By Hassan Musa
I want to introduce Ibrahim El-Salahi here as “our teacher,” using the first-person pronoun, although I did not personally have the honour of being his student when he was teaching drawing and painting at the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum. I entered the college in 1970, a year after he left to go to England. Even so, the truth is that I learned a great deal from him by observing and contemplating his rich and diverse existential experience. I learned from him how the artist could stand as a new, independent cultural identity among others in the context of modern society. In El-Salahi we see a rational Muslim going about in the guise of the artist. As such he is fully accepted, even cherished, by Sudan’s Arab-Islamic middle class – this despite the fact that in modern urban society the image of the artist is negatively influenced by the folklore of European romantic bohemianism, summarised by the popular saying “Art is madness”, and in Sudan by the example of the singers and musicians who have frequented the country’s cities for decades and are seen as urban vagabonds. In addition, Muslim culture is suspicious of artists because of its religious history, carrying in its memory the idea that horrible tortures await the creators of images in Hell. This context makes clear the long distance covered by El-Salahi and his audience, and the colossal, unprecedented effort they exerted to make the image and status of the modern artist respected, accepted, and even venerated by today’s urban Arab-Islamic middle class. El-Salahi is a pioneer of the generation of “educated artists” – professionally trained artists who are officially and socially accepted. The term “educated artist” is used here to distinguish their work from the achievements of the “self-made” artists who preceded them in taking up the adventure of modern creativity in Sudan – artists like Ali Osman, Ahmed Salim, Youn Kadeis, Al-’Areifi Sr., Jiha, and the many other unknown artists who earn their living by selling their work within the framework of the craft market.
The prosperous middle class acceptance of artists graduating from higher educational institutions took place in Sudan at a time when artists were forced to define their social role in the context of the new historical period that began with the departure of British colonial powers in 1956. Sudanese society was in formation, facing internal material and spiritual disparities and political and cultural disagreements, clearly manifest as early as 1955 in the form of civil war in the south. Like others in the urban elite, artists were apprehensively aware of the new society’s pressing need to establish a national unity to safeguard the integrity of a country of diverse ethnic, cultural, and geographic entities inherited as part of the colonial legacy. The Arab-Islamic middle class was actively engaged in drafting its own blueprint for salvation, endorsing Arab-Islamic ideology as a cultural framework and using as its principal tool the apparatus of the modern state. And this apparatus has fully and continually supported governmental educational institutions, which it envisioned as crucial vehicles for modernising the country’s traditional society.
For the Arab-Islamic ideologues, the College of Fine and Applied Art was a crucial platform for instilling modern ideas within the culture of the society that was being born. Needless to say, the concepts of modernity adopted by the new state were in complete accord with the Western conviction that material and spiritual progress toward utopian happiness is only possible within the workings of a modern market society. The aim was to incorporate Sudan into the mechanisms of the capitalist market.
In the early 1950s, the College of Fine and Applied Art played a significant role in spreading the concept of “Sudanese cultural authenticity” among educated Sudanese. It was then called the School of Design and was run by the British artist J. P. Greenlaw (or “the green law,” as El-Salahi, his student at the time, used to call him). Greenlaw’s concern with notions of “Sudanese cultural distinctiveness” was part of the political strategy of the British administration in Sudan, which supported Sudanese political factions that used the slogan “Sudan for Sudanese.” With this policy the British sought to mobilise popular opposition to Egypt, and to the Sudanese political forces that supported the idea of “Nile Valley unity” with Egypt after independence. The concept of “Sudanese cultural distinctiveness” was essentially a political one, an attempt to turn a local Sudanese “flavour” to advantage in the process of adapting to the structures of the modern market. Greenlaw was notorious for the enthusiasm of his attempts to institute curricula invoking both Islamic and African values.
It was under these conditions that El-Salahi, fellow artists of his generation and their students at the College of Fine and Applied Art sought to establish a sort of ideological framework for Sudanese art. This framework was based on the idea of a cultural intermixing or hybridity of Arab-Islamic cultural components and elements of African culture that preceded the advent of Islam in Sudan. In effect, El-Salahi and his colleagues used the principle of hybridity in a thematic iconographic investigation of Sudan’s folkloric heritage in its various forms. Arabic calligraphy was intermixed with African ornament to contrive expressive idioms from the realities of Sudanese life.
