Magic and mischief from Africa

Exhibitions on Ibrahim El-Salahi and Meschac Gaba evidence Tate Modern’s determinedly global sensibility, Shahidha Bari finds

July 18, 2013

Source: Tate

The Last Sound: in El-Salahi’s hands, Islamic calligraphy finds itself beautifully married to Cubist Modernism, two-dimensional textuality worked into an abstracted plasticity

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist
Tate Modern
Until 22 September

Meschac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art
Tate Modern
Until 22 September

In a new exhibition of his work at Tate Modern, the Sudanese painter Ibrahim El-Salahi is heralded as a “visionary Modernist”. Appropriately enough, there is a particularly elegant “portrait of the artist as a young man” quietly buried in the midst of it.

This black-and-white photograph, dated 1964-65, depicts a faintly boyish El-Salahi engrossed in work. Captured in profile, sleeves rolled, he is seated low, leaning gently into the vivid canvas propped at his feet. Everything about him speaks of ease and patience, of focus and calm. His arms rest gracefully on his knees, and the brush, held with a curious lightness, forms in that fleeting instant a pleasingly straight line, almost perfectly perpendicular to the painting to which it reaches. The photograph has an effortless magic to it, and indeed there is a sort of magic to this entire exhibition. Sorrowful and serene by turns, this is a moody, meditative and atmospheric body of work from an important artist.

Following on the heels of recent retrospectives of work by Yayoi Kusama and Saloua Raouda Choucair, and staged alongside Meschac Gaba’s ambitiously interactive installation, this show forms an important part of what is emerging as Tate Modern’s determinedly global sensibility. Settled now in Oxford, El-Salahi was born in Omdurman, Sudan, in 1930. Modest beginnings, teaching art in Khartoum, were followed by a formative spell at the Slade School of Fine Art in the mid-1950s, and a return to Sudan as a Modernist pioneer. He was to become an influential member of the Khartoum School, a collective founded by the calligrapher Osman Waqialla and committed to the ideological and intellectual concerns of modern Africa.

The collection at the Tate narrates this aesthetic trajectory, from early Realist portraiture to Modernist abstraction with an increasing integration of African iconography and Arabic lettering. In his late work, the traces of that early exposure to European Modernism - Pissarro’s Post- Impressionistic Realism, Seurat’s sense of colour, Cézanne’s enquiring perspectives - remain visible but are now arrestingly combined with the shapes and forms of Sudanese handicrafts and decorative motifs. The curiosity of El-Salahi’s work is how comfortably it rests between influence and disavowal, his Modernist turn not simply a mimicry of Western aesthetics and his nationalism never naively atavistic or insular. Indeed, Modernism is contoured and contested by the Sudan to which El- Salahi takes it and the personal and political concerns of his particular African-Arab-Islamic identity to which it must be equal. In his hands, Modernism is vernacular but complex, folkloric but avant-garde, too.

If the Tate positions El-Salahi’s oeuvre as a corrective to the exclusive narrative of European Modernism, it also takes care not to overlook its astonishing merit and particularity. This is more than simply Modernity at the margins. Rather, Modernity is intersected and so redefined by decolonisation. Indeed, the work is permeated by figures of dismantlement: deconstructed calligraphy and Cubist contortions of face and form seem to express sorrow, concern and puzzlement, both personal and political.

In its acquisition of the magisterial Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1 (1961-65), the Tate significantly acknowledges El-Salahi’s work. This is a hauntingly beautiful and complex composition, a gathering of geometric faces, Cubist angles and Islamic crescents, delicate skeletal forms overlaid with African masks and Sudanese motifs. Most remarkable, though, is its sensitive colouring: nightmarish forms are pacified by pale washes of cream and bone ivory, moody flashes of dark sapphire and diluted reds. This is an important and intelligent purchase, but notable too are El- Salahi’s decisively inked line drawings, among them the harrowing Day of Judgement (2008-09). This turn to simpler line work originates from trauma. In 1973, El-Salahi was granted a ministerial post for culture, but by September 1975 he had been incarcerated for “anti-governmental activities”. Malnourished and isolated, he took to cacheing scraps of brown paper on which he had sketched abstractions. Buried in the sands of the prison grounds, they remain there apparently undiscovered.

Architecture Room by Meschac Gaba

Abstraction became, for El-Salahi, a form of understanding, an act of palliation. This is most visible in the dissembled calligraphic shapes and deconstructed Arabic scripture that are so characteristic of his work. Not simply a concession to Islamic prohibitions of figuration, they reveal El- Salahi’s committed Sufism, but in a way that affirms his Modernist identifications, too. In his hands, Islamic calligraphy finds itself beautifully married to Cubist Modernism, two-dimensional textuality worked into an abstracted plasticity. In The Last Sound (1964), inspired by the memory of his father, El-Salahi visualises the last prayers read for the dead, the cursive Arabic script dispersed in cool circles and subtle crescents. Its muted greys and creams are earthy, ethereal, immensely moving. Painting, El-Salahi insists, is a kind of prayer, an act of submission emptied of egotism. If a Modernism enthralled to God is a startling notion, radically different from the secular Modernisms to which we are accustomed, it is also something that makes itself quietly understood in El-Salahi’s striking work.

By contrast, Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art, an elaborate installation adjacent to the El-Salahi display, is a raucous and lively affair. An immersive exhibition of curios and social spaces, Gaba’s 12- room “museum within a museum” constitutes Tate Modern’s largest acquisition and took a full fortnight to install, with Gaba meticulously arranging every piece. It is an audacious parody of the very kind of institution by which it has now been purchased.

Benin-born Gaba, now based in Amsterdam, asks his visitors to turn their attention to the devices by which art is authorised, and in so doing points up the museum artefact as an invented category. In obvious ways, the installation critiques the Eurocentrism of contemporary curation, but it also prompts self-inspection, asking us to consider the regulatory practices by which we consume aesthetic work.

In the various rooms, a label invites you “to enjoy this room” but to “do so with caution and respect”. You are left to puzzle out the degrees of interactivity permitted, the things you can touch and those you can’t. In the Music Room, there is a piano you can play as well as painstakingly arranged cymbals that you can’t. In the Art and Religion Room, various deities are untouchable, but you might queue instead for a Tarot reading. If you’re canny, you can distinguish the chocolate coins from the real and help yourself. The relationship of capital to art is a specific concern for Gaba. His characteristic use of found objects decoratively dotted with defunct banknotes makes for a sharply critical kind of upcycling. In a nicely ironic gesture, for £10 you can buy a mug embossed with devalued Beninese currency in the Museum Shop.

In the Salon, tinny street music plays over a tannoy, games, books and artefacts sit awaiting the bustling crowds that will happily fill this playful new Tate space. In the Museum Restaurant, you can queue to be fed by guest artist chefs. Perhaps like all museums, the show is a mixed bag, sometimes provocatively parodic, often rather heavy-handed. The Marriage Room, cluttered with Gaba’s own wedding memorabilia, labours over an apparent connection between the curation of personal and public memory; it is embarrassingly unpersuasive. But there are some nice touches, too - in the Library, stacks of charred books make elegant chandeliers, hauntingly evoking the lost libraries of antiquity. The tiny chairs and carefully selected books in the children’s section are lovingly arranged and expectantly await curious small hands. The devil is in the detail here - it’s hard to know how this installation will play out. What’s clear is that the Tate has invested in an elaborate thought experiment, a mischievous theoretical wager in which it questions its own practices and forms.

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