, in 1930, and now living and working in Oxford, is widely seen as one of the most significant figures in African and Arab Modernism. Tate’s exhibition, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, tracing his five-decade-long international career, takes over a whole wing of the Bankside galleries along with Beninese artist Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art, a tongue-in-cheek, 12-room critique of museum culture and Eurocentric art. Ibrahim El-Salahi said: “I am so happy to be here and most grateful to Tate Modern to have my work on view, to get the message to people.” They have been working on this exhibition for many years. “At many times we do things and that is the end of it. We work like bees... but to be accepted in this kind of context…” the 83-year-old said pensively. This is the UK’s first major exhibition of El-Salahi’s work (he showed at the ICA in 1963 and The Oxford Show at Modern Art Oxford, 2004). It brings together 100 works, following his life, career and extensive travels, from studies at The Slade School of Art in the ’50s; return to Sudan in 1957, the year after Sudan gained freedom from colonial rule; founding the influential Khartoum School of painters; imprisonment as a political prisoner in his home country; to subsequent self-imposed exile in Qatar before settling in Oxford in 1998.

All of which is reflected in the works shown in this evocative, colourful, unique exhibition. In the post-Slade period he moves from classical modernism towards a pioneering integration of African, Islamic, and Western perspectives – for instance, he subtly incorporates Arabic calligraphy into an ostensibly western-style portrait, and typical Arabic or African motifs into semi-figurative works such as Vision of the Tomb (1965), and Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5; the masterpiece acquired by Tate, 2012). Reflecting his homeland, he uses the colours of the arid Sudanese earth, the burnt siennas, ochres, white and blacks in paintings such as They Always Reappear (1966-8). Memories surface in different ways: in the impassioned painterly pen-and-ink sketch on the open page of his prison notebook; in the sensitively drawn, gaunt Self-Portrait of Suffering (1961); yet at times, his work moves forward by “organic growth,” like the quite unalike 1983 version of Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II, where meditative qualities seem uppermost. Sometimes he feels he cannot control the image on the canvas, they develop independently, he says, revealing images from the subconscious. The memories surfacing in The Tree series of paintings are born in Africa, in the Haraz tree (acacia) that grows on the banks of the Nile. In Oxford, the lush English landscape reminded him of the trees. At first it may not be so easy to see that leafiness reflected in the stylised, increasingly geometric works here, but then we know that, like memory, inspiration can be unfathomable. I found it a poignant room: each tree has grown from a central point on the canvas; rooted in the earth, branches reaching heavenwards, each represents a complete spiritual being. From The Inevitable, made 1984-1985, El-Salahi’s monumental and chaotic response to the turmoil and civil war then taking place in Sudan, to recent works that reflect his reclaimed joy for life, deep spiritual faith, and profound recognition of his place in the world, this is an inspirational show.


African and Arab Modernism
Tate Modern
Until September 22