Libmonster ID: UK-1325
Author(s) of the publication: T. M. GAVRISTOVA

T. M. GAVRISTOVA, Doctor of Historical Sciences P. G. Demidov Yaroslavl State University

Keywords: Ibrahim el-Salahi, African modernism, calligraphy, wood, Sufism

Ibrahim el-Salahi (Sudan) is a representative of African modernism - one of the most engaged trends in the visual arts of the XXI century. Since 1998, he has lived in Oxford (UK). His solo exhibition was held at the Tate Modern Gallery in London from July 3 to September 22, 2013. It featured more than 100 paintings belonging to him - from private and museum collections. Among them are his famous "trees".

The artist and the scientist improve until the end of their days...

I. Shishkin

Ibrahim el-Salahi was born in Omdurman (Sudan) in 1930 and first started drawing at the Koranic school where his father taught. In the 1950s, he studied at the Schools of Fine and Applied Arts in Khartoum and Slade - at the University of London; at an early age, he gained a reputation as an excellent draughtsman, experimented, studied the world's artistic heritage (works by ancient authors, William Shakespeare, works by Paul Cezanne, Giotto, Salvador Dali, etc.) and folklore.

In 1956, Sudan was freed from colonial dependence, and in 1957, el-Salahi returned home. The search for his own style prompted him to engage in calligraphy and abstraction, experimenting in the field of color. At some times, he preferred the colors of sand, dust, and earth to all shades; at others, white and black. In 1961, in Nigeria, Ibrahim met Uche Okeke, the founder of" ulism " * and was largely influenced by his ideas [1] to establish himself in the idea of the primacy of synthesis in the development of art.

In Sudan, El-Salahi tried his hand as an artist, writer, poet, and teacher. He founded the creative "Desert and Jungle Group", which supported the synthesis of African and Arab traditions in literature and painting. On Khartoum television, he hosted a program dedicated to cultural issues.

Based on the interaction of iconographic traditions, symbolism and new technologies, he managed to create a new artistic aesthetic. His teaching activities at the Khartoum School of Fine and Applied Arts, Makerere University (Uganda), and later at universities in Europe and the United States, were successful.

He led delegations of Sudanese artists to the first World Festival of Negro Art (Dakar, 1966) and the first Pan-African Festival of Culture and Art (Algiers, 1969), and worked for the Ministry of Culture of the Sudan.

In 1975, due to a conflict with the authorities, he spent six months in prison; after his release, he emigrated; he was a court historian of the Emir of Qatar, and even "was afraid to think that he was an artist" 2.

He became world - famous for his monumental work "Inevitability" (1984 - 1985) - nine large panels dedicated to the half - century civil war in Sudan (1956-2005) - a brilliant commentary on political events in Africa and the world in general.

The artist's belonging to at least two cultures - European and African-is obvious. The fusion of traditions, special emotional charge (images, rhythms, codes), semantic content of the plot (like a round dance of masks), characteristic transcendence and play make him (due to authenticity and expressiveness) one of the outstanding masters of his time. He is the first African artist to have a successful solo exhibition at the prestigious Tate Modern Gallery.


A key role in the artist's development was played by Sufism , a mystical and philosophical trend in Islam that is widespread in Sudan. As a Sufi, being a tool in the hands of the Creator, Ibrahim el-Salahi considered creativity not only as a way of self-expression, but also as a measure of love for God. Creativity was presented to him as a sacrament ("miracle", "illumination"); his vocation (and obedience) he saw it as bringing light to people , as his ancestors had taught him. From the point of view of Sufism, the Master (with a capital letter. - approx. auth. ) was the embodiment of the divine will and divine qualities.

"There is nothing under my clothes but God!" - likes to repeat el Salahi 3. Sufism kul-

* The direction of Nigerian modernism, based on the iconic Uji system-the secret script of the Igbo people.

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indicates the inseparability of the Creator (with a capital letter. - approx. author's note) from creation - its dissolution in absolute transcendence, the desire for unity with God( in creative ecstasy), to merge with him. The search for a balance between tradition and identity, between introspection and observation of nature led the artist to create new forms in art. They became a reflection of his relationship with himself and the world around him, containing a complex of various sensations and experiences.

A Muslim who prays five times a day and again before starting work, an intellectual who is passionate about history, El-Salahi's work has reached the point of complete identification with the Creator. Feeling like an intermediary fulfilling the will of Allah (his "gate", "window", "ear", "eye"), the artist sought ways to merge the material and spiritual, physical and mental, body and spirit.4 Ecstatic dialogue with oneself and God (prayer, meditation, seance) found expression in drawings on fabric, on the body, on paper-with hands, fingers, brush, ink, oil, acrylic. Meanwhile, the artist always treated his experiments with humor, claiming that when a new idea comes to him, "he feels like a chicken intending to lay an egg" 5.

