There’s a space inside one of Zeinab Saleh’s paintings that I’d quite like to reach. I want to sit with my back to the window—and with the door far enough away that the possibility of being disturbed seems distant—and look out at the area in front of me, where there’s nothing but a rug and perhaps a cat. Some flowers, too: heads of fuchsia, bent under the weight of their petals and pointing towards the floor. But the floor wouldn’t exist, not really. I’d be sitting, floating, on nothing but layers of blue: washes of sea-green, navy and white.
This space is one that Saleh’s new exhibition at Tate Britain seems to circle around. It appears in flashes across her paintings: in the images of rugs and snapshots of domesticity; in the unerring cool palette of each of her linen canvases. For her second institutional show (her first, in 2021, was at Camden Art Centre), Saleh has made one room of the Tate a dream world. The separate canvases are different scenes of the same imagining: a world of cool light, of quietness, of something nearly, but not quite, at rest.
Summer’s End (2024) hangs on one wall replete with Saleh’s larger works. Acrylic on linen, a square of over a metre across, it initially appears to be a flower painting. Two plants—an motif of petals, head and stem, which is repeated throughout the room—are cast in reverse. A chalky whitewash sits over the surface of the linen, and the shapes of the plants appear like collage cut-outs. Where everything else is frosted and half obscured, they are remarkably clear: the stem and leaves in gradations of darker blue, with lines that mark the bands or notches of the plant; petals that open out to greater changes in colour and new marks.
Saleh’s flowers act like apertures into the rest of the canvas. The lines and patches of different blues are, in fact, parts of a scene behind the paint’s white mask. A leaf reveals a window behind; the flower’s head reveals a lampshade, a door, the corner of a room. In the foreground, the second flower reveals something else: a thin wrist ringed in bracelets, a manicured hand holding something. A bird, perhaps? There seems to be the hint of feathers, or of something living at least, yet we can’t tell: Saleh’s painting gives us quiet glimpses of what’s inside and no more. There is no next level; no version of the painting where we can see what is concealed behind the white-frosted expanse.
There is something suggestively durational about Summer’s End. Saleh began the work by painting the blue-green wash when the linen was still on the floor, before adding the scene of the room and the hand. These marks were, in turn, partially covered by the layer of whitewash. The completed painting—the only one gallerygoers can see—is one that reveals the earlier stages of its creation, but also acknowledges its irreversible completion, its end. Now I’m thinking: is that initial quietness I saw suggestive of something more sinister, more soured? Are the flowers—lying limp, as they do, on their sides—a sign of decay, of the end of a lifecycle?
The curators of this Tate show point towards Kevin Quashie’s 2012 book The Sovereignty of Quiet and what it says about “the expressive qualities of quietness in African American culture”; a book from which Saleh borrowed the title for another of her canvases on show here. Saleh’s work is reaching at this tenderness, this “intimacy of everyday experience”, but her domesticity is suffused with something more ambiguous, too. The space behind the flowers—the room I want to sit in—is unreachable: it is partially opened by the flowers, but also barricaded by them. The exhibition’s dream world is forever inaccessible: it belongs to the past life of the painting, a life only the artist could momentarily see.
Art Now: Zeinab Saleh is on display at Tate Britain until 23rd June