A few years back I visited the Tate in London and stumbled upon Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5).
I immediately fell in love with this piece. There was something so familiar about it, so much so that I felt I had seen it before. It made me feel nostalgic. I was so captivated by the image; the faces, the forms and the colours were so attractive to me.
El-Salahi is a profound figure in Modern African Art. He was born in Sudan in 1930, and has held roles as a diplomat and a politician. He studied art at the University of Khartoum, and then came to England to study at the renowned Slade School of Fine Art in London between 1954-1957.
The painting depicts abstract figures, and they remind me of the displays of African masks and sculptures that my family members have inside their homes. This is not surprising given that the visual appearance of the painting is associated with primitive and tribal depiction, both of which are prominent themes in traditional masks and sculptures from Africa.
The figures in the painting are obscure. The shapes look very ghostly because some of the faces and the bodies are elongated. The dominating colours are black and white, which gives the painting an overall dark and creepy appearance. That being said, there are hints of red, blue, grey, yellow, pink if you look close enough. I later found out that El-Salahi chose these colours because it reminded him of the earth in his homeland, Sudan.
El-Salahi’s artistic style is particularly unique because he uses elements from European and Sudanese culture to create art that feels transnational. Of course, he will have been exposed to European art after studying in England. This being said, his work still shows a strong preoccupation with his heritage as a Sudanese man and as a Muslim.
This can be seen through the proliferation of Islamic calligraphy in his work. This was a popular practice at the Khartoum School at which he studied in Sudan. At the time he was developing his practice, there was a modern art movement within Sudan that was taking place. This movement artistically communicated and reflected the recent independence of Sudan.
Other examples of his heritage are traceable in the African expression in his work. I think this is particularly significant, because we are seeing a positive representation of Africa in his work.
During an interview with the Tate, El-Salahi said that he believed that the meaning of his work was determined by the viewer.
If we are to use my interpretation, I think that Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I follows a predominantly surrealist narrative. To me, the painting looks like a nightmare. Some of the figures are skeleton-like, and others are ghostly. Without question, I believe that El-Salahi’s painting is unsettling, however, I still think there is something about it that is very attractive and beautiful.
Words by Denise Odong
Cover Photo: El-Salahi’s Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I
 Khartoum School – Art Term | Tate”, Tate, 2017, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/k/khartoum-school.