The Sufi attitude "I am the truth" is close to him. However, the search for truth, as well as the search for identity, is more interesting, because intellectual Sufism cultivated the desire to learn until the end of days. Interest in the new, unknown, and different enriches intellectually, expanding the personal space of the master, his horizons.

Actualization of the dialogue with the viewer (on the emotional and rational levels; unique polyphony and polychromy of his feelings) involves, on the one hand, an attempt to identify oneself (within the profession at the level of self - identification with other categories of artists and intellectuals), and on the other-the search for like-minded people (primarily in the university and artistic environment). Its audience was formed over the years-decades. According to him, El-Salahi was especially happy in 2000, when his exhibition was successfully held in Khartoum (three decades after the first attempt, which was unsuccessful due to the lack of an audience). And he understood: his compatriots accepted his work 6. For him, it was like a "belated wedding celebration." 7

Arabic writing (vyaz) has become the main field for experiments. Although the commandments of Allah forbade the depiction of living beings for centuries, hindering the development of fine art in areas where Islam spread, the artist was cramped within the limits of what was allowed. Revolt against the rules defined the essence of his style. In a recent interview, the artist recalled: "I took the calligraphy and removed the meaning from it... Then he destroyed the signs, leaving only the skeleton... I began to break it, too, which led to the birth of new artistic idioms, and with their help I began to create paintings. " 8

Thus, a new reality emerged, which became a reflection of a new vision of the world, a new worldview - the worldview of I. el-Salahi. New symbols, images, and signs belonging to modern history and culture have replaced the old Quranic symbols. The works "spoke" in the universal language of abstractions: the artist breathed life and soul into them.

In an interview, he noted: "Sometimes it's like a spirit emerges from what is written. And the writing begins to speak to you... If I say that I still adhere to the traditions of calligraphy, it will be fair... because (looks out the window, sees a tree. -approx. interviewer) they are like trees that grow... Although I can see the growing trees, you can recreate their image thanks to me... And so it always is. And that's what keeps us going..."9 Thus began the personification of the image of the tree.

Commitment to the idea that, in particular, the Russian religious thinker V. Solovyov defined (in relation to Jews and Judaism) as "faith in the invisible and at the same time the desire for the invisible to become visible; faith in the spirit, but only in one that penetrates into the material and uses matter as its shell and tool" 10, it fully corresponded to the ideas of Sufism, which allowed I. el-Salahi to make a "breakthrough", embodying, like the Creator, the spiritual in visible images. His "trees" can be considered as a special form of messages addressed to humanity. Their U-shaped silhouettes are designed to evoke a very definite association with the word "Unity"*, although there are square-rectangular, dome-shaped images that resemble the letter " T " or a thermonuclear mushroom, spirals, cross-like images, and others.


The creation of a series of works called "The Tree" (mostly after 2000) is primarily associated with understanding global universal values.

Tree of Life (Tree of Knowledge, paradise tree) as one of the symbols of the universe, it is found in cultural monuments of various peoples as a symbol of the Universe. The image of the" tree "goes back to the Bible, to the Old and New Testaments:" And the Lord God brought up out of the ground every tree pleasant to the sight and good for food, and the tree of life in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil " [Genesis 2:9]. According to legend, the Prophet Muhammad, once in the sky, saw the Tree of Life.

I. el-Salahi draws a single variety of trees (Faidherbia Albida), widely distributed in Africa. The region of its distribution includes South, Central and East Africa.

In the Sudan, this large acacia tree grows along the banks of the Nile. It is called kharaz. In height, the tree can reach 6-30 m, in width-2 m. Its pods were liked by many animals, especially elephants. Its soft wood is used for the construction of lo-

* Translated from English: unity, unity; in Islam, unity is the evidence of faith.

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docks and wood carvers, in the soap and pharmaceutical industries. Near the borders of its growth, it is customary to cultivate corn and palm trees - the yield increases sharply.

In the shade of a tree, you can hide in the heat. Haraz tolerates drought well and sheds its foliage during the rainy season. According to I. el-Salahi, so, according to legend, the tree fights the rain: "During the rainy season and the Nile floods, its leaves dry up... this is an individual... It's like saying, " I don't want to be like everyone else!" If someone wants to be green, so be it, but I don't!"12 "Haraz's war on rain" - that's what they say in Sudan about those who "stand out from the crowd, don't want to be like everyone else." Stubborn, individualistic, solitary-that's what this tree reminds me of. " 13 The artist emphasizes.

The principle of " Be yourself!" he considers it decisive in life and in the creative process: he doesn't like it when someone refers to themselves as "African artists", "Sudanese" or "Nigerian". The main thing is individuality, professionalism; they are a guarantee of success: "to become popular, you need to distinguish yourself" 14. Like haraz, a master must show perseverance, striving for perfection. He should be interesting to others, so that they, in turn, want to look at the world through his eyes (one talent is not enough; sometimes you need to remind yourself).

