Endless Connection: A Conversation on the Work of Kamala Ibrahim Ishag
Kamala’s work makes me feel part of a lineage. Many people came before with wisdom about being in relationship with one another and Earth.
Writer-filmmaker Atheel Elmalik and artist-designer Rayan Elnayal share responses to the work and world of Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.
Kamala Ibrahim Ishag is a Sudanese painter whose work intertwines the earthly and the spiritual, and has profoundly impacted generations of modern and contemporary artists. Ishag has been an influential teacher and beloved mentor for decades, and is known for co-initiating and inspiring various artistic movements.
We invited Atheel Elmalik and Rayan Elnayal, two Sudanese artists whose practices intersect with Ishag’s, to hold a conversation on the occasion of Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness at Serpentine. Here, they reflect on the multiplicity of Ishag’s paintings, which leave space for ambiguous narratives and contrasting emotions. Their dialogue embraces joy and grief, intimacy and expansiveness, and it ventures into ancestral knowledges, embodied childhood memories and futuristic speculations alike to celebrate states of connection.
Rayan Elnayal: To start the conversation, I’d love to learn more about what you are doing right now – I know that you are working on a film.
Atheel Elmalik: Yes, I’m working on a script for a feature film about how to come into relationship with one another and the Earth. It’s a story about two women. One lives in Northern California, one lives in Southern California, and they meet at a river halfway to cool down in the middle of a heat wave. They haven’t talked in many years, so they’re catching up, and they go up the river where they meet spirits of the Esselen land that they’re on, as well as spirits from both of their lineages – one of the women is from Sudan, one of them is from Botswana. The film is an exploration of intimacy and what it means to belong with each other and with the land in the face of environmental collapse. So, it’s of the times! (laughs)
RE: We also see similar manifestations of relationships between women in Kamala’s paintings. There are relationships between plants, with nature, with the land, but also between women – which brings me to another question. In relation to the project that you’re working on now, is there a particular painting of Kamala’s that stands out to you?
AEM: So, I’ve been in Arles, France, for three months working on my script, and the beginning of my time here coincided with Kamala’s opening at Serpentine, which I went to London to see. It was a really special experience to see her work on the walls in that way – and all of her paintings felt so resonant to this world that I’m creating, which is about relationship between nature and women.
Seeing Kamala’s work, I felt that I was within a lineage of Sudanese women artists who have always held these questions. This feels really important as we’re living through this moment of environmental collapse as a collective. I feel supported, knowing that there were many people who came before us with a lot of wisdom about how to be in relationship with one another and the Earth. In Kamala’s art, that relationship is just a fact, it’s not a proposition. Within the world she creates, we simply are in a relationship with one another, with plants and with spirits. Her visual language connects these things so effortlessly. It operates outside of the Western way of viewing and categorising the world.
AEM: I’m thinking about a work called Two Women (Eve and Eve) (2016), and how Kamala talks about being fii bait al-biQa – it’s when women come over to your house for a grieving ceremony and cry with you to help you to process the passing of someone. In the painting are two trees with faces within them – these trees were planted in Kamala’s garden by her father and appear in many of her works; she often says feels a deep relationship with them. So, in this painting, there’s a moment of grief and the need to feel held in community. For Kamala, that’s both the people who come, and these trees.
Grieving is important in relation to – again – living through environmental collapse and loss: in terms of natural resources and people being impacted by natural disaster. It’s not romantic. We talk about the ushering in of a new world and the collapse of capitalism. All of that is exciting but it is already coming with a lot of grief. We’re all going to have to continue to confront what it means to grieve at a collective scale, and Sudanese bait albiQa is very intact as a ritual in Sudan. This coming together by a community to grieve has a lot to teach us. So, I have been thinking about this painting since coming back from London.
