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Issue 244

The Quiet Sovereignty of Zeinab Saleh

A mood of tranquillity permeates the young artist’s rich and uncanny exhibition at Tate Britain 

BY Ellen Mara De Wachter in Exhibition Reviews | 11 MAR 24

Zeinab Saleh’s pictures request a patient gaze, disclosing their secrets over time. Across seven canvases and a handful of works on paper, her stripped-down palette of mainly ice blue and peach tones describes misty impressions of domestic interiors; spaces filled with evocations of the physical states of water, from the shimmer of hoar frost to the hardness of ice and the translucence of condensation on glass. In Water has memory (all works 2024), dried watermarks, produced by laying crumpled cloth on wet ground, score the sheets of an unmade bed. Early morning transports us to a kitchen bathed in dawn twilight; in If not now, then when, oversized silhouettes of fuchsia flowers dangle in a hallway whose open door and patterned carpets connote comfort and familiarity. Presence is subtle and ambiguous in these spaces: Saleh herself is not visible, yet from the richness with which she renders haptic effects of texture, light and scale, we surmise that these are rooms she knows very well.

Zeinab Saleh
Zeinab Saleh, You shouldn't be here, 2024, acrylic on linen, 160 × 160 × 2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

Saleh’s painterly repertoire of liquid states contrasts with depictions of the coarse and fine grain of soft furnishings and, in The sovereignty of quiet, the fur of a pet cat, whose plushness she translates onto canvas using the medium of charcoal dust. Insubstantial yet conspicuous, this material can both mark and easily be rubbed out. Here, Saleh has erased patches of charcoal to form blank stars and crescent moons on the flank of the animal as it stretches out on a mosaic of prayer rugs bordered by floral, geometric and meandering motifs. In a handful of works on paper interspersed between the canvases, Saleh stages encounters between abstracted plant stems, foliage and abstract arabesques, streaking soft pastel across daubs of liquid acrylic. Such deft handling of materials produces a rich perceptual world, the kind best enjoyed from a place of stillness, where the body feels safe and calm, the senses open to nuance and subtlety. 

Zeinab Saleh
Zeinab Saleh, Early morning (detail), 2024, acrylic on linen, 60 × 160 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

The sovereignty of quiet borrows its title from Kevin Quashie’s 2012 book, which posits quiet as a metaphor for African American inner life and traces a history of silent acts of resistance. The tradition of interiors painted by women can also be considered a practice of quiet resistance, a way to cultivate personal powers in private and express them in sensual language. A short distance from Saleh’s exhibition, Tate Britain’s collection display features Ethel Sands’s luminous The Chintz Couch (c.1910–11), in which sunshine streaks the titular couch, alongside a vase of proud lilies in a view of the home Sands shared with her life partner, Nan Hudson. Like Sands’s scene, Saleh’s paintings assert privacy as a refuge that supports freedoms not necessarily afforded in the public realm. Like shifting clouds, her nebulous images put the onus on us to find recognizable shapes amid gauzy layers and sweeps of tonal white. In Whisper, veils of the palest blue appear perforated with clear patches like those rubbed off a fogged-up window. These gaps send the eye careering between foreground and back, perhaps even beyond the picture plane. With Summer’s end, crisp lines partially concealed by a swathe of translucent colour make themselves known as the details of a manicured hand holding a flower. 

Zeinab Saleh
Zeinab Saleh, Water has memory, 2024, acrylic on linen, 170 × 160 × 2 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

While the prevailing mood in Saleh’s works is tranquil, some paintings are tinged with the uncanny. In No shoes inside, layered washes of colour gradually resolve into recognizable signs: a prayer rug draped over an open door; lively decorative curls; the ominous form of a coiled serpent. Ultimately, it is the undefined spaces rather than any meaningful objects or animals that give Saleh’s scenes their power. In a world where so much is overdetermined, these vague interiors let uncertainty and quietude have their moment by making and holding space for what may be unsaid, unsayable.

Art Now: Zeinab Saleh’ is on view at Tate Britain, London, until 23 June 

Main image: Zeinab Saleh, The sovereignty of quiet, 2024, acrylic on canvas, 190 × 290 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tate

Ellen Mara De Wachter is based in London, UK.