Kamala Ibrahim Ishag review – memory cards and jinn rumors from the Sudanese mystical painter | Art
In her painting Bait al-Mal, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag presents us with the district of Khartoum where she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. This large, mainly dark canvas presents groups of figures in a sort of diagram of their connections and interrelationships. Instead of streets and corners, we trace winding, branching networks of families, friendships and associations. We will never end these looping, bifurcating and splitting lines. All around the painting, simplified trees, and it is their tangle of spreading roots that provides the tangle of these relationships. A beautiful whimsical painting, Bait al-Mal is as much a memory card as it is a description of a place. I think the Sudanese painter was also telling herself a story, and as much as she was drawing with a brush, she was also remembering, and making things up as she went along, getting lost and finding herself along the paths her mind took . .
There was, it seems, a corner of the neighborhood that the children of the neighborhood, and probably also some adults, were afraid of: the house of a man possessed by a Djinn or a spirit. Look closely and all you see is a welcoming couple sitting on either side of a tree trunk. I only know this little detail because the artist told the curator, and the curator told me. That’s how rumors spread, and this one has been around for a lifetime. Perhaps it has been told for generations, centuries, millennia. I really like this thought.
Ishag’s paintings often date back to stories told by his grandmothers. Past and present collide, and Ishag’s paintings at the Serpentine are filled with such memories and stories, many of which remain unexplained and inaccessible. There is a mixture of folk and religious, Christian and Islamic, pagan and secular in Ishag’s art, all reflecting the convergence of different traditions and beliefs in his native Sudan. Now 83, the painter also studied in London in the late 1960s at the Royal College of Art before returning to Khartoum, where she became head of painting at the art school, and an inspiration to generations of students. She also lived through periods of self-imposed exile due to her country’s turbulent political situation, but she never stopped painting. Politics also enters into his art, obliquely. In Blues for the Martyrs, she depicts clusters of round faces floating in bubbles amidst a web of undulating leafy stems, much like fish eggs among seaweed, against a watery blue background. The painting references the massacre of peaceful protesters, raped, shot and drowned in Khartoum in 2019. At the heart of Ishag’s work is the place of women, which continues to be his major subject.
The Serpentine retrospective takes us, not always chronologically, from the first drawings made at art school in Sudan to her stay in London, where she was influenced by both William Blake and Francis Bacon. The two may seem irreconcilable, but in the work of both artists there is a sense of the malleability of the human body and how we are shaped by forces we cannot control. Ishag’s figures never developed much and retain an often somewhat cartoonish expressionism, although there is great tenderness in both an early drawing of dancing bare legs and a vision of a much older woman. aged in her 2017 painting Lady Grown in a Tree. The woman appears in a whirlwind of branches, as consumed as she is given life.
Sometimes Ishag’s faces can be gruesome and even vampiric. At other times they feel closer to Byzantine icons. Bodies and heads bulge and collide with the surface of a calabash. Painted figures dance on circular leather drums, and women watch, like dryads, from tree trunks. Faces appear in falling leaves and disembodied eyes peer into the greenery of a tree. Hands and fingers dance among the swooning, quivering foliage. Cracked heads give birth to roots and thoughts. No one looks exactly carefree. Ishag also said her distorted heads are derived from the reflections that caught her decades ago in the curved windows of London Underground trains.
Often, Bacon’s spatial frameworks also played a role in his development, in Khartoum, of what is called Crystalism, a movement that embraced elements of Western Conceptualism, Sufi mysticism, existentialism and many more. Whatever its aesthetic components, Crystalism marked a break with the male-dominated orthodoxies of 1970s Sudanese culture. The primary effect of Crystalism on Ishag’s art is seen in a number of works in which characters and faces are seen as imprisoned in crystal cubes or glass boxes. Ishag never gave up painting or made it subject to too many rules, although she almost always painted women – seated at tables or around decorative tablecloths, or attending long seances reserved for women. Zaar Gatherings and ceremonies (popular throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa) in which they dance and sing, tell stories, and exorcise demons. There are repeated images of women gathered around tablecloths or in clearings among the leaves. Plant life proliferates, weaving through and around these scenes of communal female life. Some of his figures are fierce, or seem troubled, assaulted by unseen forces. As she grew older, her paintings seem to have become freer and more dynamic, her color more vivid. She went her own way.