As the UK’s first major exhibition of Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi opens at Tate Modern this week, we invite you take a close look at 1961-5 painting, Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1

Ok, picture this. Can you imagine starting work on a large painting with a friend, agree the collaboration isn’t working, and that it’s best to cut it into three pieces? You then work extensively on one of the pieces, originally in your homeland of Sudan and later New York, after which it’s shipped back to Africa and stored for approximately thirty-five years. In this time you’ve set up the Ministry of Culture in Sudan, played an influential role in developing the country’s cultural policies, been accused of anti-government activities and imprisoned without trial. Then, on choosing exile and dividing time between Qatar, the UK and Sudan, your work is rediscovered and displayed in your first show for nearly thirty years on the native soil upon which you had great cultural impact. This whirlwind of affairs is what happened to Ibrahim El-Salahi, widely regarded as one of the pioneers of modern art in Africa, and one story behind his work Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1.

Painted between 1961 and 1965, ghostly figures with stretched heads, long limbs and sunken eyes emerge from a pale yellow ground. The dark blue, black and grey bodies are made up of intertwining lines that converge in oil and enamel on damouriya, a narrow textile, hand-woven in Sudan.

In our film shot last year, El-Salahi (who now lives and works in Oxford, England) said on the making of this work, recently acquired by Tate:

The colour which I work for some years, burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, white and blacks – it’s the colour of the earth in the Sudan, which I cared a great deal about…I remember we had a commission to make some paintings for the municipal council, and with a friend of mine [Sudanese poet, painter and filmmaker Hussein Shariffe], we had a large piece of cloth which we primed and worked on it in the studio where I used to teach. So we separated, and we used the scissors where I cut, and I got my part, and I kept working on it. I was so excited about the idea – whatever came through my vision. And the thing is that I used, even with the oil paint, I used enamel paint, which was terrible – enamel paint for a piece of cloth!

The heads call to mind African masks, but also, according to El-Salahi ‘these elongated, black-eyed, glittering facial shapes might represent the veils our mothers and grandmothers used to wear in public, or the faces of the drummers and tambourine players I had seen circling wildly during funeral ceremonies and chants in praise of Allāh’.

Returning to Sudan whilst in the throes of the First Sudanese Civil War (1955–72), El-Salahi began to teach and his work went on to integrate traditional African, Arab and Islamic visual sources with European art movements. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams 1 epitomises his unique merging of cultures and traditions and for El-Salahi there are three people the artist needs to address when making work: ‘self, the ego…others, the people in your own culture… And the third person is all human beings, wherever it might be.’ So, have you pictured it yet?