In the middle of the twentieth century, many African intellectuals developed an anti-colonial thought, and that gave rise to artistic and literary practices expressing aspirations for liberation from European colonisation. 

In the middle of the twentieth century, many African intellectuals developed an anti-colonial thought, and that gave rise to artistic and literary practices expressing aspirations for liberation from European colonisation. In France, Jean-Paul Sartre’s support for the ‘Negritude’ movement, which made of him the first great European philosopher who wrote about African thought, gave the movement wide acceptance in other European countries. It was in this cultural climate that the first Sudanese writers and artists claimed being part of the world of modernity. The poets of the ‘Jungle and the Desert’ began experimenting with new forms of poetry, musicians and singers introduced western musical instruments to enrich local urban music, visual artists asked what do we have, as Sudanese, to add to modern art? The answer to this question constituted the core of the efforts of the first Sudanese school of visual arts: the ‘Khartoum School’.

Osman Waqialla (1925-2007), Ibrahim El Salahi (1930--), Ahmad Mohammed Shibrain (1931-2017) and Majzub Rabbah (1930-1999) were considered the founders of this school, defining art as: search for, and reflection of, characteristics of Sudanese culture. Though the four artists shared this vision, each of them articulated it differently in his works. The paintings of El Salahi were inspired by the mythologies, fairy tales and visual symbols derived from Sudanese material culture. His famous painting ‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams’ (1961) is the best example of this period, in which he extensively practiced monochromatic painting, gradually leaving it behind by the middle of the seventies. In his calligraphic works, Shibrain invested potentialities of design in Arabic script, concentrating on line and shape as basic element of expression. Waqialla, who opened the first studio of art in Khartoum (‘Osman Studio’ 1954-1964) defined his project as an effort to retrieve the spontaneity of calligraphic expression, stressing the necessity to dispense with the ornamental traditions introduced by the Turks in the Ottoman era. His medium was Sudanese-Kufi, a distinguished form of Arabic calligraphy that developed in western and central countries of Africa. Rabbah opened the first studio for textile design in Khartoum Bahri in 1962, his professional training in textile design endowed him with the ability to observe and analyse techniques of image making in Sudanese traditional dress-making and body adornment.  In the early sixties he created unique techniques: a synthesis of colour effects of wax, sun burning and henna which produced harmonious tones of brown on wood. While the colors and forms of Rabbah’s works are perceived by the viewer as naturally produced, because they are well woven with the grains and texture of the wooden surface; they were actually highly controlled by the artist in a non-noticeable way.

These features, which reflected a common interest in Arabic culture, were connected in the works of these artists with an appeal to African sculpture, masks, paintings and decorations. Noting this in the early sixties, Dennis Williams (1923-1998), a Guyanese painter and archaeologist teaching art in Sudan, believed that this combination of Arabic and African elements constituted the distinctive feature of the works of those artists, compared to that of their contemporaries in west and east Africa. The name ‘Khartoum School’ was accepted as an illustration of this conception that would later be reflected in the works of many artists taught by the founders of the school, main among them being: Salih al-Zaaki (1940-1916), Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq (1939- ) and Ibrahim al-Awaam (1935- 2017). 

Today, El Salahi remains the best-known artist of the ‘Khartoum School’, due to his ability to develop a personal language of line and basic colours. In his works named ‘Oxford Trees’, El Salahi represented the Haraaz tree, firmly standing to symbolize his strong attachment to his national culture and collective memory. The greatest achievement of El Salahi, and the ‘Khartoum School’ in general, is the elevation of Sudanese contribution in the field of visual arts to a status that allowed for exhibiting his works beside those of the icons of European modernity in the international museums and galleries.

Still today, the visual vocabulary of the ‘Khartoum School’ is recalled from time to time, consciously or unconsciously revealed here and there in the works of the young generation of Sudanese artists, although the ideas behind this vocabulary are not accepted by many of them.

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