RE: I certainly see the connection between your script project and this painting. The two women look like they’re being lifted by the trees – nature and land connect them. You see leaves between the figures and above them, too, protecting them. It feels like a statement not only about how we can connect to the land, but also how these beings connect to us. In Kamala’s paintings, I often see a single plane of existence, which is different from how humans and other entities are often considered separate. Even by seeing faces in the tree trunks, it makes you think that these trees exist just as much as we do; they serve us, and we serve them.
In Sudanese rituals like Zar (a traditional women’s ceremony)[i] you see this again: the relationship between the land, nature and women. This feels very Sudanese to me. We see it in our music, too – there are constant references to land and the river. It’s such a Sudanese thing to view our land, the river Nile, even agriculture as something that exists beyond serving us.
The Nile is seen as something to love, something to have a connection with, something that is Sudanese as much as I am. The novelist Tayeb Salih refers to the Nile as a snake god in Seasons of Migration to the North (1966). If we treat it as a being, it can be dangerous, too – people get angry at the Nile, it does take lives. I see this sense of the land being alive and having agency in my work, in your project, and so strongly in Kamala’s work. That’s why us having this conversation as Sudanese artists was so interesting to me.
AEM: I love that. It makes me think about how – at least in fil shamaaliyya, Sudan’s Northern province – we’re only two generations away from being agricultural peoples who tended the land. I was recently talking with my cousin about how Sufiism was the primary way that Islam took root in Sudan, and how being a people in relationship with land and water lends itself to mysticism. Ceremony, dance and music are so important in Sufi Islam, and it makes me think back to older traditions of being in ceremony with music and with dance. Those similarities must have felt resonant enough for a whole people to slowly adopt a new way of being, which was Islam.
AEM: These things can feel contradictory. We can imagine previous cultures and ways of worshiping – pre-Islamic, then pre-Christian, all the way back to the Kush Kingdom[ii], but there can be a perception that once Islam comes in, everything before that is haram (forbidden) or belongs only in the past. However, in Sudanese culture there are many elements which are still superstitious, or about magic. Just think about how many people believe in the concept of an al’ayn, the evil eye[iii]. I’ve recently been brushing up on writing and reading Arabic, so I bought one of Naguib Mahfouz’s collections of short stories. It’s funny – Sudanese women in the stories always appear around rituals, magic and Zar (laughs). I didn’t know that was so much of how we are known to people in Egypt, and to people in the Gulf region.
When I look at Kamala’s work, it feels like – just as in our culture – there’s no contradiction, there’s just this mixture. Sometimes Kamala’s recreating suwar min al Qur’an (verses from the Quran) in her work – she’s using Islamic forms in terms of the shapes and by working with calligraphy, which is important in relation to an Islamic tradition which doesn’t emphasise the pictorial. It’s seen as haram to paint faces or humans. So, the fact that Kamala does is huge. To me, it makes her work like drinking cold water on a hot day. It feels so important to see visual renderings of these ways of being.
RE: That’s part of what makes her paintings so unapologetically Sudanese. We’ve gone through so much change as a nation and sometimes are seen as the nation with the identity crisis. There are so many discussions continuing about who we are, and there’s so much diversity. It’s never enough to just say that we are in any one category. I’ve always felt like the term Sudanese is fluid, but also unique and recognisable to others who are Sudanese. It is strange because there are so many debates about whether we should be practicing certain traditions. People don’t always want to talk about Zar, but we know it’s a huge practice in Sudan.
So, I feel like Kamala’s paintings pay homage to what it means to be Sudanese, which can mean all those things at once. Practicing Zar, being a Muslim, wearing a tobe – or not wearing a tobe. Linking back to the topic of grief, our approach to death and how it appears in Kamala’s painting is very unconventional, compared with Western narratives and art.
For many people, I also imagine that Kamala’s painting Blues for the Martyrs (2022), which was painted in the aftermath of the Khartoum Massacre, doesn’t look like a painting that addresses death or such a tragedy – you see a pale blue, which references the river Nile.
