Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq (Sudan 1939) is considered a pioneering contemporary artist; her paintings where human and plant-forms intertwine, contemplate the cyclical flow of life and the intangible aspects of women’s lives in Sudan. Drawing from a diverse range of contexts, Ishaq’s work bridges the earthly and the spiritual through a deeper understanding of our relationship with the natural world.
In the early to mid-1960s, Ishaq was associated with the Khartoum School: an influential Sudanese modernist movement that forged an artistic identity for the newly independent nation – drawing on Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.
In the mid-1970s, she co-founded The Crystalists: a post-modern, conceptual group which represented a break away and a challenge to the identity-focused and male-dominated Sudanese art scene. The Crystalists depicted our perspectives of the universe as a crystal – transparent but always changing according to the viewer’s position.
Despite her integral role as a member of important 20th-century art movements in Sudan, Ishaq does not wish to be boxed into a singular category or style. Her work is inspired by the flora in her Khartoum garden, mythology, the ancient visual cultures of Sudan, and the folktales told by her mother and grandmothers.
Equally formative to her work is the field research that she carried out with spiritualist women who convene healing Zar ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region. Since her time spent studying at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1960s, she has also been inspired by William Blake’s visionary subjects, and Francis Bacon’s distorted figures and surrealist undertones.
Her exhibition States of Oneness at the Serpentine Gallery in London, traced over 60 years of her practice through large-scale oil paintings, works on paper, and painted objects including calabashes and leather drums. The pieces were grouped thematically and broadly followed a chronology, but the recurring themes of Zar, nature, and crystal cubes across her work revealed the underlying interconnections between each of her subjects.
‘Zar’ refers to possession by unwanted ‘spirits’. But it is also a female-led healing ceremony that involves ritualistic singing, ecstatic music, costumes, dancing and incense-burning. While traditional Zar convenings are not quite as widely practiced today, they were once popular in Sudan (especially in Ishaq’s hometown of Omdurman) and across other regions in the Horn of Africa, and Arabic speaking nations.
The first gallery centred on Zar ceremonies and the gathering of women in states of trance and commune, which caused their bodies and faces to become strained, contorted and twisted. Her Zar paintings shift between showing women gathered in harmonious circles and discordant crowds.
“These physical distortions come from within – from life and its circumstances. They are intangible: emotional, mental and psychological” – Ishaq
Ishaq first came across the works of visionary English artist William Blake at the Tate Gallery, while she was studying at the Royal College of Art (1964-1966). Blake’s exploration of spirituality and incarnation through the sublime power of poetry and image resonated with her own contemplation of the natural world, and her knowledge of Zar. She subsequently carried out field research into Zar practice for her RCA thesis, which significantly influenced the development of the themes and styles that went on to flow throughout her entire career.
The Crystalist Group
From the early to mid-1960s, Ishaq was associated with the Khartoum School, alongside contemporaries such as Ibrahim El Salahi and Ahmad Shibrain. Having gained independence in 1956, the school wanted to forge a modern artistic identity for Sudan that still respected its heritage – by drawing on both Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.
Ishaq later broke away from the group to become the leading figure of the conceptual Crystalist Group during the 70s and 80s. The group lent towards a postmodern style and was the first to position itself in opposition to the Khartoum School’s view. The Crystalist Manifesto – written by Ishaq’s student Muhammad Hamid Shaddad, and signed by herself and other students including Nayla El Tayeb and Hashim Ibrahim – was published in the Khartoum newspaper al-Ayyam in 1976.
Art challenges, reframes, conceptualises and contextualises paradigms and perspectives. Envisioning the universe as a transparent crystal that constantly evolves in relation to the observer’s position, the group advocated for a new aesthetic and philosophy – one modelled on diversity, transparency and existentialist theories – emphasising the non-linear and challenging historical art canons, as well as the idea of a ‘national’ movement.
Nature and Nurture
Plants and flora have appeared within Ishaq’s paintings and drawings since the 1970s, for example as studies and elements incorporated into compositions of Zar paintings. In the late 1990s, plants became a central focus for Ishaq, inspired by the abundance present in her Khartoum garden.
“the world of nature is rich in forms, and unlimited aesthetic possibilities… I believe vegetation and humans are one and the same. We grow from the soil. We eat plants for sustenance, we die and we are buried. We eventually become sustenance for plants. I consider these plants [in my garden] an extension of me.” – Ishaq
Ishaq’s more recent work is defined by a sense of interchangeability, and a metamorphosis between human and plant life. She is also inspired by mythology, folklore, and traditional tales handed down throughout the generations – proverbs from Kerma culture and Nubian civilisations.
The artistic practices of the women in her family, who would skilfully decorate items in the home, have also remained central to her work. This is one of the reasons she paints on surfaces other than traditional paper or canvas, exploring the landscapes of wooden screens, the leather tops of musical drums, and embellishing calabash gourds.
States Of Oneness
Ishaq was one of the first female artists to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963. She furthered her studies in Mural Painting at the RCA in London, and embarked on Lithography, Typography and Illustration from 1968-9.
She has since 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 experiences of them – delicately distilling individual and collective concepts into an integrated and balanced whole.
In one of her more recent pieces, Bait Al-Mal (2019) she maps the familial interconnections and memories within the landscape of her childhood neighbourhood, from which the work borrows its title. Family trees are linked through roots which intertwine and unite them with their surrounding environment.
Her widely recognised paintings use a distinctive palette rooted in the colours of the sun, sand and sky. And drawing on a diverse range of contexts, the universal language of her art embraces different landscapes, histories and subjects to contemplate the ever-present themes of spirituality, kinship and our relationships within the natural world.