Looking at Art – Self-Portrait of Suffering

Welcome to Looking at Art. Here’s what we do: I just spend some time looking at the piece, writing down thoughts & questions I have. Thinking about how it makes me feel and trying to make connections. Then I will do some research and report back to you with any details that are relevant to the piece. Finally, I put all that together and contemplate how the piece’s meaning has changed for me & what my big takeaways are. Today’s piece is:

Self-Portrait of Suffering (1961)
Ibrahim El-Salahi
Oil on canvas
30 cm × 41 cm

The most striking thing about Self-Portrait of Suffering is how it pushes against the expectations of self-portrait. I’ve seen some self-portraits; most are attempting to realistically recreate the subject, with some others adopting a more impressionistic take. However, the self-portraits I think of when I hear that term give a good approximation of the artist’s actual face. Yet here, the face is incredibly distorted, which is the suffering part of the title. Therefore, this is not simply a self-portrait of the face but a glimpse into the artist’s mood while they were painting the work.

That inevitably leads to the question of what was causing the suffering. Based on the artist’s name, I would reason they are either North African or Middle Eastern. Based on the year the painting was made, the suffering could be related to armed conflict, but it could also be a deeply personal cause. The figure’s mouth hands open which has me wondering if he is in shock or exhaustion. The rings around the eyes could denote circles caused by fatigue, an inability to sleep. This person is likely in the throes of depression, sunken down into their mind like quicksand. 

The presence of so many loops reminds me of art I’ve seen done by people diagnosed with schizophrenia. In that particular mental state, there is a fascination with less angular images and more fluid ones. Everything in this painting has a roundness, linking it back to the distortion. The face looks stretched, the nose is distended, and the hair doesn’t look as if it is fashioned in any particular style. I also note the strangeness of the shirt/tunic worn by the figure. The collar is distorted, and I wonder if that is a stylistic choice or a reflection of the torn clothing article?

The canvas also looks to be smeared with yellowish-brown paint. Not to be too gross, but I am reminded of a scene in Steve McQueen’s Hunger where the inmates in the Irish prison smear their own shit on the walls as an act of protest. The space behind the figure has that same stained, dirty quality. Once again, this may be a literal thing or another impressionistic extension of how the artist is experiencing the world in this period of suffering. 

Now to research and discover who this artist is and what inspired them to paint this…

Ibrahim El-Salahi is a Sudanese artist who was born in 1930. He is Muslim and is considered one of the most important contemporary African artists. El-Salahi attended a fine arts school in Khartoum, Sudan, and then went to a fine arts academy in London to continue his work. During this time (1954-1957), El-Salahi began to study European modernist painting. He found a means to incorporate expressionism with gestural freedom. The gestural movement was popular during this time, most notably by people like Jackson Pollock, but it could be seen in older art like the latter paintings of Van Gogh. This is when the artist’s actual movement conveys emotion into the work. If you are angry, this is reflected in the brushstrokes of the work. 

El-Salahi has explained that it was a major cultural shock to go from Sudan, where Western aesthetics had yet to find quite the foothold they had in other parts of Africa, to London. However, the artist immersed himself in these new ideas and forms instead of becoming overwhelmed. El-Salahi spent a lot of time visiting the museums in London and cites many of the contemporary artists of the era as having a profound influence on his own work. His work at the time shifted through different styles, showcasing his experimentation in impressionism and cubism. This was not meant to be the artist moving away from his initial ideas but as a way of tossing new ingredients. The artist wanted to explore his capabilities and see what could be added to the work he wanted to do that would make it better. 

El-Salahi returned to Khartoum in 1957 to teach at the Technical Institute. Sudan had been relinquished from British colonial rule in 1956, so the nation was seeing a burst in creativity & cultural expression. As a result, El-Salahi became a figurehead in the arts leading a movement called the “Khartoum School.” However, the influences of Western art did not sit well with other Sudanese intellectuals, and a show of El-Salahi’s work was rejected by critics. This led the artist to disengage for a while, wandering through Sudan and looking to the landscapes of his homeland for inspiration. He also returned to the practice of Arabic calligraphy, something that had been a hobby in his childhood, and these elements began to appear in his work. El-Salahi has said the rate he was producing paintings during this time was at a fever pitch, and he was aware of a transformation happening within him.

“Self-Portrait of Suffering” is the most notable piece from this period which ended around 1961. El-Salahi is clearly influenced by what he saw in the cubists, specifically Picasso. However, he’s also drawing on the ceremonial masks of the West African traditions, which were part of what inspired the cubist movement in the West. This confluence of elements feels appropriate for the inner turmoil of El-Salahi, trying to stay true to his personal sense, which was being influenced by his time in the West while trying to make his work relevant & coherent to a nation that was searching for an identity separate from its colonial rule. The suffering we see is an expression of that pull from either side, unsure of who he is. This is an absolutely brilliant concept for self-portrait, a form that is often centered on clear & precise definitions by the artist. Here it’s an admission of the struggle between being an individual and understanding the collective responsibility he had at this moment as a nation was finding its identity. 

El-Salahi would begin creating art that suddenly found its place in Sudan, and by 1969 he was appointed as assistant cultural attache to the Sudanese embassy in London. In 1972, he once again returned to Sudan and was given the office of Director of Culture under the presidential regime of the time. In 1975, a coup was attempted, and El-Salahi was jailed under accusations that he had been a participant. Many Sudanese artists & intellectuals were imprisoned with these same accusations, and many members of the Sudanese Communist Party were too. None of these prisoners was allowed to write or draw during their incarceration, with two weeks of solitary confinement being the punishment. Nevertheless, el-Salahi managed to draw on the brown paper bags food was distributed in and buried them in the dirt of the cell floor so that his generation of ideas would not become dull. 

After his release in 1976, El-Salahi did not remain in Sudan for much longer. Two years later, he exiled himself and resided in Qatar, eventually settling in Oxford, UK. His work was the subject of the Tate Modern’s first contemporary retrospective of an African artist in 2013.


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