Curving along the Blue Nile towards Khartoum’s sister city of Omdurman, this road marches past the University of Khartoum. After the onset of widespread protest in December 2018, thousands gathered there in an impressive and sustained ad hoc act of civil disobedience calling for political change. Indeed, millions of people across Sudan gathered every day and night on the streets and avenues of Africa’s third-largest country to demand madaniya – civilian rule – after nearly 30 years of misrule under Colonel Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted on 11 April 2019 in a military coup d’état.
Yousif and his friends, all painters and visual artists, sat out the first few phases of the protests. In 2013, similar demonstrations had resulted in the deaths of thousands of young people in the capital with barely a peep from rest of the world. But after two months, the guerrilla painters realised that this time it would be different. This time it was madaniya or bust and they had to be a part of it. The decision to paint a mural was not one that Yousif (@galalgoly on social media) took lightly. Art is hardly an exalted profession in Sudan and there was no guarantee that the risk would yield any reward. He also knew that he would be placing himself in the sights of an increasingly belligerent military state. “I was scared because there were weird questions from weird people even while we were painting,” he says. “I knew they were investigating and I knew that maybe it would get me in trouble.” But the sit-in was calling and Yousif knew that he would never forgive himself if he didn’t put his skills towards helping tell the story of madaniya. “I wanted to make art publicly because I knew I could make a change.”
Thus, the idea for the guerrilla mural was born. Yousif and his friends first created a blank canvas by painting the walls white. Over an eight-hour period, they added silhouettes and a multicoloured background to depict the throngs gathered in Khartoum and in numerous other Sudanese towns. As they worked, hundreds of protesters gathered to watch and to offer moral support. Someone brought out a guitar and belted out some Bob Marley to which Yousif and his friends hummed. Over time, the mural became a focal point for sympathisers and a lightning rod for photographers and videographers documenting Sudan’s political transition.
As with other artists in the country, Yousif’s professional survival is due entirely to his being able to combine the old and new. He studied sculpture at the Sudan University for Science and Technology, and prior to the revolution had been slowly building a national and international reputation for pastoral portraits of Sudanese people in traditional white dress against exuberant, colourful backgrounds. Social media was a big part of his simmering success. “I sell my art mostly through Instagram,” he says. This allows him to circumvent the sanctions that have kept Sudan out of the global financial system ever since the country was labelled an “official state sponsor of terror” in 1993 by the US State department. It also meant that Yousif already had a base that helped amplify his political collaborations. During the protests, fans from around the world would tune in to Instagram live stories of him creating sketches and paintings inspired by the rage of the revolution.
Over time, other murals began to pop up in different parts of Khartoum, each expressing a different dimension of the situation. “A woman’s place is in the resistance” declared an expressionist mural from Alaa Satir (@alaa_satir), a young painter whose representations of women in the revolution have captured international attention. This mural was also painted under the cover of dark while looking out for military or police. An untagged mural inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People called The Revolution Will Go On popped up on one wall. There were stencils of “Wanted” posters with Bashir’s face on them appearing on buildings and trees across the city. As in the French Revolution, visual art emerged as a frontier for the demand for political transformation.
There was also a burst of creativity online. Nearly every day graphic artists produced new images capturing the various developments and adding to the pressure against the regime. Some were caricatures of Bashir, who is known to mask his brutality behind stiff dancing and a love for metaphors. Others captured the aspirations of madaniya – declarations of solidarity through images of Sudanese people united in protest. From mid-April of this year, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which took over after Bashir was deposed, began to force foreign journalists to leave Sudan in order to reduce international attention on the crisis, and on 3 June the internet was shut down across the country. This made the work of the Sudanese diaspora online even more important, as drawings inspired by information smuggled out of the country over Thuraya satellite phones and VPN connections became a major means of keeping the country connected to the outside world. Madaniya may not have been televised, but it was thoroughly documented through a strategic combination of traditional visual arts and creative use of the internet.
