Sudanese art takes refuge in Madrid

Casa Árabe hosts an exhibition of the works that left the country before the outbreak of the still unfinished third Sudanese civil war 

It is now a year since hostilities broke out between General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and de facto head of state, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, nicknamed "Hemedti", commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).  

The two also served as chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, of Sudan's Sovereign Council, which was tasked with handing over power to a civilian government under a formal agreement scheduled for 6 April 2023. Not only did that deal fall through, but the two generals also launched a civil war, which began with Dagalo's uprising by storming the Khartoum and Merowe airports.  

This civil war, the worst consequence of which is the famine that threatens 18 million people despite the country's natural wealth in gold and oil, had been brewing since the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, who favoured the military and encouraged rivalry between Burhan and Dagalo in order to remain himself the arbiter and quash any attempt at a partial uprising.  

A few days before the turbulence broke out on 15 April 2023, several of Sudan's best contemporary artists managed to get some of their works out of the country, which have ended up finding refuge in southern Europe, first in Lisbon, and now at Casa Árabe in Madrid.  

They are names to be written down and remembered, because each one of them contains their own story, within a great collective effort to affirm that, even when lives and homes are torn from a community, the voice and expression of a people cannot be silenced.  

Waleed Mohammed, Yasmeen Abdullah, Reem al-Jeally, Miska Mohammed, Mohamed A. Otaybi, Rashid Diab, Eltayeb Dawelbait, Tariq Nasre and Bakri Moaz represent the emergence of Sudan's art.  

Sudan's collective memory has indeed many stories to tell and many of them with open endings. The war in the West, which began in 2003, and the history of South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, are two watersheds that stratify the current imaginary.  

It was a real milestone that, following the popular uprising that led to the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Khartoum saw a multiplication in the number of galleries promoting the work of Sudanese artists. Pop-up art developed and proliferated across the country. The most significant of these artists were the astonishing murals of the revolution, considered a cultural emblem of that ephemeral effervescence that would end bitterly with the outbreak of this latest war last year.  

The exhibition now on display at Casa Árabe in Madrid is called "Disturbance on the Nile", and it pays tribute to all the turbulence that has been unleashed almost without respite in the history of Sudan since its independence.  

Curated by Rahiem Shadad and Antonio Pinto Ribeiro, and coordinated by Karim Hauser, the exhibition describes Sudan's Arab-African identity in its diversity of ethnicities, beliefs and languages. Khartoum, where the mighty Blue Nile meets the calm and subtle White Nile, is also where these cultures find a locality that unifies them. It is where identity becomes metaphysical and an intelligent contemporary individuality emerges.  

Sudan's modern and contemporary history has been a succession of turbulent upheavals. From failed democracies to military dictatorship that lasted thirty years, the younger generations have not witnessed or cannot remember a Sudan with freedom of expression, nor a leadership that respected their choices. In this context, the 2018-2019 revolution triggered an explosion of collective aspirations, demands and patriotism. Identity became a cause and a struggle, and the art scene experienced a post-revolutionary explosion. A small part of that art is the one that has now found refuge in Madrid, and which will forever evoke the forced exile of its creators.