Kamala Ibrahim Ishaaq

Kamala Ibrahim Ishaaq is a Sudanese artist who first emerged from within the Khartoum School in the 1960s. In 1978 Ishaaq, along with two of her students, established the crystalists, an artistic movement that embraces existentialism and rejects the nationalistic expressions of the Khartoum School. The crystalists embrace feminism and a more internationalist aesthetic that serves to critique problems within Sudan.

Personal history

Ishaaq was born in Omdurman, Sudan, in 1939 and was educated at the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum, attaining a degree in 1963. Ishaaq continued her education and artistic training at the Royal College of Art in London, finding inspiration in European existentialism and Zar, a female cult of spiritual possession indigenous to central Sudan. In addition to her own work, Ishaaq taught at her Sudanese alma mater, cementing her association with the Khartoum School.

Influences and contributions

Unique to Ishaaq was the spiritual influence she attained from the works of William Blake and the aforementioned Zar. These themes of existentialism as well as expressions of feminism would serve as the central themes of Ishaaq’s work in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be these influences that distinguished Ishaaq from her compatriots inspired largely by Sudanese independence and Islamic themes. If Blake and Zar provided inspiration, it was the Khartoum School that taught Ishaaq to be an artist. It was the goal of this movement to wed African and Islamic cultural traditions. This transcultural blending presented a sense of Sudanese nationalism expressed in earthy colors and Arabic calligraphy.

The Crystalists

In 1978 Ishaaq and two of her students, Muhammad Hamid Shaddad and Naiyla al Tayib, rejected the Sudanese-centrism of the Khartoum School by creating the crystalist movement. The formation of this new approach was marked by a public declaration in the guise of the so-called crystalist manifesto. First published in Arabic, the document presented an artistic vision that attempted to work beyond the Sudanese-Islamic frameworks of the Khartoum School. Moreover, the crystalists sought to internationalize their art by embracing an existentialist avant-garde more akin to European aesthetics.

If the Khartoum School can be described as modernist, then the crystalists should be classified as ultramodern within Sudanese artistic expression. Aesthetically, the crystalists presented the cosmos as a “project of a transparent crystal with no veils but an eternal depth” (from the crys-talist manifesto). Crystalist paintings often contained distorted human faces trapped within clear cubes or spheres, and, as stated in their manifesto, “oppose[d] the trend which calls for skill and craftsmanship as a measure of good work.” Inherent in the clarity of existence of the crystalists was the feminist notion of unveiling—a significant facet amid the increased Islamization of postcolonial Sudan.

The world’s perspective

Reactions to the crystalist school were resoundingly negative. Critics from within Sudan abhorred the crystalists’ rejection of the nationalistic thrusts of the Khartoum School. Moreover, critics noted that Ishaaq’s rejection of the Khartoum School was not complete, as her artwork retained many of the color schemes unique to Khartoum. Beyond criticisms of Ishaaq’s rejection of the Khartoum School, many have acknowledged her artistry as well as her awareness of issues regarding women in Sudan.


Ishaaq’s legacy will forever be intertwined with both the Khartoum School and the crystalists. The criticisms of Ishaaq and the crystalists were largely centered in their rejection of existing artistic frameworks and unwillingness to conform to a unitary aesthetic vision. In this sense, the legacy of Ishaaq’s art can be found in the formation of a more universal artistic discourse imbued with existential and feminist expressions.

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