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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. . 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. 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.
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.
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. 
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. 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.
He began by exploring Coptic manuscripts which led him to experiment with Arabic calligraphy.. 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.
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: 
"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. 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.  Hurufiyah refers to the attempt by artists to combine traditional art forms, notably calligraphy as a graphic element within a contemporary artwork.  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.  In Sudan, where Salahi was based, artworks include both Islamic calligraphy and West African motifs. 
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.
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
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
^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
^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
^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
^Flood, F.B. and Necipoglu, G. (eds) A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, Wiley, 2017, p. 1298-1299