Critics’ Picks

Ibrahim El-Salahi, By His Will, We Teach Birds How to Fly No. 5, 1969, pen, ink and wash, 15 x 22 1/8”.

Ibrahim El-Salahi, By His Will, We Teach Birds How to Fly No. 5, 1969, pen, ink and wash, 15 x 22 1/8”.


Ibrahim El-Salahi

Vigo Gallery
21 Dering Street
September 19–October 26, 2018

Drawings from the 1960s and 1970s dominate this exhibition of black-and-white works by the Sudanese modernist Ibrahim El-Salahi, in particular, the titular series “By His Will, We Teach Birds How to Fly,” 1969. Pen, ink, and wash figures appear embraced by the buttery tones of the paper, imbuing each surface with a gentle glow but also a sense of transparency, as if these inky bodies were suspended in the warm, hazy hug of memory. Already at this early date, El-Salahi’s mastery of the medium is obvious. His sure yet delicate hand seems to veer effortlessly between expansive, watery swaths of gray and condensed, rich bleeds of velvety black that feather out like river deltas or the tendrils of ferns.

Then there are the delightful scenes from a 1977 series of illustrations for Tayeb Salih’s novel Maryud—horses and riders, a kooky owl—still pen and ink, but with a woodcut feel. Or take the pair of quadriptychs titled Male Tree and Female Tree, both 1989. They serve as windows affording views of distant phantasmagoria, hovering vistas of tightly scored ink marks giving way to nothingness, a deft play on black and white, but also being and nonbeing.

The overall effect is that of stepping into the mind of the artist, now in his eighties. Here, a figure floats Zen-like, or as if in a womb. There, another forges onward to some unseen destination, finger pointing in action, hand raised like Zeus about to hurl a thunderbolt. These images accompany lined and turbaned faces, fantastical plants, large haunting eyes, the belly of a crocodile, the checkerboards of El-Salahi’s youth, words and scriptures. They embody El-Salahi’s memories, his visions, and dreams. More importantly, they embody his enduring celebration of human dignity and freedom.