AEM: Absolutely. The context of this work is that Sudan has effectively been in a revolution since 2019. There are so many nuances and details to what has happened in that time. There was the coup in which the former president and dictator Omar al-Bashir fell, and so many events since then. But broadly, people are protesting in the streets every single day to fight a morally and politically corrupt regime, and many people are dying. After a massacre that happened on 6 June 2020, so many bodies were being dumped into the river Nile, which runs right beside Kamala’s house in Khartoum. As you said, we see the colour of the Nile in Blues, and people in pods are placed in interdependent social relationships. Who they are is about who they are to each other, and who they are with one another. It’s about what it means for a whole nation to be grieving so many people as part of one common cause.
RE: The people who were so sadly lost are still being represented here as part of a community. It’s not been removed. Each person has a character and identity, and they are connected through the plants weaving through the bubbles: some are in twos, and some are in larger groups. In the protests and the revolution, people see themselves as fighting both for living people and for people who have passed – and you can see that in this painting. I also found it interesting that if you follow the plants from any point, you find that they connect everyone. You can’t see the roots where they start, or where they end. So, it feels like it’s eternal. If you multiplied them and lined them up, this would just be endless.
What this interpretation reminds me of is Sudan’s long history, all the changes the nation has gone through, and the way we treat our ancestral lineage. A lot of us don’t know, fully, where we are from. We talk about tribes, but we don’t always know where every group comes from. There’s a lot of lost history in Sudan, but I feel that there is something eternal, with deep-rooted connections in community.
It’s difficult to talk about, especially because of how incredible the revolution is, and how people have persevered even though it’s been deeply traumatic. To me, these paintings offer a reminder that there’s more than just what has happened in our lifetime – it goes beyond this moment to what happened 200 and 300 years ago. In Blues, there’s no loneliness, even in depictions of people who have passed. They’re still drawn like they’re in a community, because they are.
AEM: Absolutely. It makes me want to talk about another painting, Bait Al-Mal (2019). I feel that it’s such a great illustration of everything you’re describing. Something you’ve said before said was that if you encounter this painting as a Sudanese person, you immediately understand what it’s referring to, and you feel seen. It’s about what being in a thick, strong social web. It’s specifically a rendering of a neighbourhood, Bait Al-Mal, where Kamala lived in early childhood. There’s an autobiographical side, where she’s mapping out who people are, or rendering households or families. But the trees and their roots merge so that everybody’s root system is connected. There’s no-one who is just an individual. It’s all about relationships.
AEM: In the West, people ask what you do, where you went to school, or what your profession is – these are the ways in which people know how to make sense of your existence. In Sudan it’s very much a question of whose child you are, whose son or daughter are you? Who are your people? This is how someone that you’re meeting for the first time can understand something about who you are. That comes with all the benefits and challenging aspects of being so entrenched in community. But you take all of it together as the mixed bag that it is. It’s just our reality, and this is how I feel that Kamala depicts life in her work. It’s about interdependence and connection just as a fact, she’s not moralising it. It’s a very different notion of being human than you generally see in Western painting.
RE: Yeah, absolutely. Sudanese people understand who you are through your micro-community, but they also see those communities as connected. We’re very used to being asked, “what’s your surname, where are you from in Sudan?”, and often you do find the connection. There’s a saying that every Sudanese knows every other four million Sudanese persons! We know our third and fourth cousins sometimes, which is different from how most families behave in the West.
To me, in Bait al-Mal, seeing the connections between the trees nearly makes the painting into a geographical map. This could be any small town, or any part of Khartoum. I can’t help but think of where my mum’s from. That could be my grandma’s house and that could be my great aunt’s house. In Sudan, women support other women and co-parent, in a way. Around the time women give birth, it’s common to be surrounded by other women in your family to help you throughout that difficult stage where you don’t know how to care for a new being. And I can see that through the trees connecting everyone.
