Kamala Ibrahim Ishag’s remarkable career as a visionary artist and intellectual catalyst began after her graduation in 1963 from the College of Fine and Applied Art, Khartoum. Between 1964 and 1966, she studied mural painting at the Royal College of Art, London, and after her return to Sudan in 1966, she spent three decades as a tenured professor in the painting department of her Khartoum alma mater. Her status as a pioneering figure in Sudan’s modern art movement and the larger Arab and African modern art scenes is most evident in her role in the formation of the Crystalist School, a conceptual art movement she co-founded in the mid-1970s to move beyond the Sudanese-Islamic framework. Ishag’s paintings of the period explore and expand on the principles of the Crystalist Manifesto, which she co-signed with a group of her former students. Her works of that time focus on the intangible aspects of women’s experiences in society, nature and spiritual communication.
Ishag’s studies at the Royal College of Art were formative to her career. Her early interest in the work of the English painter and writer William Blake, in particular his exploration of spirituality and incarnation through the sublime power of poetry, resonated with her own contemplation of Sudanese women’s spirit possession practices known as Zar. These influences are reflected in the distorted faces and figures of the women in her work, mostly rendered in dark monochromic tones of brown and other muted colours. Even when brighter colours are used, the artist has rigorously muted the palette. Group of Women in a Trance Spiritual Procession (1984), a work inspired by the brooding, figurative paintings of Francis Bacon, is representative of these influences.