Ibrahim El-Salahi
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Ibrahim El-Salahi
Ibrahim el-Salahi
Born5 September 1930
EducationSchool of Design, Gordon Memorial College (now University of Khartoum); Slade School of Fine Art , London (1954-1957)
Known forPainter
MovementHurufiyya movement
AwardsPrince Claus Award

Ibrahim El-Salahi (born 5 September 1930) is a Sudanese artist painter and former politician and diplomat. He is one of the foremost exponents of the hurufiyya art movement which sought to combine traditional graphic forms, especially calligraphy, into contemporary artworks with a distinct Arab identity, in the late 20th-century.

Life and career

El-Salahi was born on 5 September 1930, in Omdurman, Sudan to a Muslim family and is arguably one of the most important modern African artists. His father's career was running a Qur'anic school, which transpires to be the place where El-Salahi learned and practiced his calligraphy, which is predominant throughout his artwork. As a result of his lack of interest, his marks in school prevented him from pursuing medicine, which fortunately led to him beginning his art career. He studied Art at the School of Design of the Gordon Memorial College, currently the University of Khartoum. On the basis of a scholarship, he subsequently went to the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1954 to 1957. At the Slade School of Fine Art, El-Salahi was exposed to European schooling, modern circles, and various historical artists, which unintentionally altered the constructions of his artworks.[1] . Studying here also allowed him to take formal and ideological cues from modernist painting, which helped him learn to balance pure expression and gestural freedom.[2] Additionally, in 1962, he received a UNESCO scholarship to study in the United States, from where he visited South America. From 1964 to 1965 he returned to the US with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, and in 1966 he led the Sudanese delegation during the first World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal.[3][4]

Following the completion of his education and training, he returned to Sudan. During the duration of his stay, he used, in his work, calligraphy and elements of the Islamic culture that played a role in his everyday life. Trying to connect to his heritage, El-Salahi began to fill his work with symbols and marking of small Arabic inscriptions. As he became more advanced with incorporating Arabic calligraphy into his work, the symbols began to produce animals, humans, and plant forms, providing more meaning to his artwork and allowing viewers to connect to his work. El-Salahi learned to combine the European styles with the traditional Sudanese themes in his art, which evokes a transnational African-influenced surrealism.[5]

El-Salahi was assistant cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in London from 1969 until 1972, when he returned to Sudan as Director of Culture under Jaafar Nimeiri's regime, then was Undersecretary in the Ministry of Culture and Information until September 1975, when he was imprisoned without charge for six months for being accused of participating in an anti-government coup. [6]

While in prison El-Salahi would use the 25 exercise minutes he received everyday to sketch out ideas for huge paintings. He would secretly sketch and bury the small drawing into the ground to maintain his ideas.[7] Ten years after being released from prison he exiled himself from the country and for some years worked and lived in Doha, Qatar, before settling in Oxford, England.[3][4]


External video
Ibrahim El-Salahi,[8]

He is considered a pioneer in Sudanese art and was a member of the "Khartoum School" that was founded by Osman Waqialla. In the 1960s he was associated with the Mbari Club in Ibadan, Nigeria.[3][4]

He began by exploring Coptic manuscripts which led him to experiment with Arabic calligraphy.[9]. Ultimately, he developed his own style and was among the early group artists to elaborate the Arabic calligraphy in his paintings, in a style that became known as hurufiyya.[10]

In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, he explained how he came to use calligraphy in his artworks. Following his return to Sudan in 1957, he was disappointed at the poor attendance at his exhibitions and reflected on how to generate public interest: [11]

"I organised an exhibition in Khartoum of still-lifes, portraits and nudes. People came to the opening just for the soft drinks. After that, no one came. [It was] as though it hadn't happened. I was completely stuck for two years. I kept asking myself why people couldn't accept and enjoy what I had done. [After reflecting on what would allow his work to resonate with people], I started to write small Arabic inscriptions in the corners of my paintings, almost like postage stamps, and people started to come towards me. I spread the words over the canvas, and they came a bit closer. Then I began to break down the letters to find what gave them meaning, and a Pandora's box opened. Animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from these once-abstract symbols. That was when I really started working. Images just came, as though I was doing it with a spirit I didn't know I had."