Bait-al-Mal and Adam and Eve both remind me of how, in Sudan, people distinguish houses by particular trees which are nearby. I’ve noticed how people are really good at recognising a specific person’s car from a mile away, and saying, “oh, he’s probably getting coffee at this place, I’ll stop by and say hi.” They’re very good at navigating towns and cities through things that sit outside a house, and taking the opportunity to visit people. So, Bait al-Mal, to me, is immediately a map, but it’s such a Sudanese way of drawing a map, with all these links between people – because they are literally connected.
AEM: Yes, totally.
RE: Another thing that I find interesting about Kamala’s paintings is how they transcend time. To me, they represent a conscious and subconscious understanding of rituals and practices that have existed for so long, how they could exist in slightly different forms, and how they would carry on existing in the future. And I love how they help me understand what a future Khartoum, my city, would look like.
I love visually speculating in my own work about futuristic spaces, so treating Kamala’s work as a form of futurism is radical, and it cracks open new ideas or even experiments for me. When I get asked about what influences my work, it often goes back to works by Kamala, as well as the Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi and the Sudanese novelist Tayib Salih. Even if they were created in the sixties and seventies, they’re still so relevant today. Maybe the work is about revolution – that would have been so relevant 30 years ago as much as today in Sudan, and it probably will continue to be in 30 years’ time, but in different forms. So, these artists help me understand what narratives I need to respond to when thinking about the future.
AEM: I wonder if you can speak to your work a little bit: your background in architecture, how you think about that practice, and what you mentioned to me about magical realism and imagining spaces of the future – because that blew my mind (laughs).
RE: I studied architecture in the UK then worked in an architecture firm here for a few years before I started teaching. When I was doing my final year at Greenwich, my Master’s thesis was about architecturally imagining what the Khartoum of the future would look like. I was looking at what I liked from other Afro-futuristic practices, and what I didn’t like from Afro-futuristic practices. Then I stumbled upon magic realism, which often gets used by novelists and visual artists to kind of speak about things that don’t have a voice. It is somewhat similar to surrealism, but it’s much more concerned with aspects of everyday living, such as what we eat and what community means to us. They’re very difficult things to talk about. Magic realism is about trying to speak about things that haven’t yet been spoken. It means using metaphors, slightly unconventional approaches, and being very non-linear. I also think that futurism can be non-linear – sometimes the future is history and vice versa. Now, in my art, I try to depict what futuristic spaces for Sudanese people look like, asking questions such as, what would a Sudanese spaceship look like? Will a Sudanese spaceship have a bambar (a wooden, backless stool low to the ground and often weaved out of local ropes) inside? Probably – like where else would you drink jebana (Sudanese coffee traditionally made in the evening) inside the spaceship?
AEM: (laughing) Right, yes! That’s important.
RE: It’s questions like this which I find far more interesting than some more mainstream Afrofuturistic narratives. Mainstream Afrofuturism to me feels like that is often more representative of Western narratives, because of its lack of representation of the everyday African and African diasporic narrative. That is where I think magic realism can come in and offer alternatives. Alternatives that invite you to radically reimagine the future, and perhaps even discard narratives that feel like they have been written for us rather than by us.
So, for me, when speaking about Sudan in the future, magic realism together with futurism makes sense. I don’t see futuristic narratives that include Sudanese practices. Where would a biQa happen in the future, or a Zar ceremony? Zar, spatially, is so interesting to me because it requires a particular type of space and sometimes trees in order to protect and provide some coverage. There’s also the hoash (a large front yard), and in Bait al-Mal, I can see the different hoash with their trees being connected into a map. Again, Kamala’s work makes sense to me, if I’m trying to imagine what a future for Sudanese people looks like. It would be about trying to draw a community where there’s huge support between women, but also a community of women who practice art.