Haraz for I. el-Salahi is the personification of physicality and spirituality: this is a sacred tree, a kind of model of the world. His images changing in time and space can be considered in the context of anthropocentrism (as a kind of portraits or self-portraits of the artist) and anthropocosmism (as a way of unity with nature and the Universe). Images are built according to a universal scheme and are directed upwards. The artist marks three zones: the upper one (crown) is directed to the sky; the middle one (trunk) is the pillar, the basis of the composition; the lower one is the earth, its roots are in it.

The tree thus becomes a link between the earth and the sky, ensuring the interconnection of the past, present and future - the three time stages that in African mythology (and the consciousness of Africans) co-exist in parallel in their trinity.

In Islam and Christianity, as you know, the world tree has a vertical view, in the beliefs common in Western Sudan - horizontal. The El Salahi tree as a symbol of unity, along with three vertical zones, has four horizontal (cardinal directions). There are 7 zones in its coordinate system: center, top, bottom, north, east, south, and west.

The artist gets to know the world "by the seven winds": the lines with which the kharaz is built in the picture, like blood vessels, diverge vertically, along the trunk and horizontally, diagonally - in different directions, to converge at an invisible point. They masterfully intertwine, swelling and thinning, creating an image woven from a variety of signs (dots, dashes, circles, spirals). Their interweaving creates images (illusory), illusory space within the boundaries of another dimension or some new reality.

Sometimes the author expands the space with the help of a mirror effect (or optical illusion) - two or three trees appear. Around this complex, usually symmetrical structure, a picture of the world is formed and the plot unfolds. In the works of I. el-Salahi, in essence, there are "seven meanings" - "seven levels of interpretation", as is customary in Sufism15.


It is difficult to say how many "trees" are written by the wizard. The exhibition at the Tate Modem gallery under the name "Tree "presents more than a dozen large - format works, and in addition -" Female Tree "(1994) and" Triplet Tree " (2003). During the creation of later samples, the master used not only a drawing, but also a ruler. The English word " ruler "(literally translated from English not only "ruler", but also "ruler" - the Russian language includes words derived from it: "steering wheel", "steering") it perfectly illustrates the evolution in the image of trees: the artist's presence in it is localized and disappears.

In the first works, the pulsating point in the center of the composition, usually written out by hand, indicated that the author is an obvious intermediary, participating in the audience's perception of images created with his physical intervention. Later compositions are full of sacred meaning. In them, the point and line are transformed, respectively, gaining statics and dynamics. The artist deliberately eliminates the existing connections between him and his work, following the path of simplifying the image.

According to Sufism, merging with God (union with him) and intuitive knowledge of Allah (and oneself in him) is possible only in the process of freeing the soul from the lower self and joining the higher divine reality. In an interview, El-Salahi explained his position as follows: "I don't know, maybe my age affects me... I'm an old man now. And now I'll draw a line, and that's enough... lots of air, lots of space... The image is simplified, becomes vertical.. when you start drawing roots in the ground and branches in the sky-this is the second line... and I am quietly happy, because it fits my idea of meditation ... " 16

For el-Salahi, his "trees" are a bridge to the Kingdom of God - a path to God, a testimony of faith. The complex of ideas embedded in them includes the recognition of the sacredness of everything that is somehow connected with God; following the precepts as a manifestation of the divine essence (without them it is impossible to find order); accepting otherness as a given (otherwise unity cannot be achieved) and, finally, realizing the divine reality as a kind of Absolute (the ultimate form of Emptiness).

The geometry of I. el-Salahi's drawing has absorbed the traditions of many schools: Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, Persian miniatures, Russian avant-garde and suprematism, French

page 73

surrealism. Instead of the dense arabesque pattern that gave birth to a "world of secret images" protected by the veil of the "world of revealed images", the works dating back to the end of the first decade of the XXI century were replaced by a play of lines (and colors), full of hints and "breath of the cosmos" - the very emptiness that European masters have been accused of fearing for centuries Muslim artists (mostly Sufis). The turn to the cosmic was the result of the master's conscious search for God, who, having set foot on the path of faith, found the light of truth through intellectual effort and relentless search.

The first trees he painted in 2000-2002 had an unmistakable physicality (they have muscles, brains, age, and even gender). In later works, it ceases to dominate. The sensuality of image perception decreases. The game of lines and colors is under control. According to the artist himself, "they have the divine in them, but there is no God" 17.

