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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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Above, detail from Kamala Ishaq’s Awaiting the Birth of a Child, 2015 and 2017, exhibited in Forests and Spirits, Figurative Art from the Khartoum School, at the Saatchi Gallery, until 24th November, 2018.


The Artist, Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq, screenshot from Institut Français Soudan interview (view full video below)

This is a cultural post by WomensLiteracySudan, see Community Literacy



Detail from Three Trees, by Kamala Ishaq, 2016

Kamala Ishaq, now in her energetic eighties, remains one of the most original and groundbreaking of Sudanese artists. While she insists modestly that she was not the first woman admitted to the Khartoum’s College of Fine and Applied Art in the early 60’s – a handful of primary and intermediate teachers from the Ministry of Education, she is quick to remind us,  were also admitted at the time – she was the first female student to attend in her own right.

She forged and continues to forge pioneering roles as researcher, educator, faculty head, mentor and artist. Her Crystalist movement enriched, challenged and reworked The Khartoum School’s understanding of Sudanese cultural and Sufi artistic heritage,  adding an internationalist and conceptual perspective to the mix.   Her fascination and talent for large scale work – she gestures with quiet pride to the vast canvasses that line her studio walls – led to her central role in creating the mural in The National Museum entrance hall in Khartoum, where she depicts the cultural heritage of Sudan’s prehistoric and Christian periods.

The fascinating interview in Arabic above,”Exposition Kamala 2017/11″,  was given by Kamala Ishaq to The Institut Français Soudan in 2017.  

Below I try to capture the essence of the interview.  My formal translation of the interview in English is available on request. I am indebted to Muna Zaki for her indispensable help in advising on the accuracy of the translation.


The Painter at Work – Screenshot from Institut Français video, Exposition Kamala 

Forests and Spirits 


There is a link, a deep bond connecting plants and humans.  They both come from the same life source. We are born, eat plants,  die and become food for them and new plants spring from the soil in their turn.  It’s a circle. The eternal circle. WaHda, WaHda – all is oneness – Kamala Ishaq in her interview


Kamala Ishaq raises a fine and perfectly arched eyebrow as she gathers her thoughts, her face framed by the luminous, sap-laden fronds of turquoise and green leaves flowing down the vast canvas behind her.  There’s a sense of urgency in her tone now – something intensely personal she wants to get across to the viewer.

We still have the two trees planted by my grandparents all those lifetimes ago in our garden here, she explains, and every year when the men come to prune them, I beg them – please don’t be brutal with them; please don’t take the axe to them and harm them.  Cut them gently with something that’s gentle – nothing hard or metallic.  You know, when someone dies who has planted and loved a tree, the tree will often die too. I love plants. I greet them in the morning.  I worry if my  plants are too hot or cold and I can’t cover them or protect them from the elements. 


Three Trees – Kamala Ishaq, in Forests and Spirits, Saatchi Gallery, London Exhibition Saatchi Gallery Forests and Spirits

Kamala Ishaq’s deep personal connectedness with the plant world flows into and transforms the women who inhabit her canvasses. The urgent presence of these women challenged the prevailing norms of the Sudanese artistic world of her youth and continue to do so today.  Both disruptive and unsettling, these figures “opposed – or at least troubled – the masculine empirical world view” of the day, claims Anneka Lenssen in We Painted the Crystal. The Crystalist Manifesto (Khartoum, 1976) in Context, 2018.


Detail, Awaiting the Birth of a Child, Kamala Ishaq, Forests and Spirits, Saatchi Gallery

Trees and sinuous vegetable shapes spring from the heads of her subjects, weaving delicate living tissue, half cerebral, half organic, which both encloses her figures and allows their edges is dissolve, radiating outwards, like ink on blotting paper. Female limbs become gnarled roots or swaying tree trunks engrained with shadowy dark-eyed faces; forms and figures expressing what Anneka Lenssen describes as the “alternative kind of interior knowledge” the Crystalists sought to express in visual form.


Detail from The Seat, Zar Ceremony, 2016


Detail from The Three Trees 

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.  Some see nature all ridicule and deformity ……and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself” William Blake 

As a young art student in London, Kamala Ishaq returned again and again to the paintings and illuminated poetry of William Blake and as Blake did, she finds constant artistic inspiration in the natural world. And perhaps the organic fluidity of the natural world also informs her creative process:


I start on the canvas directly. I don’t make sketches first.  Then as my thoughts and ideas evolve, I add to the work or erase part of it and bring to it something else. In the end,  the canvas is a different thing from what it was at the beginning but there’s no sketch. 