As a result of El-Salahi’s aesthetic investigations, several of his colleagues and students at the college engaged in artistic practice without critically alerting themselves to the problematic nature of the Sudanese cultural heritage, problems that El-Salahi himself had outlined.
This was made possible by a political context that allowed the nation’s middle class to envisage Sudan as a melting pot in which African ethnicities would merge, or as a bridge between Africa and the Arab world.
This ideology of the Sudanese people as a mediator or judge between Arab Africa and black Africa issued from the political notion of a united Africa: Arab north of the Sahara, African south of it. It is a capricious hypothesis, belied by the historical, geographical and social realities of the societies sharing the African land. The desert has never been a barrier separating Africans from each other; it has always been a populated land. Its peoples roam those vast open spaces in all directions and reasonably intermingle with neighbours of all sorts and on all levels. The seas to the east and north of Africa, similarly, are less natural barriers than heavily trodden bridges of beneficial exchange between Africans and their Asian and European neighbours. To say that African unity is preordained is to express a political assumption, one that goes beyond the Sudanist intellectuals, finding its roots in the literature of Afro-European political thought that perceives Africa as a mythical entity outside history. Reducing the problems of the African continent to the disparity between its ethnic components, as many people do, is a way of justifying an evasion of the problems of the continent’s geopolitical reality. Sudan is but one among many societies that constitute, within the sphere of colonial domination, an economic entity brought about by adopting the capitalist mode of production and at the same time being denied the ability to exploit the fruits of capitalist advancement. If the multi-ethnic and diverse Sudan – beyond the pitiably false opposition between Arabs and Africans – ever hoped to assume a leading role in building a unified African continent, it first had to surmount the obstacles of backwardness and underdevelopment.
When Denis Williams, a British artist of Guyanese origin (formerly British Guiana) who worked at the College of Fine and Applied Art in the early 1960s, proposed the name “Khartoum School” to describe the trend of hybridisation in Sudanese art, the idea found immediate acceptance. Yet the members of this “school” did not meet to exchange their views on the social implications and aesthetic concepts of their work, did not engage in the kind of debate that could have made them an artistic entity and would have justified the idea of an artistic school. The critical literature that helped to define the basic guidelines of Sudanese art in the 1960s did not go beyond a few press statements and articles by the artists and by researchers such as Dr Ahmed El-Zain Sagyroun and Ahmed El-Tayeb Zein El-Abdin. This scarcity may be explained by the fact that the central issues were nationalistic rather than artistic; the main debate was about national identity, so that artists talked more about patriotism than about art. Most of the artists involved were friends and colleagues of El-Salahi, such as Ahmed Shibrain, Kamala Ishaq and Mubarak Bilal, or students of his in the College of Fine and Applied Art, such as Ahmed Abd-Alaal, Ibrahim Alawam and Musa Elkhalifa. Their involvement in the adventure of the Khartoum School came as a kind of impulsive solidarity with a national artistic project, for the concept of a culturally and ethnically hybrid country was enthusiastically embraced by the elites of the Arab-Islamic middle class. Indeed, during the same period there also emerged in literary circles an argument for the idea of a Sudanese Afro-Arab hybrid literature, different from other Arab literature in the “African blood” that permeated its literary styles.
Following the experiences of the Khartoum School in art and the hybrid literature of Jungle and the Desert School in literature, the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s witnessed further discussion of the aesthetic issues of hybridity in the diverse spheres of Sudanese culture. A vibrant discussion began in Sudanese newspapers, for example, on the distinctiveness of Sudanese music caught between Arab and African influences, and likewise on Sudanese theatre caught between the modern European tradition and the African ritualistic heritage. This debate went even further to contemplate “Sudanese Islam” as a religion revised and hybridised by facets of African beliefs. El-Salahi strongly believes in the distinctiveness of Sudanese Islam, arguing on the occasion of an exhibition in Bayreuth, Germany, in 1983 that “Islam has always taken elements from local cultures. Many little customs, which could be described as paganism, have been carried on socially and been incorporated into the lives of Muslim people. Many of the rituals we perform at weddings or circumcision are very old; certainly pre-Islamic.”