His work has developed through several phases. His first period during the 1950s, '60s and '70s is dominated by elementary forms and lines. Then his work becomes rather meditative, abstract and organic. Subsequently, his work has been characterized by lines, while he mainly uses white and black paint.[3][4] In this regard, Salahi is seen as part of a broader Islamic art movement that emerged independently across North Africa in the 1950s and known as the hurufiyah art movement. [12] Hurufiyah refers to the attempt by artists to combine traditional art forms, notably calligraphy as a graphic element within a contemporary artwork. [13] Hurufiyah artists rejected Western art concepts, and instead searched for a new visual languages that reflected their own culture and heritage. These artists successfully transformed calligraphy into a modern aesthetic, which was both contemporary and indigenous. [14] In Sudan, where Salahi was based, artworks include both Islamic calligraphy and West African motifs. [15]

In 2001, Ibrahim el-Salahi was honored with a Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands.[16][17]

In the summer of 2013, a major retrospective show of El-Salahi's work was mounted at Tate Modern, London, running from 3 July to 22 September 2013, the Tate's first retrospective dedicated to an African artist.[18]

Solo exhibitions

  • 2016: The Armory, New York (Vigo Gallery)
  • 2016: Salon 94, New York
  • 2015: Vigo Gallery, London
  • 2015: Frieze New York (Vigo Gallery)
  • 2015: Jerwood Gallery, Hastings
  • 2014: Vigo Gallery, London
  • 2014: Skoto Gallery, New York
  • 2013: Tate Modern, London
  • 2012: Katara Cultural Village Foundation, Doha
  • 2012: Sharjah Art Museum
  • 2011: Skoto Gallery, New York
  • 2010: Rashid Diab Arts Centre, Khartoum
  • 2000: Dara Art Gallery, Khartoum
  • 1992: Savannah Gallery, London
  • 1984 & 1990: Iwalewa Haus, Contemporary African Art Centre, Bayreuth
  • 1974: Art Gallery of the National Council for Arts and Letters, Kuwait
  • 1972: Agisymba Gallery, Berlin
  • 1967 & 1969: French Cultural Centre, Khartoum
  • 1967: Traverse Gallery, Edinburgh
  • 1967: Galerie Lambert, Paris
  • 1966: Carl Durisberg, Munich
  • 1964: Daberkow Gallery, Frankfurt
  • 1964: Irvington-on-Hudson, New York
  • 1963: Murphy Gallery, Baltimore
  • 1963: Middle East House, Washington DC
  • 1963: ICA Gallery, London
  • 1962: Galerie Lambert, Paris
  • 1962: American Cultural Centre, Khartoum
  • 1961: Mbari Gallery, Ibadan
  • 1960: Grand Hotel Exhibition Hall, Khartoum

Group shows

  • 2011-12: Meem Gallery, Dubai
  • 2010: Interventions & Sajjil, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha
  • 2010: Tradition of the Future, Future of Tradition', Haus der Kunst, Munich
  • 2010: Selections 2010, Skoto Gallery, New York
  • 2010: Doha Capital of Arab Culture, Qatar
  • 2004: The Oxford Show, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford
  • 2004: Sudan Past and Present, The British Museum, London
  • 2003: Asylum Years, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford
  • 2001-02: The Short Century, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich; Haus der Kulturen der West, Berlin; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 2001: 20th Anniversary of Iwalewa Haus, Bayreuth
  • 2001: Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, Tate Modern, London
  • 2000: L'Afrique á Jour, Lille
  • 2000: Contemporary Sudanese Art, Oriental Museum, Durham
  • 2000: Blackness in Colour, Howard Johnson Art Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca
  • 1999: Sharjah International Arts Biennale
  • 1999: Contemporary Sudanese Art, Cardiff
  • 1998: Art sans Frontières, Maison de l'UNESCO, Salle Miro, Paris
  • 1996: Malmö Konststhall, Malmö
  • 1995: Africa 95: Seven Stories of Art from Africa, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
  • 1995: Sharjah International Arts Biennale
  • 1994: Savannah Gallery, London
  • 1992: Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • 1991: A Grain of Wheat: Art Relief from Africa, England
  • 1991: Paradox of the New: Art from Africa, England
  • 1978: Maison de la Culture, André Malraux, Rheims
  • 1977: Festac, Lagos
  • 1976: Bab Elloog Art Gallery, Cairo
  • 1975: Georgetown University Hall, Washington, DC
  • 1975: African Art Then and Now, Royal Commonwealth Society, London
  • 1974: Khartoum Art Gallery, Khartoum
  • 1974: Museum of African Art, Washington DC
  • 1974: Arab Cultural Week, University of Tübingen
  • 1971: Africa Centre, London
  • 1970: Trinity College, Dublin
  • 1970: Abgeordneten Hochhaus des Deutschen Bundestages, Bonn
  • 1969: Islamic Art Exhibition, Nommo Gallery, Kampala
  • 1969: Pan-African Cultural Festival, Algiers
  • 1969: Contemporary Art in Africa, Camden Arts Centre, London
  • 1967: Contemporary Art in Africa, ICA Gallery, London
  • 1966: Museum of Philadelphia Civic Centre, Philadelphia
  • 1965: Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1964: Sudan Pavilion, World Fair, New York
  • 1963: Academy of Fine Art, Calcutta

