Pain is an inherent part of the human experience that can be difficult to make visible or measure. While words are limiting, art can act as a cathartic and spiritual release for those in pain, and elicit an emotional and empathetic response from the viewer. Such is the case with Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi’s exhibition at the Drawing Center, Pain Relief Drawings. With over 100 drawings, the exhibition shows a balanced and individual artistic practice, combining Sudanese culture with Arabic calligraphy, poetry, European modernism, and surrealism. The drawings are small in scale, formulated on the backs of medicine packets, pill bottle labels, and mail. These tiny pieces of paper float between the artist’s personal struggle and cultural identity.
El-Salahi’s Pain Relief Drawings began in 2016 when the artist experienced bouts of intense pain. Finding art to be a release from his discomfort, El-Salahi cut up and drew on the backs of drug packets and mail that piled up around him. As a devout Muslim, art worked in tandem with his religious practice, equally spiritual and healing, and served as a way to cope with strife. For El-Salahi, one does not exist without the other.
From these scraps come an intricate and powerful mix of symbols, text, lines, and shapes. Inspired by the materials, El-Salahi draws faces and figures — some evoking John Singer Sargent, others Egyptian hieroglyphics — inside lines of UK postage stamps, as a potential nod to British colonialism in Africa. In other works, El-Salahi employs indented braille dots as a springboard for lines of Arabic poetry or prayer.
Without a beginning or end, these drawings look like thoughts in process, feelings that the artist is attempting to reckon with and understand, while we, as viewers, are merely silent witnesses to his struggle. While we may have strong sympathy for the artist’s affliction, we will never know what his pain feels like, but here we can catch a glimpse of its process.
Ibrahim El-Salahi: Pain Relief Drawings continues at the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through January 15. The exhibition was organized by Laura Hoptman.