How the birth of an independent Sudan inspired the artists of the Khartoum School
Under British rule, art education in what was then Africa’s largest country was based on Western traditions. When independence came in 1956, artists faced a huge challenge: how to express national identity in a land where more than 100 languages are spoken
On 1 January 1956, the Republic of Sudan declared its independence, following the official end of Anglo-Egyptian rule, which had dated back to the 19th century. The transition to sovereignty would prove anything but straightforward, however. In November 1958, a military coup put a stop to civilian government for the better part of six years.
The country was undergoing major upheaval in fields other than politics, too. The cultural scene in Sudan was changing fast. Members of a new literary group called the Jungle and Desert School, for example, sought to create a literature that was truly ‘Sudanese’ — reflecting the nation’s ethnic, religious and cultural diversity.
Closely connected to it was the Khartoum School of visual artists, based in the country’s capital, which also tried to make sense of contemporary Sudanese identity. The school was founded by the painters Ibrahim El-Salahi, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag and Ahmed Shibrain in 1960.
They never issued a manifesto, because, as Shibrain put it years later, their ‘work emerged naturally’ and ‘a manifesto is a Western attitude [which they] were not in need of’. Broadly speaking, however, the art of the Khartoum School entailed a Modernist fusion of African, Nubian, Arabic and Islamic elements — in other words, a daring new expression of Sudan’s rich heritage.
That heritage was widely felt to have been suppressed during the colonial era — and to make some sense of it, it’s worth bearing in mind that more than 100 languages were spoken across the republic.
As Salah Ahmed Ibrahim, a member of the Jungle and Desert School, wrote in his 1958 poetry collection, The Ebony Forest, ‘Liar is he who proclaims “I am the unmixed, the pure pedigree, the only”. Yes, a liar!’
In the years running up to independence, art education in Sudan had been formal and based on European models, with the prevailing painting style perhaps best described as a rigid Academicism. The Khartoum School represented a rupture with that tradition.
‘Originality doesn’t mean creating something out of nothing. Originality… means being able to create the new out of what is already there’ — Ibrahim El-Salahi
One standout feature — known as hurufiyya, and readily associated with the paintings of Shibrain and Osman Waqialla — was adopting the letters of Arabic calligraphy. These were simplified, compressed or fragmented to the point where they ended up seeming semi-abstract.
Khartoum School artists also made creative use of Islamic decorative motifs, such as rosettes, crescents and spirals.
The likes of El-Salahi and Hussein Shariffe were fond, too, of painting figures with faces that looked like tribal masks. Probably the most famous example of this is the former’s Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-65) — today part of the Tate collection in London — which depicts a group of ghostly figures with elongated heads and hollow eyes appearing to merge in and out of one another.
There was a healthy amount of variety across the school, but a vital tension at its heart was that between respect for Sudanese heritage and the radical way in which artists adapted that patrimony.
‘Originality doesn’t mean creating something out of nothing,’ said El-Salahi. ‘Originality… means being able to create the new out of what is already there. One simply makes a new addition, a sort of a new idea, a fresh leaf atop that same old tree of creation.’
Many might argue that El-Salahi was being unduly modest with that assessment. Posterity has come to regard the Khartoum School as one of a handful of key Modernist groups in North Africa and the Middle East in the mid-20th century — alongside the Contemporary Art Group in Cairo, the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, the House of Saudi Arts in Riyadh, and the Casablanca School of Art.
The name, incidentally, was coined by an Anglo-Guyanese artist called Denis Williams, who had moved to Sudan in the late 1950s. After teaching for a few years at the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Khartoum Technical Institute, Williams noticed that something special was happening in the city’s art scene and duly came up with ‘Khartoum School’.
It would be going too far to say that all the artists were friends, but there were undoubtedly personal connections between them — perhaps unsurprising, given the Sudanese capital’s relatively small population (of around 270,000 at the time of independence). El-Salahi, for example, asked Shariffe to collaborate with him on a now-lost painting to accompany Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I. He and Shibrain, in turn, had both trained under Waqialla.
The school’s artists tended to come from well-to-do families, and several of them had undertaken studies in the UK — in Shariffe’s case at the Slade School of Art, where he was taught by Lucian Freud. (Shariffe would go on to win the prestigious John Moores Prize for young artists before returning to Sudan.)
Having studied abroad, Khartoum School artists knew at first hand the Western imagery they were rebelling against.
The school ‘rose out of the ashes of colonialism’, according to Salah M. Hassan, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Africana Studies at Cornell University. Hassan adds that ‘the search for a common denominator — for a Sudanese national culture that would cut through [the country’s] ethnic, religious and cultural pluralism — became a focal point’.
A final feature of the school’s art that is worth mentioning is the symbolic use of certain colours. Earthy reds and browns were the most common, in homage to the Sudanese landscape.
The Khartoum School didn’t last especially long. By the mid-1970s, a new generation of homegrown artists had come along with new ideas. What’s more, one of the original members, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag — currently the subject of a retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery — went so far as to renounce her participation publicly. In 1971, Ishag co-founded a collective known as the Crystalist Group, which strongly criticised the identity focus of the Khartoum School.
This was also a period that saw a crackdown on liberal, intellectual and artistic activity by Sudan’s new president, Jaafar Nimeiri, who had come to power in 1969. Many artists fled the country; El-Salahi was sent to prison.
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Fast-forward to the present day, however, and interest in the school is considerable. That’s certainly the evidence of a number of major exhibitions devoted to it in recent years, at venues such as the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Saatchi Gallery and Art Dubai Modern.
Clearly, there’s a burgeoning appreciation for a group of artists who captured the thrill of a nation that was both historic and brand new at the same time.
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness is on view at the Serpentine South Gallery, London, until 29 January 2023