Fellowships and awards

  • 2015: Honorary Doctor of Literature (DLit), University College London
  • 2005-07 & 2009: Visiting Artist, Cornell University, Ithaca NY
  • 2004: Festival International des Arts Plastiques des Mahrès, gold medal
  • 2001: Prince Claus Fund Award
  • 1999: Honorary Award, Sharjah International Arts Biennale
  • 1975: Order of Knowledge, Arts and Letters of Democratic Republic of Sudan: silver
  • 1971: Order of Knowledge of Democratic Republic of Sudan: gold
  • 1964-65: Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship
  • 1962: UNESCO Fine Arts Fellowship


  • 1945-48: Wadi Seidna Secondary School
  • 1949-51: School of Design, Gordon Memorial College, Khartoum, and Art Department, Khartoum Technical Institute: general art course majoring in painting
  • 1954-57: The Slade School, University College, London: painting and calligraphy
  • 1964-65: Department of Journalism, Columbia University, New York: black and white photography
  • 1975: The Sudanese Academy for Administrative Sciences: top management programme
  • 1985: School of Economic Science, London: practical philosophy
  • 1999-2001: School of Economic Science, Oxford: practical philosophy


  • 1952-54: Demonstrator, Art Department, Khartoum Technical Institute
  • 1957-59: Lecturer, Painting Department, School of Fine & Applied Art, Khartoum Technical Institute
  • 1960-66: Tutor and Head of Painting Department, Khartoum Technical Institute
  • 1967-69: Principal Lecturer at the School of Fine and Applied Art, Khartoum Polytechnic
  • 1969-72: Assistant Cultural Attaché, Sudan Embassy, London
  • 1972-73: Director General of Culture, Sudan Government
  • 1973-76: Undersecretary, Ministry of Culture and Information, Sudan Government
  • 1977-80: Expert Adviser, Department of Press and Publications, Ministry of Information, Qatar
  • 1980-82: Expert, Office of the Undersecretary, Ministry of Information, Qatar
  • 1984-85: UNESCO Consultant to the Ministry of Information and National Guidance, Somalia
  • 1986-89: Expert, International Information Relations Committee of the Arab Gulf States; Adviser to the Undersecretary, Ministry of Information and Culture, Qatar
  • 1989-97: Translator and Biographer, The Amir's Office, Diwan Amiri, Qatar
  • 1997-98: Translator, Political Department, Diwan Amiri, Qatar

Other cultural activities

  • 1959: Member of Sudan Cultural Delegation to China
  • 1966: Head of Sudan Delegation to the First Festival of African Culture, Dakar
  • 1969: Member of Committee for the Study of Arab Culture, UNESCO, Paris
  • 1969: Member of Sudan Cultural Delegation to the First Pan-African Cultural Festival, Algiers
  • 1972-73: Established the Department of Culture, Sudan Government
  • 1973: Sudan Representative to Foundation Conference, General Association of Arab Artists, Baghdad
  • 1973 & 1974: External Examiner, Art Department, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
  • 1984: External Examiner, College of Fine and Applied Art, Khartoum Polytechnic, Sudan
  • 1972-76: Secretary General, National Council for Arts and Letters, Sudan
  • 1974-75: Head of Sudan Delegation to Permanent Committee of Arab Information, Arab League
  • 1979: Media Co-ordinator for the State Visit of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II to the State of Qatar
  • 1980: Head of Preparatory and Executive Committees and the Secretariat Office of the Fifth Conference of Ministers of Information in the Arab Gulf States
  • 1980-82: Member, Qatar Delegation to Permanent Committee for Arab Information, Arab League
  • 1981: Member, Qatar Delegation to 3rd Conference of Arab Ministers for Cultural Affairs, Baghdad
  • 1982: Delegate representing International Information Relations Committee of Arab Gulf States at the ministerial preparatory meeting for Arab Summit Conference in Fez, Morocco
  • 1984: Delegate, International Press Seminar, Paris
  • 1988-89: Editor, English section of Al-Mathurat Al-Shabiyyah magazine, published by The Arab Gulf States Folklore Centre, Qatar
  • 1998: Participant, seminar 'Visions of African Cultural Co-operation and Development', UNESCO Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 1998: Participant, Symposium of the 7th Cairo Biennale
  • 1999: Participant, Muscat Forum for Arab Fine Arts
  • 2000: Member of 'Africa in Venice' Permanent Committee, New York
  • 2000: Participant, Fifth International Conference on Sudan Studies, Durham University, UK
  • 2000: Participant, Conference on 'State of Visual Arts in Africa and the African Diaspora: Agenda for the 21st Century', Paris
  • 2000: Participant, Colloquium l'Afrique en Créations, Lille, France
  • 2001-Member, Board of Directors, Forum for African Arts 2000-
  • 2001: Participant, Colloquium International Festival of Plastic Arts, Al-Mahras, Tunisia
  • 2009: Participant, second Pan African Cultural Festival, Algiers
  • 2009-President, Sudan Studies Association UK


