Ibrahim El-Salahi

They Always Appear


In Tate Britain

Ibrahim El-Salahi born 1930
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 610 × 460 mm
frame: 718 × 866 × 90 mm
Purchased from the artist with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee and Tate International Council 2016


They Always Appear 1964 is an oil painting built up from multiple layers of paint, textured in areas and finished with linseed oil and turpentine, giving it a varnished appearance. Figures and shapes seem to float across the canvas, moving between the background and foreground. The largest figure looms on the left with a mask-like head, while the smallest, visible on the right, has a mask resembling the face of a bird, underneath which a pair of eyes emerge from the column of brown paint. A third, more abstracted form composed from curved lines, spheres and crescents is positioned just off-centre, playing with the impression of negative and positive space created by the use of lighter and darker tones. Disembodied eyes appear throughout the painting, some barely discernible due to overpainting, with others standing out in relief. A light grey wash overwritten with gold and dark grey lines that are suggestive of calligraphy occupies the top left-hand corner of the composition, while a spherical shape in pink tones sits in the top right-hand corner. The palette is primarily limited to earthy brown, black and white tones, with an uneven beige surface covering the majority of the canvas. The subdued range of colours and animal forms are typical of El-Salahi’s paintings from the mid-1950s to the 1970s (see, for example, Untitled 1967, Tate T13736).

The painting is exemplary of El-Salahi’s early style and is part of a series of approximately eight paintings entitled They Always Appear that the artist began in Sudan in 1961, not long after returning to his native country after studying painting and calligraphy at the Slade School of Fine Art in London between 1954 and 1957. They Always Appear is the second painting in the series. Discussing his working method the artist has explained:

I limited my colour scheme to sombre tones … In the next step I wrote letters and words that did not mean a thing. Then when I felt I had to break down the bone of the letter, observing the space within a letter and the space between a letter and the other on the line. I wanted to see what was there and find out their basic components and origins ... In place of those broken-up letters I discovered animal and plant forms, sounds, human images, and what looked like skeletons with masked faces.
(Quoted in Beier 1993, p.29.)

The series They Always Appear explores the visual potential of an iconography perceived as traditionally Arab and African. Mask-like, figurative elements combine with calligraphic and linear components throughout the series, offering up new imagery and techniques in each work. The title can be read as a comment on the insistence of such imagery as it reappears and asserts itself across the series. These totemic figures are also a feature of El-Salahi’s large painting Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I 1961–5 (Tate T13979).

Shapes resembling African masks appeared alongside calligraphic lines for the first time in El-Salahi’s paintings from the late 1950s. Upon returning to Sudan in 1957, El-Salahi became acutely aware of the need to develop a style which would connect to his locality. He moved away from the naturalistic academic portraiture that he had mastered while studying in London, developing a distinctive visual language based on the motifs and symbols that surrounded him in Sudan. This style, which influenced a number of his colleagues and students at the University of Khartoum, where he taught for many years, became known as the Khartoum School. The development of the Khartoum School can be seen in relation to the socio-political context of African countries searching for their position on the world stage and establishing national and international identities in the fight against colonial rule. Works like They Always Appear by El-Salahi and his contemporaries attempted to construct a visual identity for a united Sudanese society.

El-Salahi’s influence extended across the African continent. In the early 1960s he participated in the Mbari Artists and Writers Club in Ibadan, where exhibitions of his works were organised by German writer and scholar Ulli Beier. There he came into contact with artists such as Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke and Bruce Onobrakpeya, who championed the diverse and rich cultural heritage of Nigeria while making work that contributed to a modern African identity, an approach which chimed with El-Salahi’s own practice. Commenting on El-Salahi’s wider influence, art historian Salah M. Hassan has noted that ‘the idea, embodied in El-Salahi’s work of an “indigenous” art that is also global and modern is centrally important to the overall scenario of artistic production in Africa today’ (Hassan 2013, p.19).

Further reading
Ulli Beier, ‘The Right to Claim the World’, Third Text, vol.7, no.23, 1993, pp.23–30.
Salah M. Hassan (ed.), Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2013.

Hansi Momodu-Gordon
January 2015

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