File Note 136: Zeinab Saleh - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Momtaza Mehri



Quiet Storms Images References Quote Biography Credits

Quiet Storms

In their 1998 single ‘Softest Place on Earth’, the ’90s R&B foursome Xscape sang of a ‘new horizon of love’, their syrupy harmonies fluttering over a lush bed of instrumentation. Beyond the sheen of midnight skies and stylistic lullabies, theirs was a soundtrack of shimmering desire. R&B resonates as both genre and register, revelling in the excessively and unabashedly impassioned. It luxuriates in the intimacy of incense-swathed hallways, pattering rain, soft lighting and honeyed tones. Like genre, intimacy is a contested threshold. Often shiveringly fleeting, it is a thread of relation that is always at the risk of unravelling. Much like grasping at tendrils of smoke, capturing its mutable nature can be a daunting task. Maddeningly vital, its latticework of crisscrossing affiliations influences the direction of our lives. Zeinab Saleh’s paintings are keenly attuned to these movements. Born in Kenya, Saleh is a London-based interdisciplinary artist whose
work confronts the quiet power of intimacy in daily life’s rhythms. Her new show, Softest place (on earth), shares its title and sensibilities with the best of R&B classics; its affect arrives in waves, lapping against
thematic constraints. The unspoken reverberates; other, softer worlds remain uncharted. Saleh traces the shadow’s linger, the curl of eyelash, the wisp of light, the candle’s drip. These paintings do the work of
excavation, as sociality simmers under their surface. They are fluid in their emotional resonance.

To intimate is to make known, to elucidate the silhouette and pin down the impermanent. The late Lauren Berlant referred to the ‘sparest of signs and gestures’ at the root of intimacy, insisting upon the limitless possibilities of intimacy as an ‘aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way’.¹ Intimacy energises. Saleh’s paintings nod to the rippling significance of the gestural, commanding what she calls a ‘lexicon of eyes and hands’. This intimacy of stolen glances and snatched moments recalls the sumptuous emotional candour of the R&B music video, with its visual vernacular of crackling fireplaces, soaked shirts and open-armed surrender.

Form echoes feeling in Saleh’s use of powdered charcoal, reflecting the ephemerality of intimate moments drawn from the familial, filial, domestic and social. In broad strokes and sweeps, she presents contemplative expressions of warmth and familiarity. I am reminded of 4 star wedding (2019), Saleh’s earlier video work depicting the diamanté- adorned fuzz of weddings caught on VHS and circulated throughout the diaspora. Ties of kinship are unruly, uncontainable and irrepressibly prone to spillage. We are immersed in their versatility. For Georges Bataille, intimacy is innate to pure animal existence. ‘The animal is in the world like water in water’, he writes, describing the flow of intimacy as a series of necessary anguishes. How do we grapple with the malice of intimacy, its white-eyed pallor, its sweet sadness, its endless evasions? ² Saleh emphasises motion, following the diffusion of intimacies across varyingly relatable scenes. Though she admits to being a painter at heart, I see her as an emotional cartographer. The onlooker’s eye is guided by her strokes and errant lines, only to be led to an unexpected

Speaking from her home, Saleh shared her process with me. Reinventing sketching through charcoal swept over canvas, she committed herself to a physically challenging and laborious technique requiring speed, mask usage and safety precautions. Her alterations and brushing manoeuvres, made with the most domestic of tools — a broom — reveal depths of texture, shade and colour. I was struck by the effort behind such looseness of form. Even in the elusive impressions of these paintings, there is a purposeful and nudging call to attention, an alertness to hard-won freedom. Volatile to fingerprints and shifts in movement, fine charcoal’s instability as a material also subtly expresses the changeability of intimacy. Saleh utilises archival spray to fix the image, an approach that stabilises the emotive fluctuations of her paintings. There is a rewarding tension between flurried activity and stillness. ‘The only lasting truth is change’, as
Octavia Butler wrote ³.

