Introducing Pick of the Week: this week by Annie Gregoire

Every Monday on AHA’s blog you will now find Pick of the Week – our recommendations of things you can do to spice up the week ahead, be it with art, music, theatre, travelling, food or anything else! We will review the best exhibitions on show that week, note exciting upcoming events, and maybe inspire you to take a visit somewhere different or try something new – across the UK and the globe.

Pick of the Week will tell you the things to look out for and incorporate into your week, discuss people and places that inspire, or introduce interesting ideas and matters that will offer something to think about in the following days.

There is loads to look forward to to in 2014. In the coming fortnight don’t miss the V&A’s exhibition ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900’, on until 19th Jan. You can even join us for a lecture, lunch and exhibition day for this show on Thursday. There will be opportunity to experience more of the country’s unbelievably rich cultural history – which most of us know embarrassingly little about – and learn about a pivotal period of world history in the British Museum’s ‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’ exhibition that opens in September. With a range of some of the finest and most intriguing objects you will have ever seen on display, it promises to be a sensational show.

A 15th Century Ming Cloisonée Jar © Trustees of the British Museum

Feminist issues remain incredibly important in the modern day but in all the discussion have we forgotten about the men? Grayson Perry, Jon Snow and Billy Bragg, among others, will be at the Southbank Centre’s ‘Being A Man’ festival at the end of the month, where they will be talking about just that. This look to be an exciting event and a platform for the important discussion of what often remains undiscussed. (Being A Man events taking place at Southbank Centre Fri 31 Jan- Sun 2 Feb)

Brazil will be talked about a lot this year and Roche Court arts centre and sculpture park in Wiltshire (a hidden gem of the south) will host an exhibition of new work by David Batchelor – bold and colourful sculpture that reveals his interest in Brazilian concrete art. (David Batchelor: Concretos, 8 Feb – 16 March 2014, Roche Court, Wilts)

Visit the blog on Mondays from now on to discover something to excite and enliven each week!

David Batchelor, "Contretos" at Roche Court. Photo: sculpture.uk.com.

A Visionary Modernist: Helena Roy reviews Ibrahim El-Salahi’s retrospective at the Tate Modern…

Ibrahim El-Salahi laments that ‘for decades African artists have been working in a vacuum.’ Worse than being criticised, they have been ignored. Hopefully, though, things are changing. El-Salahi is the first African artist to get a retrospective at the Tate Modern. His work is a heady mix of paintings, illustrations, drawings and critical writing, drawing upon African, Arab and Western traditions. With his evocative, but identifiable, African surrealism, El-Salahi’s work makes for a fresh and challenging encounter.

Sudanese El-Salahi learnt Islamic calligraphy at a young age, which formed a major technique in later work. He studied at the Slade in London, where he discovered Western modernism. His style betrays a mix of academic training and traditional Sudanese practices; and the exhibit traces his artistic journey through Sudan, his international arts education, political imprisonment and consequent self-imposed exile.

Ibrahim El-Salahi at work today

El-Salahi deconstructed calligraphy to shape his work, mixing it with Islamic symbolism: ‘Animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from these once-abstract symbols.’ He wanted to bring out a recognisable element for an Arab and African audience – calligraphy can be found everywhere on the continent. Inspired by the technique, he applies it to different mediums – creating a perpetually free-flowing stroke. He doesnt differentiate between drawing and painting: ‘It’s all art, works of art.’

The context El-Salahi is placed in is immediately reflected in his work. With such a diverse background, the retrospective shows his style is a fusion of cultures. A recent trip to Alhambra in Granada, Spain, resulted in huge canvases of sinuous flamenco dancers captured in Moorish lines. His signature tones of burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, whites and blacks, he attributes to ‘the colour of the earth in Sudan’.

Between 1957 and 1972, he travelled around Sudan, looking to reinvigorate himself with cultural inspiration. The result is a mélange of mammoth ink drawings and earthy shading. The colours of the Sudanese landscape are heightened to primaries in some areas. Funeral and the Crescent (1963), hints a crescent moon in the corner – an Islamic motif that recurs throughout El-Salahi’s work. The painting is a tribute to the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination in 1961 was a pivotal event in the African struggle for decolonisation. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5) compromises huge contours – lending shape to the confusion of El-Salahi’s earlier works – and shades that mesh with greater calm. Suggestions of calligraphy and dripping paint echo earlier angst, but El-Salahi’s distorted faces are blended and hidden – masked and mask-like in their form.

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) – the crescent moon visible in the top left-hand corner
Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5)

El-Salahi’s paintings are organic. He extracts natural forms out of the man-made medium of calligraphy, to give his portraits a cell-like nature. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II (1983) encompasses embryonic sinews to create the winding sense of scientific diagrams. This piece is more controlled and sparse than his first. Female Tree (1994) fuses the natural with the human through biology offering a vibrant but simple synthesis.

Female Tree (1994)

His earlier work shows a confusion of ideas. His pieces, in process and outcome, are puzzles – unsolvable to the viewer, or even the artist himself. El-Salahi reveals: ‘To tell you the truth, when I am working, I’m not at all aware of what it is going to look like.’ The final piece ‘shows me things possibly in my subconscious mind.’ His paintings have spontaneity about them, but also an inadvertent complexity. He creates gigantic ink drawings, alongside Freud-esque portraits. His work reveals a backdrop of inspiration from Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat, to Islamic manuscripts and Renaissance paintings. An early work, Self Portrait of Suffering (1961), shows a tribal mask-like face pained and confused with a mass of infinite, dizzy spirals. The earthy tones of the distorted visage are etched physically with sgraffito, and emotionally with suffering.