Street protests in Sudan began in December 2018 when the government arbitrarily trebled the price of bread, the national staple, but tension had been simmering for more than a decade. Sudan’s political instability also has its origins in the decades-long, racialised conflict between the predominantly Muslim north and the primarily Christian south, as well as the racism of the Arabised elite against pretty much everyone else. The north-south conflict eventually culminated in the independence of South Sudan in 2011. During its course, the predominantly Muslim northern region fashioned itself as a safe haven for religious extremists from the Middle East, triggering one of the most intense sanctions regimes in history. In 1993, the US government declared Khartoum a “state sponsor of terrorism” and the UN prohibited any kind of non-essential trade with the country. This is why it is impossible to send money to Sudanese artists through platforms such as Western Union or PayPal – for a while, the nation was barred from receiving funds from abroad except in the form of donations.
From 2004, the sanctions regime in Sudan was slowly undone to provide for the eventual independence of South Sudan. When Africa’s then-largest country was divided into two in 2011, Khartoum’s financial problems were compounded. For one, much of the oil on which the economy relied was in the south – now an independent country. Partly because the new nation is landlocked, but also to ensure that Sudan’s economy would not be completely destroyed, the independence agreement allowed Khartoum to charge hefty fees for the new country to continue using its historical oil-export system until South Sudan developed its own infrastructure.
Unfortunately, in 2013 South Sudan itself plunged into a devastating civil war that continues to this day. At least 400,000 people have died so far: sexual violence is rife; and millions have been displaced. For the north, this has meant a severe disruption in oil supply – if no oil is flowing, then there is no income from delivering it. Meanwhile, the three southern states of Sudan have also been at war with the central government since 2013 and the long-running conflict in Darfur in western Sudan has continued. The nation has essentially been at war with itself since its independence from Anglo- Egyptian rule in 1956. By the time the bread protests broke out in Atbara, the regime was already struggling to make its perpetual war economy make sense.
For Sudanese artists, sanctions have meant a struggle to show and sell work outside the country’s small market. Social media has been revolutionary in its capacity to connect with international audiences and buyers. Yousif and others are particularly active on Instagram, which not only encourages conversations between artists and their audiences but also allows them to connect with galleries outside Sudan, making international travel possible. “For Sudanese [artists], social media is more important because there aren’t that many galleries and there is no market for art or professional art shows. That’s why we’re on social media,” says Yousif. These connections can be powerful. In February for instance, Yousif was invited to Kigali, Rwanda, to paint a mural for a school in collaboration with Rwandese artists he had met on Instagram.
“All good art is political,” declared the late Toni Morrison. “And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’” This captures the quandary Sudanese artists faced when trying to decide if they should participate in the revolution – to either acquiesce to the status quo or take a dangerous leap of faith and defend the revolution even while uncertain of its outcomes. For many, the choice was made easier because being an artist in Sudan is already a political decision. “People in Sudan don’t think art is important,” says Yousif. “It’s hard to get them to see the value of what we do.” This explains why embracing visual arts as part of the revolution has been transformative for the artists and the societies they come from. The Sudanese artist is finally being brought in from the social wilderness.
The dialectic of madaniya and the art it inspires simultaneously face both the past and future. Madaniya is a demand for a return to purity and the myth of an idealistic Sudan before the rise of the Bashir regime, alongside an idealised, youth-focused future in which technology features prominently. Its emerging philosophy is a combination of old techniques and new platforms, using images of what Sudan was to shape ideas of what Sudan could be. Thus, although the internet has figured prominently in the way Sudanese protesters have operated – with examples including international viral campaigns such as #BlueForSudan, which inspired millions of people around the world to make their profile pictures blue in support of the protests – traditional offline methods of organising based on neighbourhood committees and meetings have played a crucial role. This meant that even when the TMC switched off the internet, the Sudanese Professionals Association – an amorphous group that at least nominally leads the protests – was still able to mobilise more than one million people to protest in Khartoum alone.
