Ibrahim El-Salahi

Ibrahim El-Salahi’s mesmerising paintings represent the dream of postcolonial Sudan. His prison drawings expose the nightmare hidden beneath.

2 min read

Ibrahim El-Salahi is the father of the Khartoum School that pioneered postcolonial Sudanese modernism.

He was born in 1930 in Omdurman, Sudan under British colonial rule. His father ran a Quranic school, where the young Ibrahim first practised Arabic calligraphy. His keen eye and artistic merit earned him a scholarship to study fine art at Slade in London in 1954. He returned to Sudan in 1956 following the country’s independence, and was hired by the new government to set up the country’s first Department of Culture. 

The new nation was in search of its cultural identity, the question of what it meant to be Sudani in the 20th Century was front of mind. The Khartoum School revived traditional Sudanese art styles and practices. El-Salahi’s practice in the 60s combined geometric principles of Islamic art calligraphy, North African iconography and new western abstractions. He was fascinated by the logic and aesthetics of dreams, exploring it in works like The Last Sound (1964), and Donkey in my Dreams (1960) – perhaps an incarnation of the hope and possibility in the new nation.

Funeral and the Crescent, 1963

El-Salahi’s dreams turned to nightmare in 1975, when he was accused of plotting a coup. He was sent to a maximum security prison on allegations of treasoned. He remained there for six months without trial or any official charge, and was brutalised by prison guards and subjected to inhumane conditions. Through the turmoil, he continued to make art. His drawings and poetry were originally composed on scraps of paper that he buried to keep hidden from the guards. When he was released on house arrest he began work on his Prison Notebook (1976), detailing the terror and claustrophobia of imprisonment.

I started to record it so as not to forget. Not only for me but for anyone who is innocent and has been imprisoned under false pretences. Just to remember what can happen.

Ibrahim El-Salahi

Scanned pages from Prison Notebook, 1976

This seminal work is now part of the Museum of Modern Art Collection in New York, it has also been produced as an edition. El-Salahi’s experience in prison was a turning point in both his life and art. Immediately after, he exiled himself to Qatar for years before returning to Sudan again. He has lived in Oxford, England since 1998. In 2013 he became the first African artist to have a major retrospective at the Tate Modern. At the time, the museum described him as a “visionary modernist."



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