Kamala Ishag at The Serpentine
Kamala Ishag – A Homecoming – Setting the Scene – A Homecoming; Bait Al-Mal
A Selection of Works Exhibited
Setting the Scene
Above, Kamala Ishag’s 2019 painting, Bait Al-Mal.
Title photo and below; her 2017 work, Lady Grown in a Tree, depicting a woman one reviewer describes as “in a vortex of branches, as much consumed as she is being given life.” Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: memory maps and rumours of djinns. Consumed or organically unified with the natural world; an ancient Sudanese Green Man world, rich with folklore?
Above, Lady Grown in a Tree, 2017.
Both these imposing large scale pieces form part of Serpentine Galleries and Sharjah Art Foundation’s exhibition; Kamala Ishag; States of Oneness, at Serpentine South, London until 29th January, 2023, in collaboration with The Africa Institute, Sharjah. The exhibition 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.
Visit the exhibition website and enjoy a virtual tour of some of the works displayed in:
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness
Above, first slide, a young but self-assured Ishag in 1965 at her London studio at the Royal College of Art. One of the many delights of this exhibition are the poignant photos of Ishag as a young artist in Sudan and abroad, her notebooks and early book and journal illustrations, on display for the first time in London.
Slide 2) Kamala Ishag at 18, Sudan, 3) Ishag in 1973 at the Goethe Institute in Khartoum for a group exhibition, 4) African Contemporary Art Exhibition, Howard University, Washington DC, 1977, 5) Note and photo by Harlem Renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones after visiting Ishag in Khartoum 20th December 1970, 6) Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, Khartoum 1960s.
More background on Kamala Ishag’s creative career and artistic legacy in
All photos in this article were taken with permission of the Serpentine Gallery.
Kamala Ishag – A Homecoming
There’s something consoling about Kamala Ishag’s 2019 elegy to her childhood Omdurman home in Bait Al-Mal, pictured above. Tenderly plotting the ancestral, folkloric and spiritual root system that sustains her home community, Ishag narrates and navigates, in the manner almost of song lines, memory, myth and healing interconnectedness of the human and natural world. Tree roots flow and merge into the tendril web of human paths. The trees themselves have talisman eyes; watchful and protective. Paths halo the tiny, plant-flecked, white-robed – or are they shrouded? – figures, echos of the angels of the medieval Nubian Christian frescos that were to inform Ishag’s early work. We are drawn in by the scene’s friendly intricacy and reassured, rather than daunted, by its sheer scale for this, she is telling us, is just part of a vast, ever-extending web of interconnections. The only boundaries here are those made by the trees and they are benign, sheltering ones.
Photo, left, detail from Bait Al-Mal, and the leaf-like halos and shadows in luminous washes of greens and browns over a sand-toned surface.” Kamal Ibrahim Ishag’s Fluid, Untethered Modernism
“There was, apparently, one corner of the neighbourhood that the local children, and doubtless some adults too, were afraid of: the house of a man who was possessed by a Djinn or spirit. Look closely and all you see are a homely couple seated to either side of a tree-trunk. I only know about this small detail because the artist told the curator, and the curator told me. This how rumours are spread, and this one has been doing the rounds now for a lifetime. Maybe it has been told for generations, centuries, millennia. I like this thought very much.”
In Bait al-Mal there is none of the anguish, brutal angularity or Bacon-like facial distortion of Ishag’s other work. There is no sense of the thwarted, fractured or defiant about her female figures here. Rather, a sense that the pathways of her home and life’s groundings are gently being retraced. And Kamala Ishag’s exhibition at the Serpentine is, as she acknowledges, a very personal homecoming; returning after almost sixty years to where she had studied as a young student:
‘It is very special for me to have this exhibition at Serpentine as I studied close to Hyde Park at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s and I have spent time living in London. I have completed new paintings for this exhibition which will be shown alongside works from across my career. These are all connected by images of humans and plants – the vital elements that constitute all life. It is wonderful to be working with Serpentine, Sharjah Art Foundation and The Africa Institute on this project...”The Africa Institute. Photo, right, detail from Bait Al-Mal.