El-Salahi, we have seen, played a crucial role in elevating the image of the Sudanese modern artist, whom he defined as more than a visual craftsman decorating furniture and rooms. Instead, the artist is preoccupied with the conditions of existence in modern society, which is a legitimate subject of aesthetic practice. That was the first lesson we learned from El-Salahi’s legacy. Like many men and women of my generation in Sudan, I see the modern artist as an integral part of his or her social context. Although we did not embrace El-Salahi’s aesthetic and political choices, his experience as an artist preoccupied with the destiny of his society helped us develop our concepts of the social role of art in a country like Sudan. This understanding came as an outcome of rigorous critical scrutiny of El-Salahi’s aesthetic and political theses.
By the time I joined the College of Fine and Applied Art in 1970, the concepts of Sudanese art expounded by El-Salahi since the early 1960s under the umbrella of the Khartoum School were firmly instituted academic principles, indeed unquestionable ones.
Following the logic of hybridisation, the Khartoum School artists put forward a series of unmerited, reductivist proposals with regard to the structure of the modern aesthetic phenomenon in Sudan. In borrowing from the Arab tradition, for example, they reduced that tradition to the art of calligraphy, and the African they reduced to the possibilities of elementary ornament. The notion of Arab-African hybridisation, as the Khartoum School contemplated it, seemed to our generation suspicious for more reasons than one, not the least of these being that the idea of “pure” African and Arab ethnicities existing somewhere out there is not innocent of the suspicion of happy racism. The idea of the Arab-African hybrid presupposes the existence of a pure culture, be it African or Arab; only a culture free of corruption by alien influences is qualified to produce a hybrid culture by intermingling with another, distinctively different, also pure culture. Furthermore, the idea harbours an exclusivist ethnic classification that denies the Arabs of the African continent the possibility of being African as well – as though the term “African” were limited to Africa’s black communities. Finally, reducing Sudan’s cultural diversity to the duality of Arab and African impoverishes the notion of Sudanese culture altogether and cuts it off from the collective cultural influences that lie outside this binary opposition, be they ancient or contemporary.
Yet the experience of El-Salahi as the founder of this concept of the Arab-African hybrid, helped us in developing our own, different aesthetic concepts. It represented to us a living and continuing example of how the relationship between art and ideology is created, and challenged us with questions whose answers demanded an integrated project of social critique that went beyond the realm of the visual arts. In responding to El-Salahi’s experience, we developed and sharpened our critical tools and aesthetic concepts, both practically and theoretically. Issues such as cultural identity, the social role of the artist and the relationship between theory and practice featured prominently in our project. It goes without saying that these issues are essentially contemporary and are confronted by Europeans whenever they see non-European contemporary art.
I remember my friend Abdallah Bashir (Bola) and I coming to France in the late 1970s to do graduate research under Jean Laude, a professor of African art history at the Sorbonne. Professor Laude had spent a great deal of time in Africa and had devoted his life to its art. Yet he was often bemused by the geopolitical critical approaches we were using in our work, and wondered how we were able to bring up these amazing ideas.
If he were still alive today, I would now answer his questions by saying that we had arrived at most of our critical ideas about art and identity in handling the problematic complexities thrown at us by El-Salahi. That answer might have been fair to both El-Salahi and us.