This conversation between past and future is also evident in the art of madaniya, with imagery of people in traditional dress looking towards the future figuring prominently. At the same time, Sudanese artists have had to rely on a combination of digital and analogue methods to get their work out into the world. This perhaps explains why murals have emerged as a major platform. More than canvasses or digital art, they allow people with no regular access to the internet to experience the artwork, but they can still be photographed or documented for digital distribution. “I paint murals because they can make a change,” says Yousif. “I want to make art public for people to see, so people don’t have to pay to see or own art.” Sudan’s revolutionary art is helping domestic and international audiences understand the more emotive and elusive aspects of a complex process. Much as Delacroix’s enormous paintings captured the vastness of the French Revolution, Sudan’s murals are testament to the enormous scale of the protesters’ ambitions – not just a change in military leadership but a complete transformation of their society. “It is about freedom,” says Yousif. “It is about building the Sudan we want to live in.”
The first role of the Sudanese artist has been to document and share snippets of the country’s 63-year history in striking artworks that unpack what outside observers had already began misidentifying as a “bread protest”. Public art is a big part of the demand for a complete structural overhaul of Sudanese public and political life; and it is made more pointed when you consider how hard the military regime has worked to marginalise arts and popular culture. Major art programmes like the one Yousif attended have been underfunded and there is little public support for them, while people who practice as artists are often criticised.
Resistance translates in stylistic terms in subtle ways. One example is the representation of the human form. Strict interpretations of Islam – which the military regime has been trying to impose in place of the country’s liberal, Sufi tradition – prohibit painting of human beings, hence the rich tradition of Islamic calligraphy. But Sudanese visual artists have always resisted this injunction and in the spirit of madaniya, the visual arts have been dominated by representations of Sudanese people. As such, they demand a remaking of Sudan in the image of the people, rather than the military regime.
Similarly, the 30-year Bashir reign was characterised by racially divisive language that dehumanised darker-skinned southerners and westerners in order to justify government brutality against them. Undoing Bashir’s racist rhetoric and urging inter-ethnic unity has been a major theme in many of the works produced during the revolution, and composite images often feature a multi-ethnic Sudan. The artwork of madaniya also features darkerskinned subjects, or mixtures of people in various types of traditional wear, symbolising the diversity of the large country. Reasserting Sudan’s African identity, which had been sidelined in favour of Arabism, has been a key element in the demand for madaniya.
The idea of a return to the past as a move towards the future is also seen in the use of Sudan’s pre-revolution flag. The current red, black, white and green flag is barely distinguishable from the flags of Egypt, Yemen, Syria or Iraq. For many Sudanese people, the current flag symbolises the pivot towards conservative Islam and away from Sudan’s historically liberal and less dogmatic Sufism and syncretism. “The revival of the old Sudanese flag on social media is such a strong symbolic factor of this revolution,” tweeted Yasmin (@YesssitsYas). “We’ll never be free under that Arab legion themed flag.”
As a result, many protesters have called for the return of the original tricolour in yellow, blue and green that symbolised the desert, the Nile and the lush fields of southern Sudan. At a Sudan solidarity event in Nairobi in June, Sudanese artists in exile draped themselves in the tricolour, as do many protesters in Khartoum. In several of the paintings that have emerged since December 2018, this tricolour has been a recurring theme. Sketch artist Rahiem Abdu Shadad’s (@AbduShadad_) viral drawing of a woman in a red toub, a traditional dress consisting of a long piece of lightweight fabric wrapped around the waist and then over the head, sewing a tricolour flag back together is widely interpreted as the desire to rebuild a unified Sudan after the fall of this regime.
At the same time, women are also reasserting their presence through art. As Sudan has gone from being one of Africa’s most liberal societies to one of its most conservative, women have endured the worst of the military’s excesses. Before the revolution, the dreaded Public Order Police – the morality police – patrolled the country’s urban spaces with the power to publicly whip any woman they deemed to be indecently dressed. Many of these punishments were inflicted on working-class women who either did not have the option to withdraw completely from public life or the connections or status to push back against the state.
