Ibrahim El-Salahi is an 82 year-old Sudanese artist, now based in Oxford, who studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in the 1950s. During the 1970s, while working as Sudan’s undersecretary for culture, he was imprisoned without trial and later lived in exile in Qatar. Not that you’ll find many overtly political statements in this five-decade retrospective. Rather, El-Salahi’s agenda is primarily aesthetic, an attempt to fuse Western and Arabic forms and traditions.
Occasionally, this plays out in a slightly facile way – such as a rather academic portrait from the mid-1960s, with the sitter simply placed in front of vaguely calligraphic wallpaper. For the most part, though, El-Salahi’s work consists of stunning, oddly ethereal paintings, both large and small, whose sheer outlandishness doesn’t quite resemble anything else in recent art.
There are influences, certainly: shades of Picasso’s African masks, Miro’s wispy biomorphism, Klee’s delicate intricacies. But El-Salahi combines these with scythe-like, crescent motifs, curling calligraphies and ornate, hieroglyphic patterns, creating hugely detailed, almost baroque works whose surfaces teem with abstract elements and weird, alien-looking figures.
In later, large-scale works, this otherworldly aspect gets pushed too far – and while El-Salahi’s titles often refer to religious themes, the doomy imagery tends to come off rather too sci-fi, like some etiolated, Arabicized version of HR Giger’s aliens. His smaller drawings, on the other hand, especially those made during his incarceration, perfectly suit this tone of sinister excess and are marvelous – wildly fantastic and darkly resplendent.