In 1960 El-Salahi held an exhibition of his work from the Slade at the Grand Hotel in Khartoum, but his deeply academic and Westernised art failed to connect with local viewers. Disheartened, the artist chose to distance himself from Western painting and spent time travelling around Sudan, reconnecting with the cultural and physical landscape of the country, in search of artistic inspiration.
Merging his academic training with traditional Sudanese art practices, he began to explore the rhythmic flow of calligraphic writing, disassembling the letters and using the simplified shapes to create a new visual language. This process would later become an aesthetic hallmark of the ‘Khartoum School’.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, El-Salahi travelled a great deal. He visited the United States and participated in the Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan, Nigeria. He led delegations of Sudanese artists to two historically significant gatherings: the Black Arts Festival in Dakar in 1966, and the Pan-African Arts and Cultural Festival in Algiers in 1969.
Two key pieces from this time, Funeral and the Crescent 1963 and Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I 1961–5, demonstrate El-Salahi’s interest in the abstract representation of human and calligraphic forms. In Funeral and the Crescent a procession of mourners with mask-like faces carries a corpse towards the viewer. The crescent moon, an Islamic motif that recurs throughout El-Salahi’s work, can be seen in the upper left. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I combines enamel and oil paint on the canvas. The artist says he feels he cannot control the final image on the canvas and allows it to develop independently; sometimes revealing images and ideas that even he was not aware existed in his subconscious mind.