Softness is not just a place. It is an orientation towards one’s surroundings and peoples. Still waters run deep. This ethos saturates Saleh’s work. I am held by the mirrored gaze of How many ways
(2021), which renders the simmering stillness of self-recognition while conveying slippages of imagination. It is as malleable as the titular Toni Braxton song. The beguilingly serpentine reappears in My body drops an octave (2021), where the transition of removed charcoal into black lines forms the winding motif of a snake. Arabesque patterns flourish in unanticipated corners, lending a sense of the otherworldly
to these meditations. Elsewhere, there is the suggestive dreaminess of dewdrops (Last night’s dew, 2021), fading evenings and the curved necks of swans (Moonlit Lake, 2021). The crescent moon hangs evocatively in Preparing my daughter for rain (2021), a piece titled after a Key Ballah poetry collection . (Ballah detailed her own arithmetic of what grows between the cracks of skin: ‘cell by cell, over nine full moons, a flower grown from blood’.) Saleh’s engagement with the poetic further extends to the experimental quality of her method. Space and shade offer opportunities for quick-handed improvisation, a challenge with which poets are all too familiar. The more you look, the more you notice. Doubt is a visitation of humility. In the poem ‘Night Is Her Robe’, Grace Nichols centres the quiveringly alert subject with a penchant for moonlight and strange weeds . She is both witness and alchemist. Saleh’s works step out softly, ‘leaving the edge of her island forest’. This teetering balance of perception can be seen in Rising Moon (2021), Saleh’s study of a henna-tattooed hand and the slickness of a cat’s back. At first, I did not spot the cat. Like intimacy, looking
takes practice.

In her allegiance to the monochrome, there is a deceptive simplicity to Saleh’s latest works. The realm of the intimate is so flighty, so susceptible to fickle exposition and stiff, soul-sapping analysis. Between the public and private spheres, so much of it is spectacularised, exploited and evacuated of meaning. By focusing on
the richness of inner lives, practised domesticities and transcendent abstractions, Saleh adamantly honours it. Resisting fixed narratives, she clears an unrestricted path ahead. At one point, she told me she was drawn to ‘moments of tenderness’ wherever she may find them. Saleh’s work invites us to retrace our steps and invigorate our attentiveness towards what binds us. The wondrously mundane is magnified alongside the ethereal. Both can transform us, if we let them.


1 Lauren Berlant, ‘Intimacy: A Special Issue’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 2, 281–88 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1998), 

2 Georges Bataille and Robert Hurley, Theory of Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992)

3 Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Warner Books, 1995)

4 Key Ballah, Preparing My Daughter for Rain (London: CreateSpace Publishing, 2014)

5 Grace Nichols, I Have Crossed an Ocean: Selected Poems (Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2010)

Key Ballah, Preparing My Daughter For Rain (London: CreateSpace Publishing, 2014)

Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Warner Books, 1995)

Jill Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonisation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005)

Hamish Farah, Airport Love Theme (London: Book Works, 2020)

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls (London: Simon & Schuster, 2015)

‘Surah Ad-Duha’ (chapter 93), The Quran (c. 610–32) 

Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth  (London: Flipped Eye Publishing Limited, 2011)

Martine Syms, Shame Space (New York: Primary Information, 2020)

Nayyirah Waheed, salt. (London: CreateSpace Publishing, 2013)

Toni Braxton, ‘How Many Ways’, track #9 on Toni Braxton (LaFace Records LLC, 1993)

Amr Diab, ‘Wehyati Khaliki’, track #9 on Wayah (Rotana, 2009)

King Khaled, ‘Nagma’, track #2 on King Khaled (somalimusic, 2014)

Xscape, ‘Softest Place On Earth’, track #3 on Traces Of My Lipstick (Sony Music Entertainment inc., 1998)

Lula Ali Ismaïl, Dhalinyaro (Djibouti, 2018), film

Pam Nasr, Clams Casino (USA, 2018), film

‘What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?’ Audre Lorde


Zeinab Saleh (b.1996, Kenya) lives and works in London. She received her BFA from Slade School of Fine Art in 2019. Recent group exhibitions include: Nour el Ain, Karma International, Switzerland (2021); After Image, MAMOTH, London (2020); Zeinab Saleh and Yuko Mohri, mother’s tankstation, London (2020); The Poetics of the Neighbourhood Rascals, Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam (2019); A patch of green in London, Cookhouse Gallery, London (2019); The Age of New Babylon, Lethaby Gallery, London (2018); Redress, UCL Art Museum, London (2018) and Widening the Gaze, Slade Research Centre, London (2018).


Momtaza Mehri is a poet based between London and Tunis.

Generously supported by Ben Rawlingson-Plant and by Metroland Cultures in partnership with Brent Council, with funding from Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.