The work of pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (b. 1937) is presented in a major exhibition organised by Serpentine and Sharjah Art Foundation in collaboration with the Africa Institute, Sharjah. On view this autumn at London’s Serpentine South, the exhibition builds on the artist’s first institutional retrospective, Women in Crystal Cubes, organised by Sharjah Art Foundation in 2016.
Ishag has forged a unique and expansive practice which is not defined by a singular style or movement. Her work embraces and expresses different landscapes, histories and subjects in relation to her experience of them. The exhibition celebrates the breadth and importance of her oeuvre, presenting works that have never been shown before, and offering international audiences insights into her myriad worlds.
Ishag’s work is rooted in diverse subjects including women, spiritualism and the narratives of Sudanese culture. The exhibition will feature works created from the 1960s to the present, ranging from large-scale oil paintings, works on paper, painted calabashes, screens and leather drums. Her graphic design practice and material from her personal archive will also be on view and will contextualise her prolific career and life experiences while she was living and working predominantly in Sudan, in addition to a brief period of self-exile in London and Muscat in the 1990s and early 2000s.
One of her newer paintings Blues for the Martyrs (2022) pays homage to the Khartoum Massacre (Majzarat al-Qiyada), of June 2019, where hundreds of people were killed and injured during a peaceful protest. Ishag explores the relationship between humans and their natural environment by imagining the victims of this massacre growing into rising, plant-like forms. This theme also finds presence in Bait Al-Mal (2019) where the artist maps the familial interconnections and memories within the landscape of her childhood neighbourhood, from which the work borrows its title. Families are linked through the roots of the trees which intertwine and unite them with their surrounding environment.
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag is a leading modernist from Sudan, whose five-decade practice has been profoundly influential for the wider Arab and African modern art scenes. Among the first women to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963, Ishag was part of the Khartoum school before co-founding the Crystalist Group in the mid-1970s; a conceptual art movement invested in moving beyond traditional, male, Sudanese-Islamic frameworks. The Crystalist manifesto, which she co-signed with her students, called for a new aesthetics focusing on transparency and multiplicity.
Ishag’s practice is deeply informed by Sudan’s cultural history, ranging from the prehistoric to the Christian and Islamic eras. She is also influenced by mythology, flora in her garden in Khartoum, and stories of spirits passed down by generations of elder women. Her interest in the work of English painter and poet William Blake, in particular his exploration of spirituality and incarnation through the sublime power of poetry, resonates with her own contemplation of Sudanese healing and spirit rituals, called Zar. Ishag is known for her paintings often with distorted faces and figures, rendered in earthly and muted tones.
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness is organised by Sharjah Art Foundation and Serpentine, in collaboration with The Africa Institute, Sharjah. It is co-curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director, Sharjah Art Foundation; Salah M. Hassan, Director, The Africa Institute, and Professor at Cornell University; and Melissa Blanchflower, Curator Exhibitions and Public Art; with Sarah Hamed, Assistant Curator Serpentine.