Rereading ‘The Inevitable’
The shabby grey offices of FM 95.0 Omdurman are set a block or so away from the banks of the White Nile in Sudan’s sprawling Khartoum Metropolitan Area, just south of the river’s total convergence with its Blue counterpart at the end of Tutul Island. Yet this unremarkable plaza with red-and-brown paving and windows studded by shabby air conditioning units has been the home to one of East Africa’s largest propaganda networks for over half a century. Sudan Radio, established in the 1940’s by the occupying Allied forces in what was seen as a bid to control the flow of English, French, and Swahili information throughout East Africa, has been the staging ground of many Sudanese coups over the 20th century (Berry, Library of Congress, and Federal Research Division 2015). The story of Ibrahim El-Salahi’s magnum opus The Inevitable (1985, Figure I) likewise begins with a shootout over the radio offices, as the artist was arrested along with dozens of other ministers and low-level bureaucrats in the hours after Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Hussein Osman seized the airwaves and pronounced an end to the government of infamous ruler Jaafar Al-Nimeiry (The New York Times 1975). Though the coup itself was short-lived, the purge of the civil service which followed had major implications for the viability of peace and democracy in the country, the effects of which Sudanese people are still grappling with in the contemporary moment (Jacobs 1985). El-Salahi spent 6 months incarcerated inside Khartoum’s infamous Kober prison, a supermax facility typically reserved for military leaders and political prisoners like failed-coup orchestrators Sadiq Al-Mahdi and Abdel Khaliq Mahjub (Berridge 2016).
It is during this critical period inside Kober Prison that The Inevitable was conceived, a work which has been exhibited globally and widely understood as a work of African political dissent. The work’s most prominent showing at the Tate Modern came in 2013, when curators describe the artist as one of the most important African political artists of the Modernist era (Cheshire 2021). Yet a serious revisitation of postcolonial and semiotic literature reveals the hidden prejudices in forcibly labeling artists like El-Salahi dissidents. Despite its display within major institutions as a work of dissident art, a comparative reading of Pearson’s work on semiotic interpretation and other foundational postcolonial works in related disciplines makes clear that The Inevitable and by extension El-Salahi’s catalogue of work can be most responsibly displayed as Modernist painting, especially within the sub-genre of Abstract Expressionism.
As a work of art, The Inevitable is, in a word, sprawling. The nine paneled artistic undertaking is massive, standing at nearly two square meters when properly displayed in the gallery. Created with ink, the work is completely black and white. The centre of The Inevitable’s visual field is densely crowded by a group of human-like figures, three of which are raising their fists towards the sky in what appears to be some form of protest. Interestingly, these three figures also take strong and angled stances, in comparison to the shorter figures on the left, who stand directly upright. The overall composition is exceptionally flat and lacks a foreground or background, and in addition many of the figures are nearly indiscernible from one another, particularly in the very centre of the composition. This dense placement of figures is helpful in minimizing visual interference caused by gaps between each of the 9 square frames. The bottom row of these canvases is particularly interesting, as key features imply that some of the figures are laying on the ground-perhaps trampled or overrun by those protesting in the upper portions of the work. The middle composition on the bottom row particularly signals this unique positioning, as revealed by a peculiarly angled pair of feet. The work itself lacks any distinctive Africanity, though parallels could be drawn between the figure on the middle-left’s face and references to so-called ‘African masks’ among other modernist painters such as Picasso, and in particular Guernica (1937, Figure II) (Dunwell, n.d.). Though the two works do share major compositional similarities such as a monochromatic colour palette, use of the body as a conflicted zone, and their large staging, El-Salahi has stated that Picasso was not an influence on the work as he was unfamiliar with the artists work (especially Guernica) until far after the genesis of The Inevitable (Dunwell, n.d.). Instead, El-Salahi cites influences like the Hurufiyya Caligraphy movement and a particular interest in the corporeality of artists like Van Gogh (Ibrahim El-Salahi 2015).
