Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness @ Serpentine South

‘States of Oneness’ is a new exhibition of paintings and drawings at the main Serpentine Gallery (Serpentine South, as it’s now known) by pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

‘Two Women (Eve and Eve)’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

It brings together works in a variety of media, including:

  • numerous oil paintings
  • a number of early charcoal drawings
  • oil painting on leather drums
  • decorated vases or calabashes
  • a set of 5 Quranic prayers, photocopies of Arabic text which she has decorated with ink and acrylic paint
  • one large painted wooden screen

As usual, the plain white walls and light open spaces of the Serpentine’s rooms make an excellent setting for this major survey of an artist who is, I think, little known in the UK.

Installation view of ‘States of Oneness’ showing a) a big painting on the back wall b) the five framed Quranic prayers on the wall to the right and c) two painted calabashes in the foreground © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Ishag’s biography

Born in 1939, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag has practiced since the 1960s and become a defining figure of modern Arab and African art. In the early to mid-1960s, Ishag was part of the Khartoum School, an influential Sudanese modernist movement, which collectively forged an identity for the newly independent nation by drawing on both Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.

Ishag in London

Ishag was among the first women artists to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963, and she followed this with studies in Mural Painting at the RCA in London from 1964 to 1966, and Lithography, Typography and Illustration from 1968 to 1969. During her time in London – the press handout tells us – she was subject to three strong influences:

  • she was drawn to the visionary tone of William Blake’s poetry and etchings
  • she was affected by Francis Bacon’s distorted figures
  • and she was struck by the distorted reflections of human faces and figures she saw in the curved windows of Underground trains

One of the exhibition’s rooms features some big paintings from the 1970s which directly reference Bacon, showing human figures in very dark colours, midnight blues and angsty purples, confined in dimly visible cages, with titles like ‘Loneliness’. Striking but not typical of her work.

Loneliness (1987) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Much more important, though, is the spiritualist and other-worldly vibe which you can feel flowing through all her work.

The Crystalist movement

In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the Crystalists, a postmodern, conceptual group which challenged the male-dominated and identity-focused Sudanese art scene and advocated for a new aesthetic modelled on diversity, transparency and existentialist theory. Her Wikipedia tells us more about the Crystalists:

The Crystalist Group broke away from traditional practices in the Sudanese art scene. Their intention was to distinguish themselves from the Khartoum School of painting and their traditional male-centred outlook. This new approach in Sudanese painting was marked by a public declaration in the form of the so-called Crystalist Manifesto. This document presented an artistic vision that attempted to work beyond the Sudanese-Islamic framework of the Khartoum School. Moreover, the Crystalists sought to internationalize their art by embracing an existentialist avant-garde, more akin to European aesthetics.

“The Cosmos is a project of a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth. The truth is that the Crystalists’ perception of time and space is different from that of others. The goal of the Crystalists is to bring back to life the language of the crystal and to transform language into something more transparent, in which no word can veil another – no selectivity in language. […] We are living a new life, and this life needs a new language and new poetry.”
(The Crystalist Group, Khartoum, 1971)

Events have moved on in Khartoum and the wider world in the half century since then, but you can hear the stands of mysticism, feminism and internationalism which have informed her work to this day.

Spiritualism in Ishag’s art

The Crystalists may have come and gone as a movement but Ishag’s interest in spiritualism and reaching beyond the veil has endured. Working out way to depict the many ‘states of oneness’. According to the press handout, this derives from the stories of spirits told by her mother and grandmothers, and the field research she carried out with spiritualist women convening healing Zar ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region.

In terms of the work, this has resulted in a very distinctive handling of the human body and face, transforming human beings into willowy, undulating shapes, boneless spirits, barely embodied. In the most recurring instances I thought her people were transforming into spermatazoa, heads with wriggly tails for bodies. That’s what the tadpoles wriggling round the bottom of this picture remind me of.

‘Procession’ (Zaar) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Or as here, in the untitled decoration of a leather drum, where the bodies are made to taper parallel to palm trees, in an image obviously influenced by the landscape of Sudan.

Composition by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

And above all her faces. So many of the faces which appear in these paintings are doubled, as if split, as if she is capturing the duality of human experience in every portrait. As mentioned above, this owes something to her seeing faces of people travelling on the Tube curved and distorted and refracted in Tube carriage windows.

‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

But looking at some of them, I thought about Freud and psychoanalytical notions of the conscious and unconscious selves, or wider depth psychology ideas about the multitude of selves we contain within ourselves. Looking at others I thought about the most basic tenet of most religions which is that we are made of body and soul, are made of bodily instincts and soulful longings. Then again, the ones with multiple eyes reminded me of Picasso or the Picasso which his philistine critics liked to mock, two eyes on the same side of the nose, that sort of thing.