I suppose that one of the most significant lessons we learned from that prolonged debate with El-Salahi was the importance of intellectual challenge or disagreement. We realised that intellectual contention or difference was to be accepted and indeed instituted as an essential argumentative principle out of which creative openings would grow for artists preoccupied with the concerns of their society. In this context many Sudanese following the heated debates in the country’s newspapers and magazines in the 1970s were troubled by the literary “violence” of our discussion of issues of art, cultural heritage and national identity. Although El-Salahi, both practically and theoretically, had managed to secure a middle, neutral position in the debate between our group and his colleagues and former students in the Khartoum School, he could still accept the dimension of vitality and vigour in that debate, rather than being offended by its fierceness. I remember clearly his public support for our group in the mid-1970s in a controversy over our criticism of the College of Fine and Applied Art, for us a defunct institution that fell short of its educational role. Although we could not win him over to our camp, his appraisal of some of our critiques was beneficial, and harboured a tacit admission of the legitimacy of intellectual disagreement, even when violently expressed. It is important to mention here that El-Salahi was by this point established in Sudan’s mass media, and indeed in the society at large, as a national authority on issues of culture. He held a high position in the Sudanese ministry of culture and information and hosted a popular TV programme, “Bayt Al-Jak” (The House of Al-Jak). He also enjoyed immense respect among Sudanese intellectuals outside the territory of fine art.
From this perspective, El-Salahi was to us a teacher of a different kind, a dissident who accepted, even cherished, the principle of challenging one idea with another. He was also an artist who made his aesthetic and educational mission a lifelong concern demanding all of his spiritual and material faculties. And while he seemed to argue for his intellectual convictions without self-doubt, in his innermost self he always seemed to maintain a sort of Sufi precautionary mechanism – a refusal to rely entirely on the soundness of his logic or ideas. He would argue about issues of painting and ideology tirelessly but would invariably shield his assertions with a phrase from the literature of Sufi wisdom: “Perfection is Allah’s own.” “Only Allah knows.” “If Allah will.” “I ask Allah’s forgiveness.” “All on the surface of the Earth are mortals.” “How much life has dispensed and how much it will.” “Recanting to the truth is a virtue.”
It was as if he were spontaneously drawing a line of retreat, a margin of reservation, that would protect him from distorting the convictions on which he had built his artistic and intellectual project. This strong, yet reserved, way of sticking to his convictions kept him open and, in fact, perpetually attentive to the opposing voices of argument. I count myself among the many – including Bola, Hashim Salih, Fath El-Rahman Bardous, Abdalla Mohammed El-Tayeb, ’Alaa El-Din El-Gozouli, Salah Hasan Abdalla, El-Bagir Musa, Kawthar Ibrahim, Ahmed El-Bashir El-Mahi, and Omer El-Amin – who have had the honour of expressing arguments contradictory to and critical of El-Salahi’s aesthetic and political projects to his face. We were amazed by the intelligence with which “our ustaz” tried to answer our criticisms of his aesthetic and political stands, especially given our bitter experiences in our critical and intellectual debates with other pioneering Sudanese artists, whose responses were very negative. Some of our opponents in the Khartoum School did not hesitate to accuse us of intellectual alienation, renouncing our national heritage, worshipping cultural values imported from the West, and, eventually, of surrendering to foreign forces. Under the Nimeiry dictatorship such accusations were code words for national treason and conniving with the banned Sudanese Communist Party.
I have said that El-Salahi’s response to our criticisms was intelligent because he was ready to hear all sorts of questions indiscriminately. He took answering these questions very seriously. He was also quite prepared to rectify or revise a faulty argument, promptly and suavely, whenever he detected one. Debating with El-Salahi is very enjoyable, for at any moment in the discussion he will correct his argument, tighten up and consolidate his position. One might say that his stance in intellectual debate closely matches the way he works in art, erasing, adding and adjusting, always aware of the multifaceted, complex, intricate nature of a pictorial structure, progressively moving the visual outcome toward perfection.
I think the principle of going back over what he has done before is a basic principle in El-Salahi’s painting. Rarely satisfied with the first, spontaneous surge of creativity, he prefers to return to the work time and time again, revising, “scrubbing”, pushing the formal handling as far as he can. I also believe that the picture he sees in his mind’s eye is an outcome to be arrived at only through a tremendous struggle on his part. It is only realised when the space between the idea of the image and its material realisation is annihilated. One can go further and claim that El-Salahi is exceptionally capable of merging these two images into one, obliterating the qualitative difference between the essence of the conceptual idea and the material sign.