It is a creative process rooted too in an uncompromising self-discipline,  for to be successful, she says, an artist must paint, draw or create every day without fail.  Every day.  I have done this all my life.  Rising early, after performing her prayers, reading a little and taking her morning tea, she explains, she then begins work and will often work all day, sometimes stopping only for meals.

I draw or paint every day. It doesn’t matter what it is – small drawings, sketches or larger pieces. What matters is to work every day.   Sometimes, just to show that I can indeed work on small scale pieces, I work in miniature. 


 Kamala Ishaq’s youthful hands during the interview 

Childhood is central too to her creative world: everything comes from childhood; I keep returning to it; memories of childhood, its complexities and events, she emphasizes, tantalizingly, just at the end of the interview.


Photos Imogen Thurbon

Forests and Spirits 



Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: that I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy &. speak Parables unobserved & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals – William Blake 

It was while in London that Kamala Ishaq became fascinated by Blake’s understanding  of how his spiritual life inspired artistic and literary creation in an era when belief in mesmerism and healing by communicating with spirits was gaining popularity.  The complex artistic and spiritual interplay of what he believed to be the prophetic revelations of his “rebel angels”, the artistic imagination  and  divinely inspired “poetic genius” were central to his creative life.

Kamala Ishaq saw artistic and anthropological parallels between Blake’s spiritual world and that of the Sudanese zar ceremony where women and sometimes men gather to placate, converse and bargain with the spirits said to possess them in intense ritual and symbolic dramas which often echo and subvert both Sudanese wedding ceremonies and gender/power dynamics. On her return to Khartoum, she undertook field research and delivered academic papers on the zar phenomenon.

..” a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars” One of many childhood visions Blake reported to his parents.


William Blake – All Religions are One 

Ishaq is careful in the interview to emphasize the zar as a means of psychological healing for the women attending but she returns frequently to this porous and spiritually ambiguous world in her paintings where misshapen female forms are wreathed in the incense used to summon up spirit forces. Wispy trails of  red and ochre of the  riiH aHmar – red wind  – signaling the spirit’s presence, merge with the darker tones of incense smoke.  Often at the centre of painting there is a point of intense light  representing, according to Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi in his video analysis of one of her zar paintings,  the possessed woman at the heart of the drama. Lenssen (see above) see these works as part of the tradition of “tales of spirits in Sudan learnt at the knees of the grandmothers, inflected by a pedagogical interest in translating Sudanese cultural forms into artistic use.”

In a gentle poke at her critics and with a hint of a smile, Kalama Ishaq reminds us that she knows full well how to draw representationally.  Her choice is deliberate:

I know how to draw. These physical distortions come from inside – from life, from circumstances. They are mental or psychological.  


The River of Life by William Blake 

“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, an in between, there are doors ” – William Blake


Details from Kamal Ishaq’s Zar-related works at Forests and Spirits, The Saatchi Gallery 


Detail from The Seat – Zar Ceremony, 2016, Forests and Spirits, Saatchi Gallery 

Forests and Spirits Unified

In both her natural and supernatural works, Kamala Ishaq recognizes the multidimensionality of the natural world:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

William Blake, Aurugies of Innocence


The Cosmos is a project of a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth. The Crystalists – Manifesto  Aware – Crystalists

This understanding was to become a pivotal element of the Crystalist School she founded.  The inter-permeability of the material and supernatural worlds, at once transparent and  contradictory, with their symmetry and distortion, has informed her work from the very beginning of her artistic life.

Useful Links 

Exploring the Modern Art Movement of Sudan

Sharjah Art Foundation Women in Crystal Cubes.

“… a world infinite and unbounded” – describing the Crystalist worldview – the artistic movement Ishaq founded, extract by Anneka Lenssen in We Painted the Crystal, The Crystalist Manifesto (Khartoum, 1976) in Context, 2018.

*The name Kamala was chosen by her parents who were admirers of Nehru and his Congress Party and appeared as the Title of his book “Kamala”.


2 comments on “Forests and Spirits

  1. Nora Tarmann says:

    Beautiful ! Thank you for sharing this !


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