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

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Pioneer Costume Designer, Artist and Expert in Sudanese Dress, Saadia Al-Salahi

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Above, still from Heroic Bodies (trailer) directed by Sara Suliman, subtitled in English and recently screened at The British Embassy in Khartoum. The film explores issues of feminism, womanism and bodily autonomy through the powerful testimonies of leading Sudanese women intellectuals and activists. In the trailer Saadia Al-Salahi recounts the bridal custom of “cutting the rahat.

More on Sudanese rituals in ” A Sip from Tattooed lips”

Anointing in Robes of Red and Gold Karkar, Dilka and Dukhan

Incense (بخور bakhūr) in Sudan

Above, a sketch tribute to Saadia Al-Salahi, featuring the vibrant blue toub she wore for the Aljazeera interview linked below, against a backdrop of the patched robes of the Mahdiyya; an era whose costumes and textiles she specialized in. Al-Salahi was fascinated by the symbolism of colour in Sudanese dress and folklore (more on this below).

Pioneer Costume Designer, Artist and Expert in Sudanese Dress, Saadia Al-Salahi

This week’s post is a tribute to the late costume designer, artist, folklorist, collector and conserver of cultural artifacts, including ceramics, jewelry and musical instruments, Saadia Al-Sahali. Scroll down to the end of the article for the Arabic sources consulted.

“All artists search from within themselves, not from what is before them.” Saadia Al-Salahi on the creativity of Sudanese women at a time when they faced many challenges, رنامج «العديل و الزين» “قناة النيل الأزرق” “عيد الأضحى 2014

A Visionary Approach

Her Life and Work

Her Collection

A Visionary Approach

Perhaps what strikes you first is the softly-spoken, yet warm sense of authority whenever Saadia Al-Salahi pays tribute to the daily creativity of Sudanese life in her homeland’s clothes, artifacts and rituals. For Saadia Al-Salahi, artistic sensibility informs Sudan’s cultural fabric; it is everywhere and much of it flows from the steady, often unsung intelligence and artistry of her women.

Urging the younger generation to embrace outside cultural influences that enrich while remaining true to their cultural identity (هذه قصتي: مصممة الأزياء السودانية سعدية الصلحي), Saadia Al-Salahi also delighted in and prized the diversity within Sudan, stressing the esthetic interplay of African, Arab, Muslim and ancient Sudanese cultures and the unique role of local rural and urban interpretations of form and ritual. In the 1960s she designed a practical and culturally modest robe alternative to the toub for Sudanese women using public transport after seeing their constant struggles to control its many folds while getting on and off buses.

“The African hairstyle was widespread in Sudan, worn even by the Queen Amanitore, one of the most famous women of her time” ; Saadia Al-Salahi, quoted by Amani Mohammed El Obeid, in her article, A Pioneer Costume Designer from Sudan; what clothes say about society; Women in Islam, SIHA Journal, Issue 3 2017. Al-Salahi was to emphasize too the ubiquity and wealth of head coverings among Sudanese cultures.

Above, some of Saadia Al-Salahi’s extensive collection of costumes, textiles and cultural artifacts.

As a member of the African Designers Society, (1968) and in collaboration with Kamala Ishaq Saadia Al-Salahi inspired, mentored and encouraged Sudanese women artists and artisans through numerous traveling exhibitions and training courses. She journeyed tirelessly within Sudan, often intrepidly, documenting, collecting and conserving regional handicrafts, artisan skills and ceremonial costume at a time when lack of infrastructure and funding, coupled with political instability, had led to the loss of many of the country’s culturally unique artifacts – a result, some Sudanese sources claim, of the unwarranted selling off or gifting of these cultural assets. Although she also traveled extensively outside Sudan when the lure of emigration was strong for many Sudanese intellectuals, Sudanese sources affectionately recall that she always yearned to return to her ancestral Omdurman home, redolent with history, where, with her brother, artist Ibrahim Al-Salahi, she welcomed guests with wonderful breakfasts, the warmest hospitality and witty insights. Sometimes, too, in animated conversation, she would enchant guests with examples of some of her exquisitely sewn reproductions of Blue Sultanate and Mahdiyya dress.

Photos above, Rashaida and other tribal artifacts from the Sudan Ethnographic Museum, left, and above, Rashaida tribeswomen “wearing ceremonial masks”, Sisters under the Sun, Marjorie Hall and Bakhita Amin Ismail.

For more on Ibrahim Al-Salahi, see Birds of the Soul

Her Life and Work

Saadia Al-Salahi (1941-2022) was born into a family of intellectuals, social reformers, and artists, prominent in the fields of civil service and education. Her maternal great grandfather, Hamad Hamid Jabrallah had provisioned the Mahdist revolutionary forces with grain before settling in Omdurman and her father was a noted sheikh and calligrapher.