When El-Salahi talks about visual experience, he often recounts fables and anecdotes in which reality blends with fiction. He has an unusual, wonderful ability to imagine outlandish, dreamlike scenes that he uses to chronicle the realities of his daily life. In one anecdote, recounted in a public dialogue with Ulli Beier in 1983, he talks about seeing the dead:
“I used to see the dead. I saw my nephew three days after he had died… I used to see… a man galloping on a horse, coming in by one window and going out by the next. I had never told anybody about it.”
The best of these anecdotes, merging images of the real world and images belonging to the eerie world of vision and dream, comes from the same dialogue with Beier, held on the occasion of his exhibition in Bayreuth. He was flabbergasted, he said, when a figure he had drawn in one of his paintings started to move about like a living thing. Years later he came across the same figure in an ancient Peruvian temple image in a museum in New York: “And when I saw that drawing I could recognise my own work! I found that I had done that thing myself. Yet the little piece of paper underneath it said that it came from the ancient [Paracas] culture of Peru.”
In all these ways, one can argue, El-Salahi is exceptional among artists of his generation: he is almost the only one still working to refine his aesthetic and political positions through continued involvement in debate on issues of art and identity, both on the local, Sudanese level and on the international level of contemporary African art. His capacity to amend the theoretical convictions underlying his artistic practice is a clear indication of the priority of practice over theory in his mind: El-Salahi is primarily a working artist, who, given the geopolitics of Sudanese art, had to take on the responsibility of contributing to the national ideological effort of establishing the aesthetics of the Arab-Islamic middle class in Sudan. In this regard his works of the 1960s were a kind of visual manifesto explicating his theoretical doctrines. Built on the presence of Arabic calligraphy, his images also featured a type of geometric ornament claimed to be African. The colours – variations of grey, black and brown – were the “colours of our land,” or “the colours of the Sudan,” as El-Salahi and others loved to say: “As a Sudanese individual coming from the Sudan, I find the colour in it particularly looks very much like our earth, and maybe that’s why I feel it’s Sudanese.”
This statement, however, which catered to the national sentiments of the Sudanese audience, is given the lie by the natural geography of Sudan, and became imprisoning when El-Salahi exhausted the possibilities of earth colours and embarked on new creative prospects. By the early 1970s he had abandoned the “colours of the homeland”; his artist’s intuition had led him to embrace new palettes, with bright, strong colours very different from the browns, blacks and greys turned into a trademark by the Khartoum School. And then during the 1980s and well into the 1990s, he abandoned colour altogether to work in black and white.
Many of those interested in El-Salahi, whether critics or fans, have ignored his work in photography. Yet this is an area of artistic investigation that he has pursued steadily since the mid-1960s. Except for the few images published as illustrations in Ali Al-Makk’s book Madina min Turab (A City of Dust), his photographs are almost unknown, even among people interested in his work.
The best example of El-Salahi’s ability to outgrow his old convictions appears in regard to his concept of the Khartoum School as oscillating between the poles of Islamisation and Africanisation. According to El-Salahi’s statements of the late 1960s, the Khartoum School focused on Islamic culture and made Arabic calligraphy its central iconographic source. At the time, El-Salahi was strongly influenced by research he had done in the Islamic sections of museums, including the British Museum. In a statement published in African Arts magazine in 1967, he said, “I was most fascinated by the treasures of wonderful Islamic art they have there, and I kept wondering about the possibility of trying to bring that into my own work. It was most valuable to me, and I thought, why not let it flow?”
In the mid-1970s, El-Salahi’s work shifted radically from this Islamic focus to including elements of African iconography. It is worth mentioning that by that point he was a high-ranking official in the Nimeiry regime’s ministry of culture and information, and that after the signing of the Addis Ababa agreement in 1972, which put an end to the civil war in southern Sudan, the state had adopted a rhetoric of national unity within ethnic and cultural diversity. It was as an engineer of this ideology that El-Salahi evolved an accommodative discourse, maintaining that Sudanese art resulted from a hybridisation of African and Arab elements. In this respect he went further than the artists of the Khartoum School, whose inclusion of what they called African ornamentation veiled an aesthetically patronising sense of superiority. They thought it enough to introduce an African “tint” while ignoring the essential iconographic elements. By the early 1980s, El-Salahi had set this indispensable African iconographic component at the centre of an artistic practice in other respects inspired by Arabic calligraphy. His remarks in the dialogue with Ulli Beier in 1983 are revealing here:
U: When you learned to write at the Khalwa [traditional Koranic school], was there an element of calligraphy in it already?
I: Oh yes, there was calligraphy and even decoration. We learned what is called the Sudanese hand… and at the beginning of every section, you decorated your wooden writing board… so the artistic part started quite early.
U: What kind of decoration was this, abstract designs, arabesques?
I: Strangely, it was African rather than Arabic in character. You know in the Koran, at the beginning of each chapter there is a decoration on top and along the side… almost like a gate of paradise. It is the flowing kind of interlacing design, which is of an Islamic nature, of an arabesque nature. But what we did was much more African, because we used crisscross pattern and sharp triangles and squares.
In the same conversation El-Salahi presents a “magical” account of the presence of African masks in his works. I say “magical” because El-Salahi and Beier were fully aware that African masks are not traditionally seen in Sudan, and El-Salahi himself has acknowledged that he did not visit West Africa until well after beginning to execute mask motifs in his works. He begins by saying, “What I am going to say right now might not make sense to a Western mind.” And he goes on to tell a fantastic story about being a spiritual medium, inhabited by strange spirits that speak through him and make him experience and succumb to weird events:
“I thought I was being a medium for a spirit of some sort, something was working through me… So, answering your question about masks: I don’t know if I was hit by a spirit from West Africa working through me. Because I had never seen these masks before.”
Those acquainted with El-Salahi as a researcher who knows his way around museums the world over will find it hard to believe that he had not seen African masks. What interests me in this story, though, is that he presents himself here as a kujour, for Sudanese people, a sort of shaman. The kujour of the Nuba Mountains is a magician, a traditional doctor, a fortune-teller, a medium between our world and the world of the spirits and metaphysical powers. It is difficult for Muslims to accept El-Salahi’s self-description as an African kujour, surrendering his soul and body to the service of spirits and magical powers, which express themselves through his mediation. The choice is quite incongruous with the traditional Islam advocated by Sudan’s Arab-Islamic middle class.
But El-Salahi is not only a Muslim, he is also an artist with a visionary social programme that can be summed up in one word: hybridity. It is neither trivial nor arbitrary that El-Salahi, a Muslim, should take the role of the African kujour, not as a conscious intellectual option but as a natural, spontaneous stand secreted deep in the innermost feelings of a typical Sudanese. The idea can be still better understood in the light of the Nimeiry regime’s decision in the early 1980s to initiate a radical change in the law, which it switched from one with a secular foundation to that of the Islamic Sharia. These Islamic laws were now to be indiscriminately applied to Muslim and non-Muslim Sudanese alike. In adopting the role of an African kujour, El-Salahi seemed to be trying to reinstate the symbolic weight of his African heritage, to redress the imbalance that the political authorities had created in the equation of Sudanese hybrid culture.
Nor can El-Salahi’s choice be isolated from the political and religious adjustment that took place among the supporters of the Khartoum School in the early 1980s. As a corollary to the progressive build-up of fundamentalist Muslim political authority in the inner workings of the regime, voices that had previously supported the project of Arab-African hybridisation started to withdraw from the forefront of cultural and political involvement, or to change their focus. The high point in this process was “Islamic Manuscripts and Aesthetics”, a large exhibition held at the Sudanese Chinese Friendship Hall, Khartoum, in March through April of 1981. The show was organised by a group of pro-Islamist artists led by Shibrain, Ahmed Abd-’Aal, and Ibrahim El-’Awam, who in the 1960s, after El-Salahi, had been among the most influential partisans of the Khartoum School. The exhibition was organised under the slogan “There is no god but Allah.” It was sponsored and financed by the Sudanese Supreme Council for Religious Affairs and Endowments and supervised by the national committee for celebrating the advent of the 15th Hijri century.
Shibrain, the secretary of the show’s organising committee, wrote in the accompanying publication, “This exhibition is considered as a prelude, prepared in haste, for an extensive prospective activity with the ultimate goal of planning to establish an Islamic museum and Islamic library in the Sudan.”