Though the work of art itself is fascinating in its size and formal nature, the conditions by which El-Salahi was led to create The Inevitable add significant character and detail to the composition. During his wrongful imprisonment in Kober prison, El-Salahi and other prisoners were forbidden from creating work or engaging in their artistic practice at all. This is unsurprising and can be understood as a form of state control by which public intellectualism is crushed in favor of a presented state ideology, in this case Al-Nimiery’s moderated state capitalism (Negash 2003). Over the course of his extrajudicial detention (El-Salahi was never charged with a crime nor given a formal criminal hearing) the artist engaged in numerous acts of political and artistic rebellion, which culminated in the formation of The Inevitable upon his release from Kober (S. M. Hassan 2010). Though this history is particularly shocking to the Western eye which has been conditioned to fetishize art of conflict and dissent in the Global South (Casid et al. 2014), Africa has a long history of prison intellectualism, stemming from days of colonial resistance through inside-outside networks of cooperation (Berridge 2012). In line with his predecessors, El-Salahi utilized jail materials such as scrapped food bags to begin drafting the work which would eventually become The Inevitable (Beier 1993). As the work was buried and dug up countless times in order to accommodate for guards who passed El-Salahi’s cell for daily inspections, The Inevitable was reiterated and recreated countless times throughout the artist’s incarceration- engaging in Heideggerian questions of authorship which are outside of the scope of this paper, despite their salience in this context. El-Salahi was able to finally stage the art in England, 10 years after his release from prison during his self-imposed exiles in the United Kingdom and the UAE.
The Inevitable, and other works by Ibrahim El-Salahi, are most frequently exhibited and discussed as political or dissident art, though in a semiotic model this can be considered a form of interpretant, rather than an absolute truth. If one is to consider the ‘true’ or original meaning of a work like The Inevitable, a knowledge of Pierce’s conception of the object, the sign, and interpretant is essential. According to Pierce’s formulations, the object or absolute truth is represented by a sign, which is then understood by the interpretant (Marquand, Ladd, and Mitchell 2000). The sign represents all viewable aspects of the object, but does not offer an interpretation of these elements, which is instead created by the interpretant – typically the viewer of the exhibition. There is no guarantee that the interpretant will reflect the intentions of the original object, and according to contemporary cultural theory, artists have no control of the interpretants in the museum and gallery space (Marquand, Ladd, and Mitchell 2000). Yet importantly, Pierce’s construction of the semiotics system allowed for the existence of multiple interpretants, which can overlap, conflict, or be in conversation with varying levels of intelligibility. Intelligibility as a term originated within the field of comparative linguistics to describe the ability of two speakers of any languages to understand each other (or not) to varying degrees (Scholes 1982). According to scholarship such as Scholes (1982) and Damen (1995), this concept of mutual intelligibility and understanding can be applied to cultural studies and specifically semiotic interpretants (Scholes 1982; Damen, Liddiard, and Leyton 1995). Given these understandings from both Pierce’s original text and its augmenters, it can be stated that one sign may have multiple interpretants, which may reflect the intention of the original object to varying degrees.
Before placing The Inevitable and El-Salahi’s works more broadly within this semiotic model, it is worth taking a moment to discuss the limitations of Pierce’s work and the overall science of semiotics. As with any discussion of a ‘fact’ or ‘science,’ the questions of colonial bias in understanding must be considered. As Shepperson and Tomaselli identify in their critiques of semiotics in the African context, Pierce’s conception of space and interpersonal relationships was rooted in a European view of social relations (Shepperson and Tomaselli 1992). As the authors identify, this worldview considers the context as a caveat given to interpret world history as opposed to an essential part of embodied meaning (Shepperson and Tomaselli 1992). Semiotic work, they argue, “imprisons us in a world of linguistic structures” (Shepperson and Tomaselli 1992, 163). Continuing from their post-colonial perspective, these authors additionally draw attention to the assumed and inherent authority which Pierce’s work grants itself- Shepperson and Tomaselli argue that theories of semiotics rely upon a number of assumptions which the African worldview does not take for granted (Shepperson and Tomaselli 1992). Postcolonial and postmodernist studies hardly offer the only valuable critique of semiotics in this context however, and Shepperson and Tomaselli are predated by Scholes (1982) who identified a number of other problematic aspects of Pierce’s understanding of signs. Scholes was primarily concerned with incoherence and sought to protect the discipline from critiques of cultural irrelevance through his ground-breaking working Semiotics and Interpretation. In this work, Scholes successfully argues that Pierce’s original model was disconnected from the realities of media infrastructure, which is essential to the dissemination of codes (Scholes 1982). It is worth noting that since Scholes’ publication, technology and media infrastructure has undergone two of its largest revolutions since the invention of the printing press. In general, these criticisms are likely too quick to dismiss the relevance of Pierce’s models in the African context- it may not be a perfect tool, but it is likely the most apt one for the job.