Detail of ‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

These and many more interpretations are possible. I like art which allows indeterminacy of interpretation, allows thoughts and reflections to rise and connect and free associate.

Nature in Ishag’s art

The other really important aspect of her work is nature, to be precise, trees and leaves and flowers. There are many images of trees and leaves and of people’s willowy bodies undulating in line with arboreal curves. For example, the image at the top of this review of two women floating amid a sea of bright green leaves, or the spectacular ‘Lady grown in a tree’.

‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

This lady really is deeply embroiled with her tree. The idea made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and all those figures from Greek mythology, mostly women, who turns into flowers or trees.

‘Nothing now remained of my dear sister except her face: all the rest was tree.’
(Iole describing the fate of her sister, Dryope, transformed into a tree, in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

But looking up close, it struck me the lady’s face is very reminiscent of the African mask-inspired faced of Picasso’s famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from a hundred and ten years earlier, in 1907.

Detail of ‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

The people who float around at a gallery like the Serpentine and are available to answer questions are called ‘visitor assistants’. They are always extremely helpful and very well informed. I got chatting to one visitor assistant who pointed out that many of these images of trees and flowers derive from the plants in Ishag’s own garden in Khartoum. Some – like the palm trees on the drum I mentioned above – are obviously nods to Sudan’s wider landscape. But many not only show flowers but convey a very feminine sense of sociability in a calm, leafy, civilised space. Hence the stylised but still very evocative painting ‘Gathering’ from 2015.

‘Gathering’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

I assume this is a meeting of (rather ghoulish-looking) ladies who are drinking tea or a light beverage from the long glasses with tiny handles, or maybe just water, which symbolises the water of life. Maybe the glasses are both on the table and floating off it (at the same time) and the picture captures the way it’s the same water as feeds the trees and plants in her garden, which can’t live without it. So the water in the human glasses is one with the water feeding nature and so the plants can be thought of as growing out of the water in the glasses as it is all one.

The more you look, the more you see images of greenery – flowers, plants, tendrils and leaves, either as central motifs for a picture or as decorative elements furling around the split faces and swimming spermatazoa, or of people turning into trees, or of trees containing human faces.

Take the image at the top of this review, ‘Two Women’, if you look carefully at the trees, you’ll see they both contain a human face. In fact at the bottom of both trees, especially the one on the right, you can see a pair of human feet. This painting in particular, made me think of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, giants in tree form.

The more you look, the more you see leaves, flowers, tendrils, trees everywhere, images of wholeness and healing to set against her continually disturbing depiction of human faces.

Detail of ‘Two figures in two balls’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

‘Blues for the Martyrs’

As might be obvious by now but I think Ishag’s most recent work is her best. In the big paintings from the last decade or so all her themes – willowy people, strange split faces, trees and tendrils – emerge with most force and power. Some artists peak early and fade; Ishag strikes me as getting better and better with every year. Long may she continue.

Thus it is that arguably the most striking image in the entire show is the most recent. It’s titled ‘Blues for the Martyrs’ and it was made this year, 2022. One of those visitor assistants I was talking about explained it to me. In 2019 there were student protests in Khartoum. The police cracked down with violence. They beat up and threw protesters into the river (Nile). Hence the deep blue of the painting which portrays the river and the tendrils of river weeds billowing up through the water.

And the faces in their bubbles? Ishag is using the faux naif style she has perfected over decades to convey the sense of the souls of the dead, protected in hermetic bubbles, enduring, living on, smiling blissfully, a little childishly, maybe. They’re certainly strikingly unlike the troubled split faces, the ghoul faces, of virtually all her previous work. ‘Smiley face for the martyrs.’

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2022) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ is pretty much the most striking painting in the exhibition, not least because it marks such a complete departure from the palette of almost all the other works. Much of the other stuff, whether painted on drums or calabashes or canvas, is predominantly brown or sand, colours of a hot desert country, sprinkled with green leaves, splashes of plantlife in the desert.

By contrast this painting is huge and painted a powerfully deep rich blue. It’s a very striking image but I’ve saved it till last because it’s so uncharacteristic of everything which came before it. Maybe it’s a one-off or…maybe it marks a new departure in Ishag’s work, which is still very much ongoing.

Summary

This is an unusual, unexpected, strange and often very beautiful exhibition, beautifully laid out in the Serpentine’s main big white gallery space. And it’s FREE. Well worth making a detour through the park to see.

Here’s the artist herself, pushing 83 and still rocking it.

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. Photo © Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed


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