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Head of Sale
The collection of Ella Winter Stewart;
A private US collection.
Combining traditional forms of Islamic written language and calligraphy into his contemporary artworks, Ibrahim El-Salahi recounts his lineage while looking forward to the future, creating a new narrative of self representation. Born and brought up in a Muslim household from Sudan, the written word of the Quran held an ever presence throughout his childhood.
Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of [the air and] the sky? Nothing holds them up but [the power of] Allah. Verily in this are signs for those who believe. (Quran, Chapter 16, Sūrat al-nahl [The Bees], Verse 79 , translated by Yusuf Ali).
Indeed, the Arabic calligraphy would manifest itself within his work later on in his life. Upon his education in Fine Art received from both Gordon Memorial College from 1949-1950 and the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1954-1957, Salahi subsequently became exposed to modernist and art forms.
Executed in 1969, the current work employs elements and motifs that are familiar to the artist's series By His Will, We Teach Birds How To Fly (1969). The late sixties was a period of creative freedom for the artist, whereby he felt that that he was able to let go of any formal training in favour of the freedom of immediate expression. The repetitive motif of a bird is used throughout this series, recalling the imagery that arose for the artist when observing his father at prayer; pointing his fingers out from clasped hands resembling a bird. Therefore, while the bird represents a self-presence of El-Salahi within his own works, it also displays a coherence with the new found artistic freedom that the artist was embarking upon.
'I am very much obsessed with my work. I am a painter and have no other profession. I go to bed dreaming of figures, forms, and colours and wake up to translate my visions and dreams into works of art.' (Ibrahim El-Salahi in Salah Hassan, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist, exhibition catalogue, (Museum of African Art, New York, 2012)).
This work was originally owned by prominent German journalist Ella Winter Stewart who contributed to The Carmelite, a controversial and rebellious Californian newspaper for its time. Stewart wished to offer liberal and dynamic points of view against a singular vein of opinion that seemed to dominate 1920's America. Often criticised for her activist views, Ella also wrote on issues of racism and heightened the necessity for fair treatment of marginalised communities. Winter Stewart was the driving force behind the ground-breaking 1969 Camden Arts Centre exhibition, Contemporary African Art and also loaned works by El Salahi from her collection to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington for their 1974 exhibition Contemporary African Art.
S. Hassan & T. Clarke, By His Will, We Teach Birds How to Fly, Ibrahim El-Salahi in Black and White, (London: Vigo Gallery, 2018).
Donald Ogden Stewart and Ella Winter Papers, (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library), online.