This is one of my pieces, called Jebana (2022). It imagines a space that’s potentially a spaceship, and it invites someone to drink jebana here on a bambar. Because spaceships would still include some of these things, and the plants that surround it as well. I always thought that the hoash gave you ownership of a bit of the sky — that you would always have a view of that sky. And so again, this is looking back at how maybe that traditional hoash should be imagined in the future.
This is another piece called Spacetime (2022). I was very interested by what spacetime that look like in a Sudanese setting – what would the film Interstellar be like if it were Sudanese? Here you can see woman is approaching from one of the rooms and that’s her shadow, and then these clocks have been repeated.
AEM: This just makes me think about being in Sudan. It always feels like time has a little bit of a different quality there. Like, al youm feho baraka (the day feels blessed), in the sense that time feels slow, it’s a different orientation to time. Seeing this work, I felt instantly transported to my grandmother’s house or my aunt’s house in Sudan. Everybody takes a nap in the afternoon, and I wasn’t really a napper when I was a kid, so I would just meander, watching the changing light coming in from windows, and outside the hoash. This shadow moment you have created really makes me think about that. When I look at these clocks, one of them says quarter past eleven, another quarter past twelve, which makes me think about Sudanese people’s relationships to time being a lot looser. You know how we say bajeekom ba’ad salat al mughrib, or ba’ad al isha, or ba’ad al ghada (we’ll come over after the dusk prayers, or after the evening prayers, or after lunch)… It’s about moments. It’s not about a precise clock time, but after evening or afternoon prayers. These looser and more spacious relationships to time are also about observing the sky, because the five prayers mark the movement of the sun across the sky. That’s what this work transports me to.
RE: Yeah. I’ve always felt that in Sudan, people have a different relationship with time – they’re not so rigid or anxious about it. Living and growing up in London, it’s completely different. People are very anxious about their time, and everything feels very rushed, but Sudanese people know how to chill and make the most out of time. Even the working day, you know, it starts and ends a little bit earlier, but people also say, “I’ve still got plenty of the day left, I’m gonna go, you know, drink jabana with friends.” They stick with a good conversation, food and music. If there’s a good event, there’s no reason why they won’t stay up till 2am, that’s completely doable. It’s just part of the day.
AEM: I’m just thinking about everything you shared about magic realism and it reminds me of how Fred Moten talks about imagining a black sociality. In this case, we’re talking about a Sudanese sociality, which is about rest in the afternoon, and these rituals and moments of marking the day, whether it’s through praying or having tea. People have their tea in the morning at the same time and in the evening at the same time. Your thoughts about an architectural space that can include daily ritual practice and feeling like magic realism offers that space are beautiful. I’m thinking of the hoash, the big yard where people put their beds outside and look up at the sky and the stars, and I really love your question of how to bring all of that into our imagination of the future.
RE: Yes, and a lot of what you’re saying is about being able to use alternative structures or narratives when talking about people who aren’t from the West. And that’s very difficult when so much has been designed in the West and forced upon the rest of us. Even when speaking about the future, history, or Afrofuturism, we’re having to resist terms or narratives that weren’t created by us. Sometimes, even the way we approach our history, it’s as speculative as talking about our future, because so much of it is lost. It’s about trying to imagine how some of these practices would’ve existed in the past, but asking how they were different. And we base a lot of what we think will happen in the future on the past and present.
AEM: It reminds me of how Kamala says that her paintings are from memories, stories and myths that her grandmothers and great-grandmothers told her. They are so vivid and so full of mythologies and relationships with spirits. Another element of Sudanese sociality is storytelling when you visit people. There’s also a kind of nostalgia that a lot of Sudanese people have for when things were different. I think about the tonal quality of this reminiscing, and stories passed from the past into the future. So much of what you’re saying is about this, and Kamala’s work also exists at this intersection.
