Almost two months after toppling Sudan’s three-decade ruler Omar al Bahsir, activists in Khartoum continue their protests as talks between the opposition and the transitional military government make slow and frequently interrupted progress. Meanwhile, hundreds of local artists have been working since April 15 on crafting a 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) long protest banner, which will visualize and symbolize the story of the revolution through their art. The monumental textile banner, the artists hope, will set a new Guinness World Record when it’s finally unveiled in the next few weeks.
“The Sudan Banner” is an assemblage of hundreds of paintings — each 3.6-feet-tall and 6.6-feet-wide — by both professional and amateur painters. The works are being created in-situ in various outdoor locations across Khartoum. The Signatures of thousands of protestors will be included between every two paintings. The last section of the banner, which is being finalized in the coming days, will feature painted portraits of fallen protesters.
More than 90 Sudanese protestors have been killed since the protests began in December 2018, according to a report released earlier this month by the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors. Deadly confrontations have continued erupting between protesters and army forces, including the killing of a pregnant protester by police forces earlier this week. This article comes at the heels of a two-day general strike declared by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the country’s powerful workers union. The strike crippled the Khartoum International Airport and other major services in the country. The protesters, who maintain an ongoing sit-in at the square in front of the military headquarters in the capital, claim that the military government is not negotiating in good faith.
Hala Elminyawi, a civil engineer and one of the organizers of the Sudan Banner, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview that before visual artists were involved, the original idea was assembling an unprecedentedly long list of signatures. “But visual art emerged as the revolution’s leading means of communication,” she said, “and artists are still at the frontline of protests.”
Elminyawi quickly teamed up with the newly-founded group Youth Artists of the Revolution, and together they decided on an ambitious project that will combine both paintings and signatures in a colossal banner. The length of the banner, Elminyawi explained, is taken from the circumference of the square in front of the military headquarters, where most protests and sit-ins in Khartoum take place. That square, she said, was transformed into “one big open exhibition” during the protests.
“Artists in Sudan have been oppressed for so long,” Elminyawi added, “and they were specifically targeted by the government during the protests.” Artists, according to Elminyawi, were the first to be arrested during demonstrations, especially at the beginning of the revolution. Tens of them are still detained in jails, she said, but the revolution gave them an agency and power they never had before: “The revolution brought artists together for the first time, and then their art kept them united,” said Elminyawi.
Sari Awad, a Sudanese painter whose works are featured in the banner, describes a life of numerous difficult restrictions as an artist working under el Bashir’s regime. “The field of Visual Arts in Sudan is lagging behind compared to the rest of the world mainly because we have no spaces to show our works,” he told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation. “We have been demanding for a museum of modern art in Sudan for a decade, but our demand was always ignored,” he said.
Sudan, a country with a population of roughly 40 million, has only six museums, all of which are either historical, ethnographic or archeological. “Business interest and the government had no interest in investing in a modern art museum,” said Awad. “The reason for that, the government said, is that modern art goes against the country’s religious values.”
If museums are scarce, then independent art galleries are almost nonexistent, says Awad. “Every exhibition needed to be authorized by the government. They restricted figurative painting everywhere calling it Haram [forbidden by Islamic law].”
Artists and art students who defied government orders faced violent oppression. In 2014, Muhammad Mamado, then a student at the Khartoum School of Fine Arts, posted a YouTube video relaying his story of abduction and abuse by members of a government-related militia. The attackers assaulted Mamado and shaved his head as an act of humiliation. “It is all just because we are visual artists,” Mamado says, naming other artists who have been treated similarly. Stories of similar attacks on students appear on various Sudanese blogs. Awad added that the government has attempted to close down the art school several times in the past.
Government prohibitions aside, Sudanese artists cannot sell their art online, because credit card companies do not operate in the country, according to Awad. To make ends meet, he said he had to work in arts management and freelance as a photographer. Desperate to show his art, he used to surreptitiously paint on fences and street walls at night. Now, together with a group of colleagues, he is in the progress of planning new exhibitions and launching an archive of Sudanese art (which the country lacks) to preserve and record the works of Sudanese artists.
“Change won’t happen overnight, but we’re seeing things we’ve been hoping to see for 30 years,” Awad said. “The protests exposed our art to all people. Artists who were unknown for years are now getting recognition thanks to the revolution.”
When completed, the artists will unveil the banner outside the military headquarters. Elminyawi hopes that the work will later be preserved at the National Museum of Sudan. When asked if that would be possible under the current military rule, she said optimistically, “By the time we finish the banner, we will have a civilian government.”