Wise and self-sufficient, emotional and rational, true to his vision of a world free from injustice and restrictions," he is like haraz himself, " says his compatriot, anthropologist and art historian Salah M. Hassan 18. His ideal is a democratic society, where citizens respect individuality and freedom of creativity; he is implacable against totalitarian and corrupt regimes. His "trees" are silent only at first glance; in fact, they embody something that cannot be expressed in words. The kaleidoscope of feelings: love, death, grief, confusion, illumination, celebration-enhances the "soulful" vibration (one of the favorite characteristics of abstract painting by the Russian artist V. Kandinsky 19, used to compare the mechanism of influencing the audience of painting and music), turning the viewer to himself, forcing him to " turn on his inner vision to find himself and start meditating. " 20

A " double image "(picture in picture, meaning in sense), similar to the surreal one," turns on "and" turns off", creating the illusion of the image phenomenon. Sometimes geometry and painting are superimposed on each other, and then other dimensions are guessed behind the interweaving of lines, the vibration disappears, and the point turns into an all-seeing eye. Abstraction is transformed into an image, and although sometimes there is a premonition of the apocalypse ("Tree", 2000; "Tree", 2001), there is still a bright future ahead ("Tree", 2008; "Tree", 2009).

The texture of the drawing is layered. The void is inhabited. Lines (straight, wavy, or more rarely broken) intertwine to form mazes. Their construction does not exclude mathematical calculation. The theatricalization of space creates a semblance of reality: mazes of love (and consciousness), mazes of time (and history), mazes of the soul (and illusions), mazes of streets (and fate). They are easy to get lost in, and yet the viewer guesses the way. Through contemplation and concentration, he seems to be immersed in the smooth rhythm of Sufi whirls-a kind of meditation. Overcoming and finding yourself becomes the meaning of existence, the goal-a way out of the impasse.

The artist's palette is changeable. The brightness field is tightly regulated. Some images are woven from vertical and horizontal black-and-white and gray stripes. Others ("Two trees" (2001); "Tree" (2008)are made in red, blue, white, green. Shades of purple, orange, and sand are visible. Flashes of light, fireworks, enlightenment: each tree, like a person, has its own biography, its own destiny. Among them there are thick and thin, high and low, strong and weak, masculine and feminine. Fortune is not permanent. Life is a maze. The present "always consists of dead ends and frontiers"21. The seeds of a better future should be sought "at the frontiers" - at the crossroads where everything new is traditionally born.

I. el-Salahi lives in harmony with his time. The universality of the sacred meaning of the compositions created by him, while preserving the traditional form (spiritual message), is obvious to the audience. It opens up a whole range of ethno-confessional, political, philosophical, psychological, moral, moral-ethical and environmental problems.

Its "trees" are perceived as an abstraction, as a sign that is understandable to Muslims and non-Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs, Africans and non-Africans. They are the key to understanding yourself and the world (in the context of globalization). The artist's seven meanings (and perhaps even more) are easily guessed: the path to a brighter future lies through love, faith, hope, mutual respect, mutual understanding, humanism and, no matter how pathetic it sounds, friendship between peoples.

Okeke U. 1 Natural Synthesis. Nsukka. 1960.

Hudson M. 2 Ibrahim El Salahi: from Sudanese Prison to Tate Modern Show // Guardian. 3 July, 2013 - him-el-salahi-tate-modern

Adams S. 3 Under My Garment There is Nothing But God. Recent Work by Ibrahim El Salahi // African Arts. Summer 2006. Vol. XXXIX. N 2. P. 23 - 31.

4 Ibid. P. 27.

Adams S. 5 In My Garment There is Nothing But God. The Work of Ibrahim El-Salahi // El-Salahi Ibrahim. A Visionary Modernist. Ed. Salah M. Hassan. L., Tate Publishing. 2013. P. 66.

6 Ibid. P. 59.

El-Salahi I. 7 The Artist in His Own Words // El-Salahi Ibrahim. Op. cit. P. 89.

Adams S. 8 In My Garment... P. 59. 9 Ibidem.

Solov'ev V. 10 Jewry and the Christian question. Berlin, 1921. p. 21.

11 The first line of the song of the bard Evgeny Bachurin.

Adams S. 12 In My Garment... P. 61.

Hassan S.M. 13 Ibrahim El-Salahi and the Making of African and Transnational Modernism // El-Salahi Ibrahim. Op. cit. P. 25.

Adams S. 14 In My Garment... P. 61.

15 htm

Adams S. 16 In My Garment... P. 61.

17 Ibidem.

Hassan S.M. 18 Op. cit. P. 25.

Daniel P. 19 From inspiration to reflection. Kandinsky V. Tochka i liniya na ploskosti [Point and Line on the plane]. St. Petersburg, Publishing House "ABC-classic". 2008. p. 10.

Adams S. 20 In My Garment... P. 61.

Kandinsky V. 21 Decree. Op. p. 194.


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