Ishag speaks about her childhood home in Bait Al-Mal and the role plants, especially trees, play in her life and work in the 7-minute Serpentine Galleries film (English subtitles), directed by Suzanna Mirghani below:
Below, The Times Review of the exhibition of Contemporary African Art, featuring Ishag’s work at Camden Arts Centre, 1969. Ishag was to acknowledge the influence on her evolving style of both William Blake and Francis Bacon, whose restrained use of colour she admired, as well as that of haunting distortions of human faces she saw reflected in London underground train windows.
States of Oneness sweeps us along the arc of Ishag’s creative trajectory and the themes that thread through her art. From photos of her early, muted ochre and brown murals inspired by Sudan’s prehistoric and Christian artistic past (Kamala Ishaq at Sudan National Museum), whose themes are reprised in recent years on canvas and drum hide (see below), on to illuminated manuscripts of sacred verses, through her Crystalist period, turning to her recurring fascination with women, both as isolated, conflicted figures and as protagonists and communal beings, on through her explorations of zār ritual with its spirit reds, to her green and blue palette celebrations of the organic and God-imbued oneness of human and plant world which inspires her.
And it is the glistening, almost amniotic spheres of lush greens and blues that encircle, contain and seem to spawn life that recur as the leitmotif of this exhibition. Hard boundaries of isolation, anguish; atomization of experience are dissolved and transformed into round and cyclical wholeness of existence, both spiritual and organic. We sense Ishag has come full circle too, re-asserting what nourishes her. Photo above left and below, detail from Partition; Man with his Tree Wife, Figure, Reflection, oil on wood 1973/ 2016. Right, spheres dense with life and energy abound in her recent work.
Leaves, shoots and vegetation rise like wisps of spirit from limbs and faces; glass vessels of water cradle stalks that flow into pools of vegetation that in turn flow back and sustain the female forms gathered around them.
Below, detail from Gathering, 2015.
Below, a selection of Kamala Ishag’s works from States of Oneness
Green and Earth – Blue – Women, the Self Divided and at One
Green and Earth
Below, Two Women, Eve and Eve.
Learn more about Ishag’s lifelong fascination with plants and vegetation in Forests and Spirits.
Below, details from works exhibited in States of Oneness. Tender fronds, leaves, ferns and flowers crowd the canvas. Plant-like spirit forms float and merge into fluid backgrounds and leaf faces frame and entwine her female figures.
Below, one of Ishag’s most recent works, the stunning Blue for the Martyrs 2022 and centre piece of the exhibition.
“In Blues for the Martyrs she depicts clusters of round faces floating in bubbles amid a tracery of waving, leafy stems, rather like fish eggs among waterweeds, against a blue watery background. The painting refers to the massacre of peaceful protesters, raped, shot and drowned in Khartoum in 2019.” Kamala Ibrahim Ishag review
Above, Guarding Angels, 2015.
Women; the Self Divided and at One
Women remain integral to Kamala Ishag’s work; dark, divided, distorted by psychological or societal pressures, or calm, whole figures, framed by or integrated into the blue, green and earth tones surrounding them.
Below, Loneliness, 1987. “I tend to be stringent in the use of colour in my artworks. Even when i use hot, shiny or bright colours, I intentionally make it look matte or lustreless, avoiding high ‘voiced’ colours that impact the presence of other visual objects in my works”; Kamala Ishag in Serpertine exhibition notes.
Below, the fluid, energetic, joyful form of Peacock Woman, 2015.
Below, Four Faces of Eve, 2016, and one of Ishag’s many zār paintings, where red hues evoke spirit possession.
Below, detail from Faces in a Glass Tube,1998. In the Crystalist school she co-founded, the Cosmos is likened to “a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth, where many truths can be held at once; such that whatever is infinite may be finite, too, and delineation need not be synonymized with division.”
Below, images of women infinitely refracted through crystal prisms, multifaceted, wreathed in and grafting stems and leaves; red -tinged protagonists and conduits of zār rites (see too Forests and Spirits), and as distorted forms accentuated by the curved surfaces of painted gourds.
Learn more about zār in Incense (بخور bakhūr) in Sudan
Below, Other Themes
Below, top left, La Pieta Madonna, 2014, homaging medieval Sudanese Christian imagery, prehistoric forms (middle right) on drum skin, recalling Ishag’s large scale mural work (Kamala Ishaq at Sudan National Museum, and sacred text illuminated.
Read more on the exhibition in: