Modernism in Dialogue: William Turnbull & Ibrahim El-Salahi

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Launch Slideshow

Works by Ibrahim El-Salahi and William Turnbull will go on display at S|2 Gallery in London on 9 October. Sudan-born El-Salahi's drawings act as an evolving journal of the artist's life; experimenting with both the figurative and the abstract in these autobiographical images. By contrast, Turnbull's totemic bronze sculptures demonstrate the artist's fascination with tribal motifs. Turnbull's exploration of material and form has secured his place as one of the 20th century's most prolific sculptors. Click through to see highlights from the exhibition. 

Ibrahim El-Salahi, William Turnbull
9 October – 17 November | London

Modernism in Dialogue: William Turnbull & Ibrahim El-Salahi

  • Ibrahim El-Salahi, Life Diary, 2014–2016.
    This work formed the first page in Ibrahim El-Salahi's Life Diary; an autobiographical work composed of eighty two ink drawings made between 2014 and 2016. The individual works were originally created in a sketchbook, similar to El-Salahi's previous works Prison Notebook (1976, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and The Arab Spring Notebook (2011, Modern Forms collection, London). With Life Diary the artist reflects upon his own life, as each ink drawing depicts memories from the artist's childhood, as well as imaginary scenes and forms from his own visions. Throughout Life Diary, images oscillate between fable, history and allegory.

  • Ibrahim El-Salahi, Life Diary, 2014–2016.
    This drawing from Life Diary captures an abstracted self-portrait of the artist in childhood. The Arabic text to the right of the image references El-Salahi's early education in calligraphy at the khalwa – a school for Qur'anic instruction. His father was an Islamic scholar and proficient transcriber of the Qur'an, who worked at the khalwa, and inspired El-Salahi to master the process of transcribing scripture into an Africanised arabesque style. These experiences remained with El-Salahi throughout his life and proved particularly influential when the artist developed The Khartoum School alongside two Sudanese painters in the 1960s. Their work was bound by the simplification of Arabic script into abstract shapes, aiming to synthesize elements of Western Modernism with cultural elements specific to Sudan. 

  • Ibrahim El-Salahi, Life Diary, 2014–2016.
    Cranes are a recurrent motif throughout Life Diary. This drawing depicts one of El-Salahi's imagined scenes, where industrial cranes are scaled by an oversized crocodile. El-Salahi explained that with this drawing he was trying to relate to the cranes around him, which he felt were: "creatures from another world. I saw many of these in Oxford Westgate shopping centre complex, currently under construction. This drawing is something from the prehistoric mixing with modernity. The cranes and the crocodile are both alien and foreign. Together they make modern life."

  • Ibrahim El-Salahi, Life Diary, 2014–2016.
    When viewed as a cohesive series of drawings, the juxtapositions, abstractions and metamorphoses within the pages of Life Diary can be fully appreciated. The previous imagined scene of crocodiles scaling cranes comes directly after this drawing in the Life Diary sequence, which puts the crane-like structures in direct comparison with traditional Islamic and Sudanese architectural forms. Throughout Life Diary, El-Salahi visually links worlds, things and figures that might otherwise be seen as separated by distance or time, but for him are all connected. His own experiences, both real and imagined, are fused together in the work to create a dream-like sequence of memory. 

  • Ibrahim El-Salahi, Untitled, 2015.
    Ibrahim El-Salahi is considered a critical figure in the development of African and Arabic Modernism. This monumental triptych painting from 2015 captures his distinctive artistic language. The abstracted forms and figures within the painting create a network of simplified calligraphic shapes, continuing the aesthetic that El-Salahi originally pioneered in the 1960s as part of the Khartoum School. 

  • William Turnbull, Blade Venus 1, 1989.
    This bronze sculpture is the first work from William Turnbull's Blade Venus series, produced throughout 1989. The elongated blade shape suggests the form of a Japanese sword or Chinese chopping knife, but also imitates aspects of nature; a leaf, a petal or a seedpod. The titles for many of Turnbull's totemic figures of this period, Queen, Venus, Aphrodite, War Goddess, all refer to powerful, archetypal, and mostly female characters, with the artist consciously mixing both contemporary and ancient forms into one.

  • William Turnbull, Blade Venus 5, 1989.
    It was characteristic of Turnbull's later work to produce a sequence of sculptures, just as he would paintings, in which subtle differences in form, especially in weight and balance, would emerge. Across the Blade Venus series, and within each edition, variations in form, scale and patination occur, culminating in Blade Venus 5 (shown here), which is one of the largest and darkest examples. Beyond Blade Venus works 1-5, there is also Turnbull's Large Blade Venus the largest of the sculptures at over three metres tall.

  • William Turnbull, Ancestral Figure, 1988.
    In the late 1970s, Turnbull returned to making totemic idols inspired by prehistoric tools and fertility figurines. This bronze sculpture, Ancestral Figure, is an important example of his second phase idols. Turnbull's idols were often based on the female form, but Ancestral Figure references the male form in its shape and surface designs. The overall form is simpler, stronger and flatter than his earlier totemic idols and also more imposing in size. Turnbull built up the texture of these sculptures in plaster prior to them being cast in bronze allowing the appearance of an object that has been carved out of stone and weathered over time. He also consciously referenced symbols he had used in his earlier works to create his own visual language. For example, Ancestral Figure recalls symbols used in another of his totemic idols, Ancestral Totem (1956), made more than thirty years earlier.  

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