By: Abdi Latif Dahir
Dozens of Sudanese artists and curators have fled their studios and galleries in the capital, jeopardizing thousands of artworks and imperiling an art scene central to the 2019 revolution.
On the morning Sudan’s rival military forces began fighting, Yasir Algrai was in his studio in the center of the country’s capital, prepping for another day of work surrounded by paint colors and canvases.
That was on April 15 — and in the three days that followed, Mr. Algrai remained trapped in his studio, starving and dehydrated as battles raged outside his door on the streets of Khartoum.
For hours every day, he cowered in terror as bullets pierced the windows of the building and the walls shook from errant shelling. When a small period of quiet to escape materialized, Mr. Algrai was eager to seize it — albeit with a heavy heart.
“I could not carry any of my art or personal belongings,” said Mr. Algrai, 29, who got out, but left behind his favorite guitar and more than 300 paintings of different sizes. “This conflict has robbed us of our art and our peace, and we are now left trying to stay sane in the midst of displacement and death.”
Mr. Algrai is among dozens of Sudanese artists and curators who have fled their studios and galleries as two warring generals lay waste to one of Africa’s largest and most geopolitically important nations.
The conflict, pitting the Sudanese Army controlled by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces led by Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, has killed hundreds, displaced over a million people and left more than half the country’s population in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Amid the freewheeling violence, many fear that the war will devastate the city’s burgeoning art scene, propelled primarily by young artists who emerged from the 2019 pro-democracy revolution and who were beginning to gain regional and global attention.
A dozen Sudanese artists and curators in Sudan, Egypt and Kenya told The New York Times that they had no idea about the fate of their homes, studios or gallery spaces, which cumulatively housed artworks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The artistic, creative ecosystem is going to be broken for a while,” said Azza Satti, a Sudanese art curator and filmmaker. Artists, she said, “saw the people’s need to express themselves, to feel alive, to feel recognized,” adding that the war was gradually leading to “the erasure of that voice, that identity.”
Some of the fiercest fighting in the capital has unfolded in neighborhoods like Khartoum 2, where the city’s newest art galleries are based, or bustling districts like Souk al-Arabi, where Mr. Algrai kept his studio. Robberies and looting are rampant in those areas, with residents blaming the paramilitary forces who have steadily tightened their grip on the capital.
With museums and historical buildings attacked and damaged in the fighting, many are also concerned about the pillaging of the country’s artistic riches and archaeological sites.
The Sudan Natural History Museum and archives at the Omdurman Ahlia University have both suffered significant damage or looting, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in a statement.
Inside the war, the physical war, there’s another war for art,” said Eltayeb Dawelbait, a veteran Sudanese artist who is based in Nairobi. Mr. Dawelbait has several pieces in Sudanese galleries and said he feared Sudan’s artistic and cultural institutions would be pilfered much like what happened in Iraq two decades ago.
“The artwork needs to be protected,” he said.
After the country’s 1956 independence, Sudan had a bustling art scene that produced renowned artists, including Ahmed Shibrain, Ibrahim El-Salahi and Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. But in the three decades that the dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir held power, he used censorship, religious decrees and imprisonment to limit creative expression, forcing many artists and musicians to flee the country.
That began to shift during the 2019 revolution, when young artists poured into the streets to paint murals on walls and roads and call for democratic rule. When Mr. al-Bashir was eventually removed from power in April of that year, artists reveled in their newfound freedoms and began painting and sculpting to capture life in post-revolution Sudan.
Among them was Dahlia Abdelilah Baasher, a 32-year-old self-taught artist who quit her job as an art teacher after the revolution in order to work full-time on her art. Ms. Baasher’s figurative paintings examine the repression that women face in Sudanese society, and over the years, her pieces have attracted the attention of curators and art custodians from Sudan, Egypt, Kenya and the United States.
Days before Sudan’s war broke out in April, she and her family went to Egypt for the last days of the holy month of Ramadan and the following Eid holiday. Ms. Baasher packed several small paintings for the trip with the hope of selling them, but left more than two dozen large canvases at home.
“I cannot put into words or onto a canvas how I feel about this war,” Ms. Baasher said in a video interview from Cairo. With her apartment building and neighborhood in Khartoum deserted, she said she didn’t know the fate of any of her belongings.
“We are all just shocked and traumatized,” she said. “We never imagined this would happen and that we would lose the art movement we have been building.”
Her pain was shared by Rahiem Shadad, who in the heady, post-revolution days co-founded The Downtown Gallery in Khartoum.
Mr. Shadad, 27, works with more than 60 artists across Sudan, and was planning a solo show in Khartoum for Waleed Mohamed, a 23-year-old painter. Mr. Shadad had also just finished curating and shipping artworks for an exhibition scheduled to travel abroad titled “Disturbance in The Nile.” The show, which starts in late June, will tour Lisbon, Madrid and Paris and feature Sudanese artists from various generations.
But since the fighting broke out, Mr. Shadad has focused solely on ensuring the safety of the artists and their artwork.
Hundreds of paintings and framed artworks are stuck in the Downtown Gallery located in Khartoum 2. The conflict has also drained the savings of many artists and denied them a regular income, which largely stemmed from sales to foreign nationals and embassy officials who have now been evacuated.
To help artists and their families, Mr. Shadad, along with Sudanese curators like Ms. Satti, started a crowdfunding campaign this month. They are also mulling over how to transport artists’ works to safety once relative calm takes hold in Khartoum. Despite a seven-day cease-fire scheduled to expire on Monday, Mr. Shadad said he had been told about robberies and harassment of civilians who venture back to the area near his gallery.
“The hub of the art scene in Sudan is under a serious attack,” Mr. Shadad, crying, said in a phone interview from Cairo. “It is extremely emotional thinking that the hard work that we have done will just be lost.”
For many artists, the conflict has also denied them access to their source of inspiration.
Khalid Abdel Rahman, whose work depicts landscapes of Khartoum neighborhoods and Sufi tombs, fled his studio in Khartoum 3 without his paintings and says he’s been thinking about how the conflict will affect his vision and future creations.
“I can’t figure it out now,” he said. “I’m really sad about this.”
But amid the death and displacement that has enveloped Sudan, artists say this is another period in the nation’s history that they will have to document one way or another.
“This is an era that we must carefully study so that we can pass it on to future generations and introduce them to what happened to the country,” Mr. Algrai, who is staying in a village east of Khartoum, said.
“The passion will never die.”
The New York Times