In fact, the show turned out to be the hasty prelude to a new political reality and to a rather more ambitious prospective activity than Shibrain had promised, beginning with the imposition of Sharia laws in 1983 and eventually leading to the tragedy of raging civil war in the south, west and east of the country.
The propagation of hybridity dwindled greatly in the 1980s and 1990s, giving way to the propaganda of Islamisation and Arabisation. But the fortunes of Islamist artists close to the authorities – Ahmed Abd-’Aal, Rashid Diab, Mohammed Hussein El-Fakki, and others – shone brightly. These artists together advocated a new conceptual framework for contemporary Islamic art, embodied in the manifesto of the so-called Al-Wahid School (Allah’s School), issued in Khartoum in 1988. According to that manifesto, the Khartoum School was outdated and obsolete: “The Khartoum school emerged as a historical and cultural feature… but it lacked sufficient theoretical clarity.”
Today, the Sudanese people find themselves in a new political situation as a result of South Sudan’s separation as a new independent state. Rather than bringing peace between the two political entities of Sudan, this move most likely heralds a new period of border troubles, particularly in the areas rich in oil, and might also encourage other regions of the country (such as South Kordofan and Darfur) to secede. The Sudanese Arabic press adopted the neologism “Sawmala” (Somalisation) to describe the foreseeable political disaster. Arab-Islamic intellectuals have returned to the hackneyed discourse of Arab-African hybridisation, and the ideology of cultural and ethnic intermixing known as “al-Sudanawiyya” (Sudanism), as the only antidote to the evil of disintegration. But this time hybridisation advocates in northern Sudan seem more egalitarian toward “the others” than in the period of General Nimeiry’s regime.
In 2005, the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime invited a number of well-known intellectual figures of the Sudanese cultural movement now living in Europe and the United States, including El-Salahi, to visit Khartoum, which had been declared the capital of Arab culture for that year. On arrival they were celebrated at the highest levels of political power, being received by President Omar al-Bashir, Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, and Minister of Culture Abd-albasit Abd-Almajid. During an official celebration, Abd-Almajid offered a formal apology to El-Salahi for the appalling treatment he had suffered in 1976, when he had been arrested and beaten by General Nimeiry’s security forces.
The NIF actually bore no responsibility for the attack, which had taken place ten years before it came to power. The minister’s apology, however, was part of a carefully worked-out political ruse. One facet of the gambit was the tacit admission that the present Islamic-fundamentalist regime preserves the authority of the Arab-Islamic middle class, as did the Nimeiry regime and all the other Arab-Islamic political regimes that have successively governed Sudan. It is only by sustaining the supremacy of the Arab-Islamic political establishment that the present regime administers Sudan’s affairs. This regime seems to consider itself the self-appointed caretaker of a mission of national reunification that encompasses the entire political and cultural spectrum – which only means that it goes farther in the process of patronising Sudanese culture, accepting diversity and pluralism only on condition that they take place within the framework of Islam. It may apologise for the devastation it inflicted upon the country in the past, and may honour El-Salahi as being at the forefront of Sudan’s cultural scene, but as a Muslim artist bearing the banner of Sudanist hybridisation.
One wonders how El-Salahi will cope with this new status. No one yet knows, and the answer to this crucial question goes beyond El-Salahi himself to embrace the problematic geopolitics of visual art in Sudan – especially in the light of El-Salahi’s extended experience with political authority in the country. It is a very complex problem, whether approached from the angle of the art of authority – the art condoned by political power – or from the angle of the authority of the artist, for an underlying political programme is clearly discernible in the artist’s work.
© 2012 Museum for African Art, New York. Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, reprinted courtesy of the Museum with edits authorized by the author
This article features in the sixth issue of the Chronic (June 2015), an edition in which we depart from and contest crude fictions about the Sahara as a boundary. Designed in collaboration with Studio Safar in Beirut this special edition of the Chronic – published in its entirety in Arabic as Muzmin – argues that the Sahara has never been a boundary, real or imagined.
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