Radical Acts

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Ibrahim El-Salahi. Prison Notebook. 1976

Notebook with thirty-eight ink on paper drawings, page (each approx.): 11 1/4 × 6 3/4" (28.7 × 17 cm); overall (closed): 11 1/4 × 7 1/8 × 1 1/8" (28.7 × 18.1 × 2.9 cm). Acquired through the generosity of Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin, Catie and Donald Marron, Alice and Tom Tisch (in honor of Christophe Cherix), Marnie Pillsbury and Committee on Drawings and Prints Fund. © 2024 Ibrahim El-Salahi / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London

Curator, Sarah Suzuki: I'm Sarah Suzuki. I'm a curator of Drawings and Prints at The Museum of Modern Art.

Professor, Taoufik Ben-Amor: My name is Taoufik Ben-Amor. I am a Senior Lecturer in Arabic Studies at Columbia University. This is a work by the great Sudanese painter, Ibrahim El Salahi.

Sarah Suzuki: And we are looking at Prison Notebook, which he made in 1976. It contains within it 38 extraordinary pen and ink drawings by Salahi. And they are accompanied by very beautiful poetry and prose that he composed in a period of house arrest that followed a six-month term of imprisonment in Khartoum in Sudan. He was arrested as a political prisoner, he was accused of anti-government activities.

Taoufik Ben-Amor: So you’re looking at two texts interacting - one is pictorial, the other one is in language. In an experience where you probably spend most of your days in silence, I think words become very important.

Sarah Suzuki: He recalls specific experiences, but he's also someone who's deeply engaged with a world that we do not see, with the world of spirits.

Taoufik Ben-Amor: There's something so lyrical about this. Very musical. And even though it seems simple, it's actually quite a complex dream.

Taoufik Ben-Amor: “I yearn for a ride on the back of a Buraq. Immersed I would be in the ecstasy of its amber-colored horseback. Soaring over far skies. Far away from prison walls. Never to return.”

“With my own hands I shall open the future’s curtains. With my own hands, I shall write my poems. With my own hands, I shall write the pronouncement for my last day, with my own hands, I shall illustrate the shape of words. With my own hands, this symbol is a letter that runs and meanders. Going up and down. Waning, rolling, making circles around piles, and the pens run dry, and the curtains are down.”