Art reviews: Ibrahim El-Salahi & Meshac Gaba, London

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THESE two shows reflect the first significant evidence of Tate Modern’s burgeoning interest in African modern and contemporary art.

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist

Tate Modern, London

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Meshac Gaba: Museum of Contemporary African Art

Tate Modern, London

* * * *

Ibrahim El-Salahi is an apt choice to begin this journey. Born in Sudan in 1930, he studied in Khartoum before continuing at the Slade in the Fifties, where he was introduced to modern Western painting. He showed a competent observance of the academic techniques taught both in Khartoum and London but only when he returned to Sudan, and was faced with making an art relevant to his homeland, did he find his style, liberating an innate interest in the Arabic calligraphy with which he’d grown up. The best room reflects this creative burst, with works like Vision of the Tomb (1965) fusing the florid curves and lines of Arabic script with a haunting figurative presence.

The Tate’s acquisition of Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art (1997-2002) is emblematic: Gaba created it because, when he arrived at Amsterdam’s Rijksakademie art school from Benin in the mid-Nineties, he couldn’t see a place for his work in the city’s museums.

Twelve rooms make up this dense and vast installation and the key is to throw yourself in, whether it is in the Game Room, where you can rearrange puzzles based on African flags to look like abstract paintings, or in the Art and Religion Room, where, surrounded by random knick-knacks and religious artefacts, you can occasionally visit a tarot reader.

The consistent element across the rooms is decommissioned banknotes and dots and pellets made from them – Gaba says he wants “to confront society with devaluation”, to prompt visitors to think about Africa and its relationship with colonial powers. The work is both a fantasy and a critique, a geopolitical statement and an intimate portrait of the artist and his nation.
Until 22 September

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