Working as an artist in this context has been particularly difficult for women, to say the least. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, Sudanese women have a long history of participating in resistance. One of the most striking images of 2019 was of Alaa Salah, a young architecture student dressed in the toub, standing on the hood of a car, leading thousands of protesters in a chant against the military regime. The rhythmic shouts were reminiscent of traditional Sudanese poetry styles and quickly caught on domestically. Eventually, Haitian musician Wyclef Jean would turn them into a rap song, ‘Nubian Queen’. But the chants also got significant traction overseas because the image of a veiled woman leading a revolution flew in the face of what people thought was the role of women in Sudanese society. Subsequently, stills from the video were turned into graphic art that went viral across all major social-media platforms and the world was reintroduced to the concept of kandaka.
The word “kandaka” has its roots in the Kushitic kingdom in present-day central Sudan, where hundreds of pyramids that predate the pyramids of Giza sit lonely and all but abandoned. Kushitic women were allowed to inherit kingdoms and rule, and these queens were known as kandake. Today, the word is used to refer to strong Sudanese women in public life and particularly to women who have been part of the resistance. The popularity of the Salah video thus triggered a sense of frustration that the uniquely Sudanese tradition of women’s political strength and resistance as kandake was being subsumed into Western stereotypes of Muslim women’s subservience. “Sudanese women have always been part of the revolution,” insists Satir.
For women in Sudan’s visual-arts community, the revolution has therefore also provided an opportunity to reclaim the idea of kandaka from history, and to re-centre women’s experiences in the moment. But kandaka has also emerged in the way Sudanese women artists have entered the limelight. Assil Diab (@sudalove), who already had a significant profile in Khartoum as a street artist, started a project with a group of friends to memorialise the hundreds of protesters who have been killed by the military since the violent dispersal of the sit-in on 3 June. The group paints large commemorative murals of the martyrs’ faces on walls in Khartoum, refusing to let them die anonymously. Satir uses her murals to remind the world of the role of Sudanese women in the revolution and the violence that they have endured as a consequence of their protests. “I was really scared,” the young artist says of the first night that she and her friends set out to paint. “I didn’t know if we would get arrested or something.” Not only were they not arrested, but the mural – A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance – has become a powerful symbol.
Painting has been the most visible medium in Sudan, but across social media and other platforms artists specialising in different materials are part of this decentralised movement. Established cartoonists such as Copenhagen-based Khalid Albaih (on Twitter as @khalidalbaih) built on work that they had previously been doing. Albaih’s 2017 illustration of NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racism not only went viral but has also been embraced by the former quarterback’s fans as a definitive symbol of the athlete’s resistance. Albaih has produced new work nearly every week throughout the revolution and, in July, presented a show in New York featuring pieces from political cartoonists and artists in the Sudanese diaspora. Doha-based Abu’Obayda Mohamed (who tweets as @oxdamoe) was one of the first to share his work supporting the Sudanese revolution online. His most famous pieces are bright-coloured pastiches that feature pastoral scenes of Sudanese people in traditional dress looking towards hopeful futures framed by outlines of the country’s boundaries. But within Sudan itself, murals remain the best way of bridging online and offline communities of protesters. “The art is for the people,” says Yousif, “and the artist must be responsible to [their] community.”
On 3 June 2019, the Sudanese TMC decided that it had had enough of the sit-in. Late at night, while hundreds were gathered in tents and around plastic tables, heavily armed units in the distinct uniform of the janjaweed militia – the same unit that had been terrorising Darfur since 2003 – tore through the camp and ripped apart the commune. The government confirmed that 61 people died as a result. Many people remain unaccounted for and bodies have been retrieved from the nearby Nile river.
It is a testament to the power of the murals that one of the first things the military regime did when breaking up the sit-in was to paint over several of them. But if the army’s goal was to demoralise the protesters, they completely missed the mark. Not only are the artworks well documented and still present on social media, but many fresh creations emerge every day across Sudan. Yousif has already painted a new mural in his old one’s place. For Sudanese artists, it remains madaniya or bust. “They can paint over the murals, but they can’t paint over our hearts,” says Yousif.