We used our art to fight. Now we need it to heal us

Painting for the future.
Painting for the future.
Image: Reuters/Umit Bektas
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Sudan’s artists have a new fight on our hands.

As the last waves of protests fade from the news, we need to shift our focus to healing ourselves.

Talking about trauma is a relatively new concept in our culture. We were never taught the language to cope with what happens after the fight—we were just taught to stay out of trouble.

But so many of us are suffering from trauma and the emotional toll of failed revolutions; from the fatigue of resisting, over and over again; from seeing people killed around us.

For many of us, our trauma hasn’t even had time to settle in yet. But when it does, we are going to need relief.

Growing up in Sudan, the government and society—including our parents—bullied us. We were told not to think differently, not to ask questions. We were warned about criticizing the government, at least in public.

Our society was divided between us—the citizens—and them—the government. If you ever wonder who owns those expensive cars, the answer is still always “them.”

We were encouraged to be doctors to treat them, when the people in our communities could scarcely afford basic medical care; to be engineers to build one-way roads that lead up to their mansions.

We were encouraged to be accountants, so that we could count their money and send it to offshore bank accounts in islands we never heard of.

We couldn’t be artists unless we painted flattering portraits of leaders and statesmen, or drew calligraphy of the Quranic verses that they used to justify their actions.

Before the revolution, street art was practically nonexistent in places like Khartoum, our capital city. Today, it’s nearly everywhere.

When #SudanRevolted

To our generation, it seemed fairly natural to be denied basic avenues of political expression. Until it turned people into ticking time bombs.

If you’ve watched the news at all in the past several years, you’re most like familiar with this sequence of events:

In the early-to-mid 2000s, social media cracked open a small window for freedom of expression in the region.  Blogs and online forums, then Twitter and Facebook, allowed people to commune away from censorship. It paved the way for people to dare—to risk—imagining different futures. It gave us in Sudan hope.

The first thing that exploded at the start of the Arab spring—pun intended—was art. Many of us were a part of that explosion: rappers, painters, poets, cartoonists like myself.

Art moved from Facebook walls to covering the walls that surrounded mass sit-ins in city squares, from Cairo to Tripoli.

Street art was popular not because it was cool, but because the fear was broken. Artists had so much to say, they had nowhere left to write it but on the walls.

Fast forward eight years, and #SudanRevolts took on a life of its own.

I visited Khartoum last January, and saw anti-regime graffiti all over the city, along with portraits of martyrs painted onto the walls of their families’ houses.

Then a crowd of mostly women protesters toppled Omar al-Bashir in less than a week.

I thought the third time was a charm for Sudan.

Like other squares across the Arab world over the past years, western journalists flocked to report on it. Art and artists got international attention, from speaking opportunities at biennales, to getting published in international art magazines.

Then, just like many other sit-ins across the Arab world, the Khartoum protests ended with a massacre. Hundreds dead, thousands injured, art deleted, artists dispersed and social media cut off—controlled once again by them.

No more journalists, no more speaking events, no more publishing opportunities.

We lost your freedom again, as well as our 15 minutes of fame.

Art without access

For me, and for many of my peers, this was a déjà vu. Most of us had already been driven to leave our countries, fearing for our lives—and many of us remain away because we can’t bare going back to a world of self-censorship.

Sudan is a country with a pioneering art school, but no art ecosystem. Most artists don’t have studios, because they can’t afford them.

Sudan’s system throughout its history ensures that people—artists in particular—have stayed in check. While there are a few commercial galleries and collectors, graffiti and political art can get you arrested and beaten.

And now, just when we need art the most, the industry has entered an era of what I call a new orientalism.

The orientalism of the 19th century saw western colonial authors fetishizing an exotic other. This new orientalism caters to a version of Arab identity—often pedaled from within the commercial Arab art world—that is palatable for western consumers, who appreciate the problems of the region as distant and unsolvable.

With Sudan relatively invisible in international media until recent protest coverage, many Sudanese artists have headed to East Africa, where more often than not we face the “traditional African art” dilemma.

If we want access to more freedoms, we might try to escape to the West, where we endure extreme vetting procedures for visa applications. Or, we pay smugglers to get on a death boat, if we make it to the coast of Libya or Egypt.

Those like me, in the diaspora, still spend most of our time on visa applications to the US or other EU countries, chasing artist residencies so we can afford to continue to tell our stories independently.

The art of trauma

Before we normalize body counts and internet blackouts, we need to prepare for the next stage of the fight: our emotional health. Our art needs to address our trauma, and push new conversations about how to heal as a society before we start planning our next sit-ins.

Our resistance graffiti may not be pretty, and creating it is dangerous. It may not make the news. But we  need it now for our own communities, to carve out that space in society to heal, so that we keep the revolution alive. We broke the fear once, and we will break it again.

To the artists inside Sudan, I say: apply for grants, residencies, fellowships—as many as you can find. Use their buzzwords, and their new orientalism—even if you don’t agree.

Keep highlighting Sudan. Reach out to the world as you would like the world to reach out to you.

To the people still risking their lives to tell us about Sudan: The world needs to know you.