/ 14 March 2024

Art in a time of conflict

Photograph Of Mural Showing Torture In Khartoum. Used With Permi
Back to the wall: A mural in Sudan’s capital Khartoum depicting the war by artists Yasir Aglrai and Hani Khalil

15 April 2023 was “a normal Ramadan morning” in Ibrahim Mohamed Ibrahim’s apartment on Airport Street in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. 

Then the filmmaker’s phone rang. The friend on the other end warned him something was afoot. He felt a rumbling and heard the squealing of tyres. Not a normal Ramadan morning at all. Military vehicles sped through his neighbourhood towards the international airport, which soon became the heart of the fighting. 

In the days that followed, Ibrahim says, “we were trapped between the army and the RSF [a paramilitary group] and there was no electricity and water”. Ten months later, he is 3 000km away in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Like many Sudanese artists and creatives, Ibrahim and his film company flourished in the years between the 2019 fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir and the outbreak of war last year. 

“For the first time, we could film outside our building and the intelligence service building was right in front of us,” Ibrahim says. 

They were making Khartoum, a cinematic ode to their home city, when the war interrupted.

In those short, heady years of freedom, they made Bougainvillea, a film about women imprisoned in the final days of Bashir’s reign, and Journey to Kenya, which told the story of an unfunded Sudanese jiu jitsu team that travels to a tournament in Nairobi. 

In Nairobi, Ibrahim, who also goes by Snoopy — due to his uncanny resemblance to rapper Snoop Dogg — is part of the Rest Residency, a collective of Sudanese artists and musicians who have fled the conflict. 

Started by Rahiem Shadad, the programme immerses artists in Nairobi for five months, allowing them time to reflect and work on projects. 

A few weeks ago, it announced the start of its formal programme and named its first 21 participants, who include painters, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, a fashion designer and a novelist. 

“They’re doing a great job of taking all these creatives under their wing,” Snoopy says. “You feel like you can continue being creative. You’ve already lost home, so you need home far away from home.” 

Like Snoopy, the artists admit to underestimating just how vicious the fighting would be. 

“Since the revolution, Sudan had been very unstable,” Mohammed Almahdi explains. “Every Sudanese thought it would take a week or a month and go back to normal.” 

Many artists left their work behind as they thought they’d be back soon. But it became clear that studios, artwork and equipment would all have to be abandoned. 

Ibrahim says leaving his equipment was his “biggest mistake”. He’s sure it was all stolen — cameras, computers, lighting, sound. Only their films, which were backed up, survived. 

Sannad Shariff was at home in Khartoum’s Kafouri district on 15 April, watching a movie, when the war broke out. A graffiti and mixed materials artist, his work would often features eyes that show pain. He had started a programme for young painters called Artist249, referring to Sudan’s country code. 

He stayed in Khartoum for seven months, venturing out to observe and shoot videos, until one went viral and his friends convinced him to leave. He fled to Port Sudan, passing through Atbara, and then to Gedaref, Gondar on the Ethiopian border, Addis Ababa and finally Nairobi. 

“I lost maybe 100 pieces of my art.” 

He’s been told his home has been looted. “But they’ve done that to everyone,” he shrugs. 

During the revolution, Yasir Algrai was part of a group of artists who painted murals in Khartoum: “Our message was ‘Make art, not war’”. 

On a show of Sudanese art at a Nairobi gallery, Yasir’s portrait shows a woman dressed in a purple robe. A dove is perched on her arm.

“She is waiting for the peace,” says Yasir. So is he. 

Curator Mahasin Ismail’s idea to curate a Sudanese exhibition sprung from frustration. “The only way for me to practise art was to write articles about the war and artists trapped in war zones, whose stories hadn’t been covered enough,” she says. 

Since she fled Khartoum, Ismail has been keeping track of the artistic sites and galleries in Sudan. At least nine galleries have been robbed. 

Many artists remain trapped in Sudan. One, Rasoul, gave her some art as she fled. “He’s still in Khartoum. But we’ve lost all contact with him.”

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here