Given both a semiotic model and the essential contexts and disclaimers required for its use, The Inevitable and its display at the Tate can be considered actions within a broader system of critical languages and meanings. In this system, the intention of the artist can be considered the object or base of the semiotic model itself. The work of art which describes and matches this intention to varying degrees can be considered the sign, and its interpretations as interpretants. In this case, The Inevitable exists as a pure sign, conceived from a meaning which could be considered unknowable to the interpretants according to Pierce and Scholes’ understandings. In the context of display at the Tate Modern in London, the curator’s decision to portray El-Salahi as an African dissident artist can be considered an interpretant which frames and influences future interpretations derived from it.
Yet there is no guarantee that this interpretant is the closest to El-Salahi’s original meaning, as Scholes’ laws of intelligibility dictate that it is impossible to understand one’s relationship to absolute truth without knowing said absolute truth (Scholes 1982). Thus, the decision to frame El-Salahi as a dissident artist can be understood as an act of colonial hubris- the belief of the museum in its ability to know and understand truth. This relationship to truth and obsession with authority is reflected in numerous studies of African perspectives on Western academia. Most informatively, Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan author, speaks directly to this violence of interpretation in his short essays contained within How to Write About Africa (2005). In this seminal work, Wainaina speaks from his experiences as a queer African writer, and the numerous violent and degrading readings of his work Wainaina endures (Binyavanga Wainaina 2019). Wainaina argues through humor that Western audiences have an enduring image of Africa in their minds as a land of savagery and corruption, which informs every encounter they have with the very concept of ‘African’ (Binyavanga Wainaina 2019).
Readings from East Asian Studies, a parallel field to African Studies, supports the concept of this violence of interpretation. Zhu Qi’s article “Do Westerners Really Understand Chinese Avante Garde Art?” questions similar semiotic models from the contemporary Chinese perspective, and comes to the simple conclusion that western hubris cannot be divorced from the creation of interpretants (Qi 2000). According to Qi’s writings on interpretation, the western audience has already conceived an idea of ‘Chinese’ as an identity in conflict and suppression that is so fundamental to their world view that it cannot be disconnected from interpretations of Chinese art (Qi 2000). According to this prejudiced view, the Chinese artist must be in conflict with the state simply due to its existence in agreement with values the capitalist mentality cannot disconnect from the religion of the free market (Qi 2000).
A direct comparison can be drawn between Qi’s hypothetical prejudiced interlocutor and the staging and interpretant of El-Salahi’s exhibition at the Tate. Speaking to interviewers following the show, El-Salahi himself hints at this violence of interpretation, telling an interviewer who asked about a potential Picasso influence, “if you see something as influenced by Picasso, let it be because I present the work and my job is finished. When the work is finish you can interpret it the way you want. It’s a free world” (Dunwell, n.d.). In this tongue-and-cheek quip, El-Salahi quickly strikes at the fundamental difference between the African worldview and the Western- like other artists put into the position of dissident, El-Salahi fundamentally rejects the premise that his work can have any one set or perfect interpretation (Rotas 2009). Curiously, the Tate seems to be equally aware of the absurdity of forcing interpretation on to any on particular artist or work which originates in a completely different cultural context. Contemporary reviews of the Tate’s El-Salahi retrospective “Being in Now” in Frieze and Nka mention comments by Tate staff such as Elvira Dyangani Ose which suggest that these works would be better served by being considered broader ‘art’ objects, with the audience creating its on interpretant in the gallery space (Pawson 2013) (Hynes 2014).
Yet this analysis of the Tate’s framing of The Inevitable begs the reader to ponder what could be an appropriate categorization of El-Salahi’s work, given the constant threat of bias. While there is no way to escape the colonized worldview, one could easily draw a comparison between El-Salahi and his fellow modernists, the Abstract Expressionists. This is certainly a fairly tenuous connection, given lack of actual (or even possible) overlap between El-Salahi and this distinct American school of painting. Yet a preponderance of key thinkers such as Rosenberg and Greenberg reveal striking similarities between major works by Abstract Expressionist giants like de Kooning and portfolio works by El-Salahi. The visual comparisons alone are fairly striking, particularly between El-Salahi and artists like Kline who utilize more realized forms within their compositions. De Kooning’s Woman (1949) and Seated Woman (1954) (Figures 3 and 4) is a particularly salient comparison, with all three works highlighting the human body as a point of abstraction and tension within a composition. The earlier Woman utilizes the same flattened perspective in combination with elongated corporeality and almost cartoonish element of body horror below the waistline that can be expected from El-Salahi’s broader canon. Seated Woman, the later composition by de Kooning, utilizes a similarly monochromatic element. Notably, both The Inevitable and Seated Woman feature a highly curved and stylized central composition surrounded by more straight lines and angular figuring which draws the eye directly into the complicated figure of the body.
