Art@Site Ibrahim El-Salahi Meditation Tree London

Ibrahim El-Salahi


Meditation Tree

Meditation Tree
Ibrahim El-Salahi: “I use my eyes to see and understand, and to comprehend. But my art comes from within”
Inspired by a tree called Haraz from his homeland Sudan, it represents not only a link between heaven and earth but is a self-portait and metaphor for artistic and personal growth.
“It has been some time now, since I think the year 2000, that the idea came to me about this tree called Haraz…it’s a huge tree with a very, very soft pulp – and there is a legend around it. They say that Haraz tree fought against the rain. Because during the rainy season and the flooding of the Nile, it is completely dry, with dry leaves, nothing at all…then during the drought it comes out with blooms and with fruit and everything. This is the definitive statement. Like saying, ‘I am me! I am an individual! I do not follow what everyone is doing!...When everyone is going to be green let them be green, I him El-Salahi, A Visionary Modernist, Edited by Salah M. Hassan, Museum of African Art, 2012
Three trees have sprouted in the courtyard at Somerset House where the latest edition of 1-54 London is underway. The installation is by acclaimed Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, one of the most critically recognized figures in African and Arab Modernism. “Meditation Tree” is part of his ongoing investigation into the tree/body metaphor and references the Haraz tree, which is indigenous to Sudan.
Works by more than 130 artists, including El-Salahi, are on view at the sixth edition of 1-54 London, which opened to the public today. The contemporary African art fair is bringing together 43 galleries from 21 countries. Sixteen galleries are from Africa; Three are based in the United States (Burning in Water, James Cohan, and Yossi Milo Gallery); and 12 galleries are participating in 1-54 London for the first time.
About 25 percent of the galleries are dedicating their entiooths to one artist. Eleven are presenting solo exhibitions featuring the following artists: Addis Gezehagn, Omar Ba, Marion Boehm, Paul Onditia, Atta Kwami, Esther Mahlangu, Wonga Mancoba, Youssef Nabil, Anton Kannemeyer, Ailou Diack and Mongezi Ncaphayi.
“We are so proud of how far we have come since our first London fair in 2013. Following the launch of our inaugural Marrakech fair in February and our fourth New York edition in May, we have gone on to develop new audiences for contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora across three fairs and three different continents,” founding director Touria El Glaoui said in a statement. “The growth and popularity of the fair is a real testament to the shift away from Euro-centric art-historical narratives.”
Ibrahim El-Salahi on the importance of stories, trees and why he misses Sudan.
The pioneer of African Modernism, whose work appears in this year’s Frieze sculpture park, explains how nature inspires him.
tiSalahi is a born story-teller,” writes his fellow Sudanese artist, Hassan Musa. “He is full of stories when he narrates, writes or draws, not to mention the tales that are told about him.”
El-Salahi was born in 1930 in Omdurman in Sudan. He studied at London’s Slade School of Art in the 1950s, creating Modernist paintings influenced by the prevailing British style. But on returning to Khartoum, he found little interest in an exhibition of his work, so he started incorporating Arabic calligraphy and other aspects of Islamic culture to help connect to his Sudanese audience. He became the leader of a group known as the Khartoum School, which merged Western, African, Arab and Islamic artistic traditions.
El-Salahi became involved in arts administration in Sudan, but in 1975 he was accused of participating in a failed coup and was imprisoned without trial for over six months. Held in the notorious Kober prison, he was forbidden to write or draw. But El-Salahi continued to work secretly, making smales on the paper bags that the food was distributed in and burying them in the sand to hide them from the guards.
After being released from prison, El-Salahi moved to Qatar before settling in Oxford in the late 1990s. Recent years have seen an increasing recognition of his pioneering role in African Modernism, including a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2013, the London museum’s first devoted to a living African artist. His work is held in the collections of the Tate, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, among many others.
Now 91, El-Salahi continues to create work, including a recent a series of small drawings made on the back of the packets of medicine he takes for his chronic back pain—named the Pain Relief series. In the past few years, he has started to create sculptures—a series of abstract trees made in different sizes and materials, first shown in 2018 at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, and on view in Frieze’s sculpthis week.
The Art Newspaper: You’ve been making art since the 1950s—but you only made your first three-dimensional work a few years ago. Why did you decide to do that now?
Ibrahmi El-Salahi: I don’t know, really. But I think maybe because of what is happening in Africa, with soil erosion and climate change. We used to have a haraza tree that my father grew in front of the house. It was very kind to us and gave us fruit; it was fruity all the year through. But then it started dying as the climate changed. It became old and a brother of mine had to cut the stem down.
Apart from this, I have become more aware of the line drawings that I do. [The form of the trees was taken from his drawing, Meditation Tree (2008)]. So it’s trying to give a chance to the simple line, which surrounds the form in the drawing, to grow up.
The trees all have the same form but are different materials and sizes. Why is this?
It’s just like people! I liked the idea that we humans are all unique but also esthe same with little variations, a little bit of a different colour, a little different in size and shaped by our age and environment. As these Meditation Trees age, they will crack, grow patina, maybe need a bit of repair every now and then, much like we do. I like the fact that they will change with time and each one will be different.
The haraza tree appears in dozens of your paintings and drawings. Why is this motif so important to you?
It’s symbolic. The haraza grows by the banks of the Nile and goes against the grain. When the other trees and plants blossom, it is quiet but when the dry season comes it bears fruit and flowers. I feel it is a bit like artists in general and me in particular.
You’ve spoken about how your drawings and paintings often start from a nucleus and grow outwards, with no plan. How did the process of making the sculptures differ from this? What were your experiences of working in this different way?
It’s the same for everything. It’s the idea of growth from to develop and take form. Like human beings, like all beings, they start from a sperm and then they grow. It’s the same thing for the idea of freedom. If you believe in the rise of humans everywhere, that has to spring up and take shape into a better life, and that’s what I hope will happen everywhere.
Are you planning any more sculptural works in the future?
How has the lockdown been for you? Have you continued to make work?
Yes, I keep working all the time. I make small, small works, but continuous. I never stop.
From your time in prison to your more recent struggles with back pain, you have continued making art. Is image-making something you feel compelled to do? You’ve described it as a form of meditation or pain relief.
Yes, my work comes from within. I use my eyes to see and understand, and to comprehend. But art comes from within.
You’ve lived in Oxford since the late 1990s. Has the English landscape found its way into your work?
Very much so.
Your scis being shown in Regent’s Park. Did you ever visit the park when you were a student at the Slade? What are your memories of it?
Yes, I used to visit because I had some friends living in the surrounding area. I love the flowers, the trees, the lawns, the beauty and the greenery. I used to watch workmen working on the lawns and the flowers. I used to love to see and observe and enjoy.
What do you miss most about Sudan?
The people. The festivals. The life. Everything which I grew up with as a child I miss, terribly s