‘The Arab Spring Notebook’ is a series of 46 black, ink drawings originally made in a single sketchbook, that comprise El Salahi’s artistic response to the Arab Spring. The work will be exhibited for the very first time at Galerist Studio after El Salahi’s retrospective at the Tate Modern. (2013)
Living in England when the Arab Spring unfolded, he observed the events, like most people, through the media. As a Sudanese man, a devout Muslim and a former political prisoner El Salahi felt a deep and immediate, common cause with the revolutionary and anti- autocratic spirit that spread through the Arab world at that time, saying, “...when [The Arab Spring] happened I rejoiced... because it brought down a huge mountain of injustice... [and a] pyramid of authority... Power, as we all know, breeds greed and greed breeds corruption, injustice and prejudice and inequality. And inequality leads to oppression, and revolt.” For him, as for many, the revolts were a sudden, violent and unexpected outburst of energies long suppressed by the lethally heavy hand of autocracy.
The extraordinary, deep and conflicting emotions and meanings of these events are captured in El Salahi’s ink drawings with their grotesque and semi-abstracted depictions of the various tyrants, and, their victims, the people. In one work, a response to the ousting of Egypt’s strongman Hosni Mubarak, we see the clumsy oversized figure seemingly swept out of the picture by a powerful wave of water. In several of the images El Salahi dramatizes the sudden moment of reckoning forced upon the various tyrants by the revolts. In ‘It’s Too Late to Cry Now’, El Salahi’s tyrannical figure sits, dejected, amidst palatial surrounding. In another, ‘the people’, a mass of ghostlike figures, shrouded in shadow, stand pointing, accusatory. El Salahi explains, “this one is about when journalists used to come to our type of country and they kept telling people to look on the bright side, to look at all the development but don’t look at... the jails and the injustice”.
The vindictive and arbitrary injustice of autocratic regimes is a subject that the artist has painful firsthand experience of. In 1975 whilst El Salahi was working in the Ministry of Culture in Khartoum he was arrested, accused of participating in an attempted coup staged by his cousin that he had nothing to do with. He was imprisoned for 6 months in dire conditions.
Curated to coincide with the 14th Istanbul Biennial, with its focus on “patterns of waves, the currents and densities of water, both visible and invisible that poetically and politically shape and transform the world”, this exhibition of The Arab Spring Notebook presents this important artistic and historical document in its entirety for the very first time.
The artist’s personal journey began with his schooling in Sudan in the 1950’s followed by his international study at the Slade School in London. After a period of research and self-discovery, he returned to Sudan in 1957. There, he established a new Sudanese visual vocabulary, which arose from his own pioneering integration of Islamic, African, Arab and Western artistic traditions. In 2013 Ibrahim El Salahi became the first African artist to be given a full retrospective at The Tate Modern. His work is included in numerous museums and private collections, globally. His recent work reflects his joy for life, his deep spiritual faith, and a profound recognition of his place in the world.