A more major comparison between El-Salahi’s work and the Abstract Expressionist mode of production can be drawn when the creative process is considered. Both Rosenberg and Greenberg theorize a process of creation which directly mirrors the process undertaken by El-Salahi. That is not to say that the Abstract Expressionists had an African worldview, but rather that in a rush to consider the colonized perspective, interpretants such as the Tate may fail to consider more formal connections to established thinkers within the Western canon of art history. Speaking in a video interview recorded and uploaded to the Tate Modern website (currently offline at the time of this writing, unfortunately), El-Salahi refers directly to an organic process of creation, by which the artist slowly comes to know the composition and therefore create and finish it (S. Hassan 1998). Likewise, in The American Action Painters, Rosenberg describes a process by which artists use the canvas as a tool to explore their inner psychic thoughts and actions (Rosenberg 1961). Rosenberg saw the painting as a reaction between the subconscious and the tools which enable its expression, in this case the paintbrush and canvas (Rosenberg 1961). The thinker labels this moment of genesis the ‘action painting,’ which differentiates itself from traditional painting by being led by the Freudian subconscious itself (Rosenberg 1961). El-Salahi, Rosenberg, and Greenberg all speak to viewing the painting as a meeting between multiple elements, though each imbues this vision with their own distinctive voice. Greenberg was equally committed to this organic process of creation and became a lifelong champion of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Greenberg differed from Rosenberg by expanding upon the materiality of the encounter, arguing that certain mediums could be more suited to revealing specific truths or understandings (Greenberg 1982). El-Salahi’s description of The Inevitable’s continual drafting process aligns closely with this concept of medium specificity. Though El-Salahi did physically conceive a work while in jail, it was not until ten years after his incarceration that this work was put into the physical materiality which could make its meaning more concrete (Dadi 2010). Importantly, it would be a stretch to consider El-Salahi as a part of Abstract Expressionism’s (and more specifically Clement Greenberg’s) later conception of post-painterly abstraction. Like fellow Modernist Willem de Kooning, El-Salahi’s work is best understood as pure action painting with highly abstract characteristics and forms.
This scholarship does not exist to argue that Ibrahim El-Salahi is an apolitical artist, or that his work is meant to be seen purely as an aesthetic exercise disconnected from the material realities of his oppression. El-Salahi has been extremely open about the connections between his work and the traumatic experiences he underwent during his time wrongfully incarcerated at Kober. Rather, this argument proposes that the desire to portray El-Salahi as a political artist is motivated not by the aesthetic or semiotic significance of his work, but instead the existing concepts of Africa and Africanity within the psyche of the Tate Modern audience. By reframing El-Salahi’s The Inevitable primarily as a sign functioning within a broader system of semiotic objects and interpretants, it becomes easy to understand how both seemingly contradictory views of El-Salahi’s work- as an act of political protest, and as an apolitical act of aesthetic exercise and skill- can both be understood as true.
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As discussed in my final presentation, Zhu Qi’s work on Western understandings of Chinese art was deeply informative to my research. Qi succinctly argues that due to Western popular conceptions of China as a place of inherent conflict, Westerners are not able to understand the meaning of the Chinese Avante-Garde. Utilizing many of the same theorists referenced by Qi, I seek to build a parallel argument in this paper.
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Scholes’ critiques of Pierce’s semiotic theory were fundamental to the development of a lens through which various understandings of El-Salahi’s work could be generated. In Semiotics and Interpretation, Scholes uses a variety of case studies to expand upon Pierce’s concept of the interpretant, to understand interpretation as a role which is fundamental to the dissemination of information within a society. Though the author is in desperate need of a stricter editor, his elaborations on the social function of the interpretant was featured heavily in my research.
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“Zhu Qi: Contemporary Art as a Text - INEWS.” n.d. Accessed November 26, 2021. https://inf.news/en/culture/ec2144f9d3e8caf5faaf965ba6b98ee1.html.
 Kober/Kobar Prison (سجن كوبر) actually is Arabicized from the English “Cooper,” and was originally a colonial facility. The prison is notorious among Sudanese people for its symbolism as a tool of political oppression by the colonial and post-colonial states. Though it is outside the perspective of this paper, Berridge (2016), Berridge (2012), and Nagel (2015) provide fascinating and comprehensive views of Sudanese prisons and the intellectuals they both incarcerated and generated.
 That’s exactly how this project is structured too- I describe a work of art and then give the essential facts which I believe relate to the epistemic position of said work of art. Yet in a decolonized (or honestly, postmodernist) worldview, one could consider the context of El-Salahi’s work inseparable from its meaning and interpretant.