Wednesday, March 21, 2012

El Salahi's Retrospective opens at Sharjah Art Museum

Ibrahim El Salah, The Last Sound, 1964 (Courtesy, the artist)
Finally, finally, Ibrahim El Salahi: Visionary Modernist, the long-awaited retrospective of arguably the most influential African modernist artist, the Sudanese Ibrahim El Salahi opened two days ago at the Sharjah Art Museum.The brainchild of my friend Salah Hassan (Goldwin Smith Professor at Cornell University), this show has had many lives, which says something about the difficulty of realizing major museum shows of modern African artists (and I don't mean the hot, more commercially viable contemporary artists most institutions tend to focus on). Salah had proposed this same show to at least three other museums all of which, after dithering, waived it by; until, thankfully the New York-based Museum for African Art came on board.
As it happens, El Salahi's show was supposed to be one of  the Museum for African Art's three exhibitions inaugurating its  new space on 5th Avenue. I worry though that, like the other two shows--Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, and  El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa--it is quite likely that the El Salahi retrospective (which closes in May) will not be seen in New York after all. Which will be very unfortunate, because given his stature as a modernist it is regrettable, that African artists of his generation continue to exist in the purgatory or waiting room of the mainstream artworld. 
Moreover, I have often wondered: what if Salah had not, with the zeal that transcends mere academic interest, insisted against all the odds, and after many years, on finding a host for this show? What if he had not pressed on, given the slow pace of completing the NY Museum (which I suspect had something to do with the economic depression of three years ago), and got the commitment of the Sharjah Art Museum? Does it mean that this one major museum exhibition of an incredible, incomparable artist who turns 82 this year might not have happened? Ah, the work waiting to be done!
In the meantime, I say to Salah, thank you for keeping faith with the 1994 Charter; to Salahi for his stupendous work and legendary career, and not least to the Museum for African Art for its commitment to this project.

\gulftoday.ae | Sudanese artist to go on show