  • 1962: Beier, Ulli Ibrahim el Salahi: Drawings, Mbari Publications, ASIN B007EI6MPI
  • 2012: Hassan, Salah M., Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, ISBN 978-0945802587


  1. ^ https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-ibrahim-el-salahi-the-pioneering-sudanese-artist-that-you-should-know
  2. ^ https://www.artsy.net/artist/ibrahim-el-salahi
  3. ^ a b c d Ryle, John, Justin Willis, Suliman Baldo & Jok Madut Jok (eds), The Sudan Handbook, "Key Figures in Sudanese History, Culture & Politics", James Currey, 2011, p. 205. ISBN 978-1847010308
  4. ^ a b c d Culture Base (2003), biography
  5. ^ https://theculturetrip.com/africa/sudan/articles/ibrahim-el-salahi-painting-in-pursuit-of-a-cultural-identity/
  6. ^ Hudson, M., "Interview: Ibrahim el-Salahi: from Sudanese prison to Tate Modern Show," The Guardian, 4 July, 2013, Online: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jul/03/ibrahim-el-salahi-tate-modern
  7. ^ africanpainters.blogspot.com
  8. ^ "Exhibition curator Salah Hassan explains the Sudanese artist's crucial role in African Art", BBC Radio 3
  9. ^ Ali, W., Modern Islamic Art: Development and Continuity, University of Florida Press, 1997, p. 155
  10. ^ Mavrakis, N., "The Hurufiyah Art Movement in Middle Eastern Art," McGill Journal of Middle Eastern Studies Blog, Online: https://mjmes.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/article-5/;Tuohy, A. and Masters, C., A-Z Great Modern Artists, Hachette UK, 2015, p. 56
  11. ^ Hudson, M., "Ibrahim el-Salahi: from Sudanese prison to Tate Modern Show," The Guardian, 4 July, 2013, Online: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jul/03/ibrahim-el-salahi-tate-modern
  12. ^ Dadi. I., "Ibrahim El Salahi and Calligraphic Modernism in a Comparative Perspective," South Atlantic Quarterly, 109 (3), 2010 pp 555-576, DOI:https://doi.org/10.121500382876-2010-006; Flood, F.B. and Necipoglu, G. (eds) A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, Wiley, 2017, p. 1294
  13. ^ Mavrakis, N., "The Hurufiyah Art Movement in Middle Eastern Art," McGill Journal of Middle Eastern Studies Blog, Online: https://mjmes.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/article-5/;Tuohy, A. and Masters, C., A-Z Great Modern Artists, Hachette UK, 2015, p. 56; Flood, F.B. and Necipoglu, G. (eds) A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, Wiley, 2017, p. 1294
  14. ^ Lindgren, A. and Ross, S., The Modernist World, Routledge, 2015, p. 495; Mavrakis, N., "The Hurufiyah Art Movement in Middle Eastern Art," McGill Journal of Middle Eastern Studies Blog, Online: https://mjmes.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/article-5/; Tuohy, A. and Masters, C., A-Z Great Modern Artists, Hachette UK, 2015, p. 56
  15. ^ Flood, F.B. and Necipoglu, G. (eds) A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, Wiley, 2017, p. 1298-1299
  16. ^ Ibrahim el-Salahi: a visionary modernist, Prince Claus Fund (2012).
  17. ^ Profile, Prince Claus Fund.
  18. ^ Hudson, Mark (3 July 2013). "Ibrahim el-Salahi: from Sudanese prison to Tate Modern show". The Guardian.

External links

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