by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
The crumbling state of democracy in the past two decades has pushed the citizens of the nation-state to reaffirm the tenets of the republic. The demonstration, protests and resistance against the stifling tolerance, if have seen an exponential rise, they hold a promise to restore the beauty of living together. Kamala Ibrahim Ishag’s survey States of Oneness at Serpentine South Gallery, London extends myriad ways of weaving a state of unity. The exhibition is an extension of the recent solo exhibitions organised by the Sharjah Art Foundation. The extensive exhibition of Ishag’s work at the venue of Serpentine Gallery, in London, serves as a personal connection with the artist since she was at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s.
The Sudanese artist Ishag, having made art for six decades has emphasized the world populated with human figures in the earthly hues of yellow, orange, and blue. The expanse of her artistic oeuvre is evident from the extensive survey that consists of large-scale oil paintings, works on paper, painted objects, painted calabashes as well as screens and leather drums. Additionally, it displays the graphic design practice endorsed by the artist.
Ishag was one of the first women to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in the 1960s. She is known as the foundational figure in the modern art movement in Sudan - an amalgamation of Arab and African traditions. Touted as a pioneer in African art, Ishag saw Khartoum School’s patriarchal vision at work and decided to disavow its prominence on traditions. Subsequently, she established the Crystalist Group with a group of her students. The group defied the conventional perspective of a male-dominated society and identity-driven Sudanese art scene in the favour of a heterogeneous society.
In an interview with STIR, Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, states how this exhibition of the works by Ishag speaks to the current audience, “Though Kamala has been working for over 60 years, her work remains just as exciting and innovative now as it was when she started. She is never conformed to a single style or movement, so she has an incredible range that is clear to see in a show like this, which brings together over 60 works from across her career. On a broader level, we are in a moment where history is being re-examined to give due attention to the people and stories that have often been overlooked. This exhibition puts the focus on one such artist and her significant contributions to the arc of art history.”
The seamless flow of union between flora and humans suggests a cyclic way of life where every move is interdependent on the shift made by the bodies present in the scene. From the art of sharing stories across the intergenerational women of the family, and the home garden to the field research with spiritualist women performing ‘Zaar’ ceremonies of healing — all participated in the making of art by Ishag that is displayed in the exhibition. Whether it was the ‘visionary subjects’ of William Blake or the ‘distorted figures’ of Francis Bacon, Ishag saw their uncanny resemblance with human figures travelling in the underground trains of London in the 1960s. Irrevocably, the personal archival material and visual translations of her own experiences and landscape are integral to the visual language set into motion by Ishag's practice.
Here the role of memory holds a central value as it permeates nearly all of Ishag’s works. “Many times her works reflect collective memories such as the broader experiences shared by women in Sudan or, as in the case of her newest painting, Blues for the Martyrs”, informs Al Qasimi, “the communal sorrow in the aftermath of a traumatic event. In either case, the memories she infuses into her works make them feel both personal and universal, grounded in a specific context but speaking to something larger that connects individuals, communities and generations.” The painting Zaar, populated with free-floating human figures surrounding the figures standing in a circle, is a manifestation of what the artist saw in London and what her personal memories of spiritual healing are. Both the works Blues for the Martyrs and Zaar are peppered with people who sustain, survive and depart collectively. Here the states of oneness are not rooted in similarities and familiarities, but in the field of solidarity and sharing. The exchange between “landscapes, histories and subjects” expresses a global appeal to underline “spirituality, kinship and human relationships” with the world of nature. It is this cosmopolitan experience led by Ishag, which oriented her practice to a pluriversal field – undefined by a singular–ism or pedagogical discipline.
The art exhibition promises to let the audience draw an appreciation for Ishag’s rich art practice and her talent, whether they were aware of her work beforehand or not. Al Qasimi hopes that her work offers visitors a new perspective on at least one thing, such as the many forms of spirituality or the interconnectedness of nature and humanity.
The exhibition States of Oneness is on view at Serpentine South Gallery until 29 January 2023.