RE: I feel that this way of thinking about time and connection would have helped humanity to treat the planet better. In Kamala’s work, everyone and everything exists on one plane of existence, sometimes refracted together through crystals. It’s not humans, then animals, then plants, in a hierarchy. It’s not easy to speak about, but that single plane of existence is respect for the trees, the plants, the land, and the people – almost at the same level, in that there are relationships between them all. Trees can have relationships with each other. You see some of the roots intertwined, or two trees visually connected through branches or leaves. They have a character and a personality, which is different from what we historically see in western understandings of existence.
AEM: Absolutely. There’s a paradigm that modern life has existed within, and we’re at a moment of people understanding that we urgently need to come into a better relationship with the planet, even if this is largely done from an alarmist perspective. It feels so important to see work like Kamala’s because it reminds us that we’ve always been with Earth in interdependence. It brings more people into the conversation and shows it doesn’t have to feel like something new. This perspective doesn’t have to come from a typical white environmentalist character. I think about indigenous and interdependent ways of being that people all over the planet have always held. It’s mystical, it’s magical and it’s about relationship. I feel a lot of permission and belonging when I see that in Kamala’s work.
I’ve never really made this connection before, but I wrote this poem a few years ago that I’m thinking of now – and I would love to read it to you.
RE: Yes please!
AEM: This is important to me for reasons that will become apparent when you hear it.
RE: That’s beautiful. I understand more every time we speak about your artistic language. It’s so Sudanese, and it includes stories of diaspora, relationship with the land, and connections between people. And I’d consider you a magic realist as well.
AEM: Yay! (laughs)
RE: Your work speaks to me in a way that makes so much sense. It was so concerned with the magic of everyday life and everyday experience. It’s beautiful.
AEM: I hadn’t thought about in a long time, but this conversation took me there because it reminded me of my first moment of understanding that being from a land means having a relationship with the actual land there: that there’s a knowing and a belonging in the relationship to landscape. For me, this came in a moment of my life, in my early twenties, where I was in a crisis of identity with Sudan. I found it hard to feel belonging in a community where there are a lot of expectations to uphold in terms of a certain social status, relationship, image, etc. But when I sensed that there was something way deeper than all of that, it created an immense sense of spaciousness and relief in my body. Everything eased up.
RE: There can be a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out), knowing how social Sudanese people are – at any kind of major event there are huge groups of people. Some people meet friends after work every day. Being in the diaspora, or even just being away for a few months, you’re missing out on all these events, but you know that you are still part of that community, no matter what.
AEM: Yes, it’s beautiful. I’m very grateful to you for this conversation, and to Kamala for her work with all its interconnectedness and the interdependence that it offers. It feels very mystical.
RE: It’s also very uplifting to be having this conversation among Sudanese women. So, I appreciate you: your creativity, your language, your work, and us having this wonderful conversation. I hope it manifests and continues in other ways.
[i] Practiced in Sudan and some surrounding nations, Zar ceremonies involve singing, dance and incense-burning, which women perform as a group to persuade a disruptive spirit to leave one of them.
[ii] A civilisation that flourished in the area which is now Sudan 5,000 years ago.
[iii] A belief that individuals looking jealously on people, animals and things can harm them.
Atheel Elmalik is a writer and filmmaker committed to the work of rendering Black and African diasporic life on screen. She is interested in exploring liberated relationships of people to land and one another through stories of movement and migration, intergenerational healing, and connection to the sentience of the more-than-human world. Atheel comes to this work from a background in anthropology and African Studies, and a career as curator for institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. After spending the last two years managing artist Arthur Jafa’s art studio in Los Angeles, she is currently developing her first narrative film through Jafa’s newly formed film studio, SunHaus.
Rayan Elnayal is a Sudanese artist/designer based in London. Using her architecture background, she visualises and speculates on fictional spaces located in Sudan, the SWANA region and its diaspora. Her interest in magic realism developed from the completion of her architecture thesis project at the University of Greenwich. Since graduating, Elnayal has had work featured in several publications and two solo exhibitions in Central London. She has also acted as a guest critic and guest speaker on topics relevant to architectural design, art, and diversity.