Her fascination for costume and textiles started young; “When she was three years old, she used to turn the sugar canes and pieces of cloth brought by her father into flutes and dresses for her dolls”, relates Amani Mohammed El-Obeid in her 2017 SIHA interview. In رنامج «العديل و الزين» “قناة النيل الأزرق” “عيد الأضحى Al-Salahi passionately recalls the moment as a child, when she was taunted while trying to master the embroidered stitching used in finishing prayer caps. Already sewing at home all manner of household items by herself, and stung by being dismissed as incapable of learning the stitches and even cruelly spiked with her needle, Saadia remained undeterred; defiant, even. When she realized she wouldn’t be able to make clothes for her dolls, she briefly ran away from school and, from then on, she says, sought out anything and everything related to costume and textiles, focusing first on wedding and other traditional ceremonial attire.

Photo, right, Aulad Hamid silver and amber ornament, Der Dunkle Erteil, Afrika, Berlin, 1930.

Above, detail of Al-Salahi’s costume, inspired by the dress of Nubian queen, Amanitore (50 CE). Using detailed observation of sculptures, Al-Salahi recreated the garments worn in ancient times. During her time as Head Costume Designer, she “analyzed how clothing and handicraft reflected societal power dynamics and demonstrated the influence of women” (Amani Mohammed El-Obeid, as above)

El-Obeid relates that Saadia Al-Salah went on to study at Cairo Higher Institute of Fine Art, Design and Decor (1965), where she developed her interest in painting. She was a keen sketcher in her youth and lamented later in fife that she had no time to devote to it. She later returned to Sudan to study at Khartoum’s College of Fine and Applied Art, where she specialized in costume and folklore. In 1968 she joined the Sudanese Ministry of Culture as the first Sudanese national to hold the position of Head Costume Designer (Amani Mohammed el-Obeid). Saadia Al-Salahi was, throughout this time, a tireless reader and traveler, seeking out rural Sudanese folklore and crafts.

Al-Salahi immersed herself in Sudan’s museums, dedicating years to the reproduction and conservation of costumes of the Mahdiyya era in Omdurman’s recently renovated House of the Khalifa – many of which would have been lost without her fierce commitment to preserving Sudanese heritage. A commitment that emboldened her, after repeated explanations that the piece was not for sale, to demand an outrageous two billion dollars from an importuning sheikh determined to buy the verse-inscribed sword of Al-Mak Adlan, son of al-Mak Nimr, during an international exhibition. A cool determination she displayed too in the face of danger; Al-Salahi was almost killed by a Beja man hiding a knife and trying to prevent a cameraman from entering the women’s quarters “while I was taking pictures of women and objects there.” (El-Obeid, as above).

Her study of the Mahdiyya gave her detailed insight into the evolution of the costume of the time and the role of the Khalifa in the design and popularizing of what were to become the emblematic uniforms of the Mahdist forces, their colours, symbols and flags. She noted that the patched jibba was in fact introduced under the Khalifa’s and not the Mahdi’s leadership.

Among the many fascinating insights Saadia Al-Salahi brought us over her long research career – she only retired at the age of 75, were those related to the symbolism of colour. She talks entertainingly of the symbolic role and resonances of red in Sudanese dress and folklore in رنامج «العديل و الزين» “قناة النيل الأزرق” “عيد الأضحى. Her research also led her to the conclusion that black was worn in the Darfur Sultanate to welcome guests, while red was associated with death and orange with adventure and hunting (El-Obeid) and that in Sennar, the use of colour was central to the expression of social status. (Photos above, items from her collection).

Over her lifetime, Saadia Al-Salahi amassed a precious collection of Sudanese artifacts. You can see a selection in:

Sudan Memory; Saadia AlSalahi


وداعاً سعدية الصلحي

سعدية الصلحي: السودانوية في أبهى صورها

هذه قصتي: مصممة الأزياء السودانية سعدية الصلحي

برنامج «العديل و الزين» “قناة النيل الأزرق” “عيد الأضحى

الفنانة التشكيلية سعدية الصلحي

This is a cultural post for Women’s Education Partnership.

Women’s Education Partnership

Learn more about our women’s literacy, orphans schooling and university scholarship projects programmes below:

Opening Doors – Our Women’s Literacy Programme

Our University Scholarships giving bright young women the chance to go to university

Scenes from Our Orphans’ Schooling Programme and From Hardship to Hope Our Orphans Schooling Programme

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