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Ibrahim El-Salahi – a visionary who took modern art back to its African roots

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The Tate Modern’s exhibition of Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi helps see past the eurocentric bias of the art establishment, says?Noel Halifax
Issue 2364
Self-portrait of Suffering, 1961
Self-portrait of Suffering, 1961 (Pic: © Ibrahim El-Salahi)

African art, particularly tribal masks, was a major influence for “giants” like Picasso—a fact that is often mentioned in passing in art histories.

But it is central to art movements of the 20th century. You could even say they just copied these great works by unnamed African artists which the art world views, if at all, as part of anthropology or historical relics.

Ibrahim El-Salahi is one of the artists who brought modernism home—to Africa.

El-Salahi was born in Sudan in 1930. He studied in Khartoum and then the Slade in London in the 1950s.

He returned to Sudan and in the 1960s and became one of the founders of the Khartoum school.

It developed an African modernism, blending Arabic calligraphy and symbols with the modernism he had seen in the West.

This exhibition tracing El-Salahi’s development is part of the Tate’s attempt to counter the eurocentric bias of the art establishment.

El-Salahi’s work is interwoven with post-war history of Africa.


The 1960s was the height of optimism. People had fought and won their independence. The future seemed to up opening up to them.

El-Salahi was part of a pan-African movement creating an African art freed from colonialism and looking to modernism and the future. 

His paintings of his period are in the colours of Sudanese soils—and on par with those of Miro and the modernists in the West.

But there were problems looming both for El-Salahi and the movement. The art found it difficult to get an audience. The new ruling classes had largely been educated in the West and shared the West’s disdain of local art and traditions.

As different groups vied for power, dictatorships and inner power struggles became the norm. 

In 1975 El-Salahi went from being a minister of culture to being thrown into prison. Here he produced his most poignant work, his black and white prison notebooks with drawings and Arabic sayings.

His work since his release has returned to themes of freedom and use of Arabic calligraphy.

El-Salahi has painted the Sudanese haraza tree, which in the rainy season withers and browns only to blossom and bloom at the height of the fierce drought season.

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist. Tate Modern, central London. Until 22 September.

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