Since mid-April, when war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), intense fighting has taken a heavy toll on Sudan and its community members in more ways than one can count. Over the last several months, over 12,000 people have been killed and an estimated 6.3 million people displaced from their homes, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The war has also deteriorated the country’s healthcare systems, with a major surge in cholera cases spreading across half of the country’s states. Earlier this week, the United Nations reported that two-thirds of Sudan’s population currently lack access to vital healthcare services as over 70% of medical facilities in areas of conflict have shut down.

Consequently, the war has resulted in major disruptions for the country’s arts and culture sector. With the fighting centered in the capital Khartoum and the major city of Omdurman, where many arts galleries and cultural museums are centered, the country’s cultural heritage stands in a precarious state, vulnerable to raids from paramilitary fighters. Rahiem Shadad, curator of Downtown Gallery located in the neighborhood of Khartoum 2, told Hyperallergic that he and family members were visiting Egypt for Ramadan when the violence broke out.

“I didn’t know what to do at first. We were just waiting to see what was happening, literally sleeping in front of the TV for two weeks. By the second week, the looting started. Everything in our house was looted and the area of Khartoum became an area that you could not access,” Shadad recalled.

In May, the International Council of Museums published a report about the vulnerability of several cultural heritage institutions including the Sudan Natural History Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, and the Republican Palace Museum caught in crossfire. In June, Hyperallergic reported that the Sudan National Museum was raided by RSF fighters after videos of the infiltration surfaced on social media.

The war in Sudan has taken a devastating toll on the country and its community members. (photos by and courtesy Arwa Ahmed)

In addition to these institutions, Shadad explained that many galleries and artist studios have been targets of vandalism and looting, including Downtown Gallery. Photos he shared on Instagram on September 7 show the gallery’s rooms in disarray, with floors covered in scattered objects and cabinets appearing rummaged through.

“Today we have received the first photos of the gallery state since the beginning of the war,” Shadad wrote in the description, noting that the gallery’s “large collection of the artworks are still safe along with some of our framing equipment.”

“Unfortunately, our safe faced a different outcome and has been looted,” Shadad wrote, adding that “it also has been confirmed that the RSF are residing inside the gallery as we speak in the space,” although there is no photographic evidence of this claim.

In the first month of the war, Shadad began coordinating a group initiative with other cultural workers including curators Azza Satti and Mahasin Ismail to assist Sudanese artists caught in the conflict.

“We just made a list because immediately when the war started, we learned some of our artists were trapped with no access to water or food,” Shadad said. “We had one artist who had to go through crossfire to leave the area that he was in to reach a different zone.”

The team created a database of approximately 150 artists of various disciplines and partnered with the Sudanese American Medical Association, a humanitarian nonprofit that works to provide aid to Sudanese residents and the diasporic community, to launch a GoFundMe that raised over $13,000 for the arts community. The donations were then distributed to at least 45 artists, according to the severity of each individual case, to provide aid and transportation out of the conflict zones.

For a recent event at the Rest Residency, Qamar Abden created a “mind maze” of threads that alludes to a network of Sudanese memories and worries. (photo courtesy the artist)

For multidisciplinary artist Sannad Shareef, the fund helped the young painter and filmmaker evacuate Khartoum Bahri, a city located north of the capital, where he was caught amid crossfire for six months.

“I didn’t stop drawing every morning for five or six months. I made a lot of art during the war,” Shareef, who is now based in Nairobi, Kenya, told Hyperallergic. When he finally left Sudan on October 15, he said he lost his “artwork and thousands of paper drawings.”

In addition to the online campaign, the group also held a June fundraiser at Lamasatt Art Gallery in Cairo, selling photo prints from 17 artists to raise donations. Still, after closing the GoFundMe page at the beginning of November, Shadad admitted that he wished the campaign had raised more support, as there were many people the group was unable to help, such as an artist from El-Haj Yousif (north of Khartoum) who goes by “Weezy.” For the past four months, Shadad said that the artist has been missing, having disappeared after leaving his home. Many others have been internally displaced, relocating to localities outside of Khartoum and cities such as Port Sudan and Kosti. Others who have been able to evacuate the country have fled to places such as Egypt, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Arwa Ahmed, a Sudanese architect and photographer, told Hyperallergic that she and her family were forced to leave Khartoum on May 15, one month after the war began. After staying with family in Umdawanban, just outside of the capital, for six months, they relocated to Gezira, the state southeast of the capital. Ahmed has been taking photographs since she was 12 years old, initially inheriting an old Yashica film camera from her father and then later purchasing her own digital camera. When she was forced to leave Khartoum, she left her camera behind and was forced to move to phone photography to keep a visual diary of the war. Many of her fellow photographers have also been displaced and out of work, looking to start over in places like Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

“For the first time in my life, I don’t have a clear plan on how to move forward,” Ahmed said.

The entrance to the Rest Residency, which supports Sudanese artists who have relocated to Nairobi, Kenya. (image courtesy Rahiem Shadad)

Now in Nairobi, Shadad has also begun anew, opening the Rest Residency art program for through the GoDown Arts Centre. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the program has helped provide grants for 22 artists since it began in late October, creating a community for displaced Sudanese refugees aged from 23 to 60. In addition to supporting individual art projects, the program hosts English classes for participants interested in learning the language to engage with the Kenyan community, as well as workshops focusing on writing, resumes, and grant applications.

The residency also provides housing for six of the artists including human rights activist Qamar Abden, a sculptor and poet who traveled from Khartoum through Ethiopia to Kenya via a 30-hour bus ride.

“The whole concept of the art residency is the rest, where you actually rest your mind and are able to navigate these emotions in a way that is healthy, in a way that is navigated through your art,” Abden said.

Since the beginning of the war, Abden was unable to write until the residency, which has helped her “liberate” herself from the post-traumatic stress of the past several months. She wrote her first poem on the same day of the residency’s inaugural exhibition held on November 25 and plans to debut the work in a performance that involves her peeling off layers of clothing and fabric to symbolize her letting go of the painful feelings she’s held on to throughout the war.

“The concept of being a refugee is a lot of holding on to every piece of who you are or who you used to be,” Abden said. “So the whole purpose of this performance is to just be shedding all of this off, who I used to be. And as disheartening and as bare naked as it may feel, it also just feels light.”

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *