The Oxford Tree by Ibrahim El-Salahi

Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Oxford Tree, 2001, Pen, ink, and coloured ink on Bristol board, 34 x 34 cm, Private Collection, London, © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London; Photo: Courtesy of Vigo gallery and the artist

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Signs of Life

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Obed is celebrated as ‘a restorer of life and a nourisher’ of Naomi’s old age (Ruth 4:15 NRSV). The genealogy listing his son and grandson as Jesse and David (4:22) and the connecting of Ruth with Rachel and Leah (4:11) reveal Obed’s importance in the renewal and sustenance of Israel. Ruth is the great-grandmother of the renowned King David, and through him, for Christians, an ancestor of Jesus the Messiah.

More immediately in the narrative, Ruth also bears smaller gifts to those around her. She offers Naomi six measures of barley given to her by Boaz. Ruth is a life-bringer, hope-bringer, and God-bearer. She nurtures and revivifies individuals, community, and the whole people of God.

Trees are often imbued in religious and indigenous traditions with sacred meaning—frequently symbolizing life and growth. They are one of a number of significant motifs that recur in the work of Ibrahim El Salahi. El Salahi uses the ‘abstracted motif of the tree … as a metaphorical link between heaven and earth, creator and created’ (Fritsch 2018: 10). A Muslim Sudanese refugee living in Oxford, he combines European forms and Sudanese themes. His work has variously been described as transnational surrealism and African or Arab modernism. He has a particular interest in the haraz tree, depicted here in The Oxford Tree. An acacia indigenous to Sudan that grows in the Nile valley, El Salahi sees it as ‘a symbol of the Sudanese and their resilience’. The haraz is bare in rainy season when everything else is green. It blooms during the dry season when all else is stripped. It is ‘a very obstinate tree, just like the Sudanese’. Finding the tree within as well as outside himself, he notices it ‘trying to assert itself’ (Fritsch 2018: 24, 55).

Ruth asserts herself both by her entry into and after her arrival in Israel. In doing so, she blooms at a time when the community of Israel is struggling and dry. One possible Hebrew root of her name is rwh, meaning to water to saturation (Donaldson 2010: 146).

 

References

Donaldson, Laura. 2010. “The Sign of Orpah: Reading Ruth Through Native Eyes”. In P-L. Kwok, (ed.), Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women's Theology: 138-151. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Fritsch, Lena. 2018. Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Sudanese Artist in Oxford (Oxford: Ashmolean Publications)


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