Self Portrait of Suffering (1961)

In 1972, El-Salahi returned to Sudan to take up a job as Director General for Culture at the Ministry of Information, despite Sudan being under a military dictatorship. In 1975 he was accused of anti-government activities and held without trial at the infamous Cooper Prison for six months. El-Salahi consequently entered a self-imposed exile from the country, commenting: ‘terrible as it was, I learned a great deal.’ The experience replaced his murky, philosophical tones with bold, introspective black and white. His drawings embody his view that ‘in the end all images can be reduced to lines.’ This powerful shift resulted in The Inevitable (1984-5), which greets the visitor to the exhibition with an imposing and intense collection of lines: modernist and lithe, displaying an angular emotion.

The Inevitable (1984-5), placed at the entrance to the exhibition

El-Salahi’s diversity of experience has calmed to a more reflective spirituality in his most recent work. He now lives in Oxford, and has turned to British countryside for inspiration (resulting in the series The Tree). His work is clearer and more ordered. Lines are sparser, and less curvaceous – perpendicular replacing the swirls. The Day of Judgement (2008-9) uses the blank white of the paper as much as ink – contrasting stark white to black filigree. The bold two-tone forces you to focus on emotion and shape, as colour is not there to overwhelm them. Here, shapes reign supreme, conveying emotion in contorted faces and mismatched bodies, as much as Giotto does through colour and storybook vibrancy in The Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel. One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008), is the final piece in the exhibition. The triptych depicts an authoritarian ruler, commemorating the day he took the throne. But El-Salahi undermines his unjustified rule by portraying him naked before his subjects – human as much as they are. Elaborate constructions of shapes parody crowns, displaying false pomp and materialism, and airy, ethereal colours highlight the tenacious nature of his power.

Part of the series The Tree, one of El-Salahi’s more recent series
One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008)

El-Salahi is well aware of the lack of direction he experiences when starting a piece. But this need not make his work void of a message. He addresses the visitor thus: ‘What the work means to you is, for me, far more important.’ The pressure on this exhibition to engender interest in African Modernist art is high. To me, this exhibition was an organic offering of another culture – one of vitality, complexity and beauty – and I can rest assured that El-Salahi would be happy with my conclusion.

With thanks to The Guardian, The Independent,  theupcoming.co.uk and Cornell University for photos.

‘Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist’ is on at the Tate Modern until 22 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ibrahim-el-salahi-visionary-modernist.

On Postmodernism: by AHA tutor Andy MacKay

To the Postmodern thinker anything is worthy of consideration; in artistic terms the sweet wrapper or the graffiti on the walls of a public loo are equally as ‘worthy’ of attention as a Rembrandt or a Leonardo masterpiece. Postmodernism was and is symptomatic of dissatisfaction with the ‘Grand Narratives’ which have guided the Western world for past five hundred years or more. Its genesis is difficult to locate, but its manifestation in both theory and practice emerges just after the Second World War. It is, rather like German ‘Dada’ of the 1920s, an anti-movement. It is an attitude more than anything else – a performative position, a way of seeing the world, at turns both endlessly liberating and soullessly sterile.

Jeff Koons 'Louis XIV' (1986)

What interests me is what others might describe as the ‘sterile’ bit – Postmodernism’s philosophical and critical flipside which necessitates a negation, for example, of the very concepts of ‘good’ ‘bad’, ‘worth’, ‘value’,  ‘masterpiece’ or even ‘art’ itself. Realistically ‘everything’ may mean – or signify – absolutely ‘nothing’ at all. It’s this aspect, the giddy ‘levelling’ implicit in Postmodernism – its intellectual ‘death wish’ if you like – which I find most intriguing. It is liberating to question things. The rigour of the questioning forces us to challenge and defend conventionally held assumptions and beliefs, and nothing is worth believing – in and of its self – unless it has been scrutinised.

'Indeterminate Fascade' for the Best showroom in Houston, USA (1975)

The philosophical and scientific ‘revolts’ of the 19th century (emerging directly out of 18th  century Enlightenment patterns of thinking) had a profound impact on the 20th century. During the inter-war period, French Existentialism – finding so much initial nourishment in the work of Nietzsche for example – brought European intellectuals to the garden gate of a Postmodern condition.

Leigh Bowery

The Second World War was like a full stop at the end of the Old World sentence. Modernism itself was of course a necessary break with the past, but Modernism wasn’t conscious that it had in fact internalised a Euro-centric, pseudo-Christian, post-Romantic teleology thereby sowing the seeds of its eventual demise. Just as if one believes in good, one must also believe in ‘bad’; if one believes in ‘progress’ one is stalked by a fear of ‘regress’. Recognising that in essence Modernism was just another great European fallacy, by the 1960s thinkers and creative-types began to revel in the ‘regress’: to question the very concepts of ‘good’ ‘bad’/’progress’ and ‘regress’. Postmodernism is really the end of ‘style’ as traditionally conceived – in fact it is difficult even to describe it as a coherent artistic or philosophical ‘movement’. It is an attitude. Through this final ironic severance from the past and with an ‘end time’ attitude curiously its own, new and divergent potentialities were created. Postmodernism’s greatest legacy is the internet itself: we live with it every day and ultimately it makes our lives better.  It is odd then that Postmodernism began to lose its critical potency just before the invention of the internet and very soon after Francis Fukuyama famously announced we’d reached ‘the end of history’ itself.