LONDON — A small but rich ten-day exhibition at P21 Gallery in central London is showcasing works by Sudanese and South Sudanese literary artisans. The multimedia exhibition presents photographic and video portraits of the writers beside their published texts, providing multifaceted insight into the literary scene in Sudan and South Sudan. The exhibition’s stated purpose is to “challenge the mainstream notion that both countries have little else to offer beyond images of war, violence, and unending political unrest.”
The exhibition, Sudan / South Sudan Literature Week, was organized by the French-born and London-based curator Frédérique Cifuentes. She has been traveling to the Sudan for the last 17 years as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. Last year, she curated an exhibition at P21 Gallery called Sudan: Emergence of Singularities, which combined visual arts, theatre, music, design, films, and words from and about Sudan. Now she is bringing both Sudan and South Sudan’s literary output, which she calls “highly developed,” to a broader public.
Though it is certainly a challenge to stage an exhibition on the written word, Sudan / South Sudan Literature Week successfully demonstrates the richness and diversity of the countries’ overlooked literary scenes. Sudan and South Sudan share a strong tradition of short story writing, but the countries’ writers also thoughtfully explore genres such as poetry, novels, and comic books. The exhibition reflects these diverse themes and modes of production with visual representations of the writers, their work, and Sudanese culture.
Sudan / South Sudan Literature Week features extracts from Kandake, a graphic novel by the writer Mohamed Yahia about an African queen resisting invasion by the Roman Empire in order to protect her land and people. Documentary photographs show the setting of the Madarek Publishing House and the Abdel Karim Merghani Cultural Center. A video work shows a dramatic recital of the narrative poem “Uncle Abdur Raheem” by the late poet M.E. Salim, translated from colloquial Sudanese Arabic. A clothing rack displays traditional Sudanese garb, alongside a new publication called Regional Folk Costumes of the Sudan by Griselda El-Tayib, a British woman who has lived in Sudan for almost sixty years.
Sudan and South Sudan have an undeniable and long history of conflict and political turbulence. Between 1896 and 1955, Sudan was under joint British and Egyptian control. Since gaining independence in 1956, the country has been ruled by a series of unstable parliamentary governments and military regimes. In 2011, South Sudan was established as an independent state after a referendum in which 99% of the population voted in favor of secession. Since 2013, the country has been engaged in civil war, which has cost an estimated 383,000 lives, either from ethnic violence or from disease and starvation.
These post-colonial crises largely account for why literary texts from Sudan and South Sudan have not made their way to an English-speaking public. Cifuentes explained to me that Sudanese writers are often isolated because of the restrictions on freedom of expression and movement across borders, which result in censorship and a lack of access to the international literary scene. Most works written in Sudanese Arabic, or local languages such as Beja and Dinka, are not typically translated or distributed abroad.
Certain diasporic Sudanese writers have gained recognition in the English-speaking world, one example being Leila Aboulela, who was born in Cairo, grew up in Khartoum, and now lives between Abu Dhabi and Aberdeen. She has published several novels and collections of short stories in English; a review in The Observer of her latest work, Elsewhere, Home, spoke of her “quiet brilliance.” Amsterdam-based novelist Jamal Mahjoub has won several international prizes for his works of historical fiction and is acclaimed for his crime novels published under the pseudonym, Parker Bilal.
Frédérique Cifuentes agrees that, though in Sudan and South Sudan the very act of writing might be seen as political, the concerns of Sudanese and South Sudanese writers are far broader than politics. Their works cover a broad spectrum of subject matters, from daily life in a small village in Darfur to the experience of children living on the streets of Khartoum.
The publication of the English-language anthology, Literary Sudans, in 2014, attempted to bring together literature from the two countries to establish a unified, national Sudanese literature. In his introductory essay, the acclaimed Sudanese writer Taban Lo Liyong calls on contemporary writers to resurrect traditional forms of storytelling, such as the fable and the folktale, and situates the anthology in the broader context of the African literary aesthetic. “The writer is a worker,” he says, “a word-artist. And I think the word artists in both South Sudan and Sudan should display human beings battling with the problems of coping with life.”
Sudan / South Sudan Literature Week is on view through November 10 at P21 Gallery (21-27 Chalton Street, NW1 1JD) in London. The exhibition was curated by Frédérique Cifuentes.