The Making of a Revolution: Art from Sudan

Allan Struthers reflects on a recent exhibition co-hosted by rs21 and the Sudan Doctors’ Union. You can make a donation to the Sudanese Workers Alliance here.

Following continued engagement with regular protests in London organised by the Sudanese diaspora, rs21 were approached by the Sudan Doctors’ Union (SDU-UK) to co-organise an exhibition of art from the Sudanese Revolution. Taking place on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 July, the event was held across two separate room locations at the School of Oriental and African Studies. rs21 members were involved in coordinating meetings, promoting the event, writing texts, gathering materials, and arranging artwork across the spaces.

Since December last year Sudan has been rocked by a revolutionary mass movement. By April of this year the movement had succeeded in ousting the 30-year government of president Omar el Bashir, and the country has since been gripped by a tense standoff between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the opposition, officially named the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, and headed by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association. On 3 July, a sit-in lasting 58 days was violently dispersed by the Janjaweed militia, using live ammunition and leaving over 100 dead.

The current movement in Sudan is a result of decades of struggle, including successive movements of the marginalised Sudanese periphery demanding greater control from the centralised administration in Khartoum. What makes the current revolution unique is that it is a movement of the entire country, not just from a state in the periphery or Khartoum, and has involved the co-operation between professionals and an emerging mass workers’ movement.

The artworks shown in the exhibition are products of the revolutionary movement, and reflect a Sudanese population that has rapidly set about realising its own capacity to overturn the forces of state repression. In turn, these reflections now have the potential to play an active role in reshaping the political lines along which the struggle continues.

It is important to note that much of the art displayed here has since been erased by the militias, with many of the artists repressed and driven underground. As such, rs21 members were pleased to be offered an opportunity to co-facilitate and co-curate this body of work.

58 Days in 15 Minutes, Moniem Ibrahim, London, 2019 in front of untitled street mural, photographer and painter both unknown, Khartoum, 2019

Art of the Sudanese Revolution consisted of sculpture, video, and sound works, along with numerous photographs of mural paintings, which had been digitally reproduced and distributed online so that printing could take place here in the UK, with financial support from individual members of the SDU-UK and the human rights charity, Waging Peace. In little more than one and a half weeks, the exhibition’s images had been collated and manufactured for display in the physical gallery space. On this point, it is worth noting that this show was brought together at a significantly faster pace than most professional galleries and artists would be capable of. This is partially because connections must be made quickly and events run fast under the heat and pressure of an unfolding socio-political event, and partially because going ahead without funding removes the laborious process of making grant applications to various councils and institutions. (Some thanks here should go to SOAS’ quite exemplary, exhibition-enabling student room-booking policy).

Procurement of the artworks was made more difficult due to the current internet shut-down in Sudan, and this left its trace on the images, some of which were noticeably pixelated. But these visible deteriorations of image were subtle reinforcements of their content, which demonstrated the protestors’ demands through slogans such as ‘Freedom, Peace, and Justice’, and ‘The revolution is in the woman’s voice.’ The exhibition communicated general aims of an international liberatory movement while also reflecting some particularities of Sudan’s social and class composition during this crucial moment of political rupture.

‘The revolution is in the women’s voice.’
‘Freedom, Peace, Justice’
‘The barricades will stand tall in the face of our enemies’
The second day of the exhibition, pictures of murals adorn a protest structure

As the show expressed a dual need to exhibit artistic images and present journalistic narratives, it had to be both educational and vivid. And as some of the attendees were parents with children, an area was set up to admit drawn and written contributions from the young visitors.

At the forefront of many narratives expressed by participating members of the SDU-UK, was the occupation of military headquarters in Khartoum on 6 April, as would have been clear to viewers through its repeated reflection in the artworks on display. Though more could have been done to work through the political meaning of this prioritisation had there been more time to collate materials and to discuss their presentation, the immediacy of this practical collaboration revealed the dominant place that this event has in the prevailing narratives found amongst London-based activists who are supportive of the revolution.

Ahmed Hashim’s slideshow of texts and found footage told a story of how the revolution built up to the occupation of military barracks by protestors in Khartoum – and the military response that transformed a peaceful and liberatory protest into bloody massacre. The slideshow’s overt political content, expository script, and staccato rhythm echoed the stylistic tradition of the propaganda newsreel film, as deployed by directors such as Santiago Alvarez and Erwin Piscator, often on behalf of state departments during moments of political transition. The work used widely available technologies to bring thematically coherent materials from disparate sources together in a short time-frame to advance a certain telling of events.

Viewers watching Ahmed Hashim’s Slideshow, Moniem Ibrahim’s 58 Days in 15 Minutes in foreground

Moniem Ibrahim’s sound and sculpture work, 58 Days in 15 Minutes, featured brief soundbites and choruses from the occupation protest leading up to the massacre, contrasted with blood-stained bricks atop a dust covered vest on black background, in an assemblage that was stark, solemn, and bold. The colour of bricks was similar to those found at the university at Khartoum, which continues to be another key location for some of the protestors.

These works affirm the clear symbolic value that the military headquarters occupation continues to hold for the Sudanese revolutionaries. The way in which many repressive social norms were temporarily overturned within the space (e.g. some protesters felt safe in openly announcing their queer sexualities) gave rise to a powerful utopian or carnival sensibility that seems to organically lift and unify the dreams of this revolutionary movement.

But while this very serious form of ideological play undoubtedly offers hope and inspiration to sympathetic onlookers, there is the difficult question of how to cohere this advanced development with the revolution as it continues to take place in the everyday lives of those geographically separated from this particular action. As such there is a danger that the prioritisation of images from this one event might make the struggle appear more distant to many who were integrally involved in the equally spectacular though less well-publicised general strikes that were so vital for realising the occupation.

‘Strike’

That said, it is a more difficult task to represent the countless (and often minimally documented) hours of organisation required for the coordination of a general strike, than to represent the excitement of mass protest. And this focus on the latter was still creatively fixed within the overall articulation of a movement.

Also of note were the impassioned melodies of protest chants (taken from recent protests in London), which swirled around the exhibition – emanating from behind a haphazardly assembled chair-based structure, used to represent the occupation’s barricades. The expression of protest through chant and song has of course been a recurrent feature of mass movements wherever they have taken place, and the importance of this fact was recognised a century ago by the Irish revolutionary James Connolly:

Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant, singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement, it is the dogma of a few, and not the faith of the multitude.

The multitude was clearly positioned as the author of the works in this exhibition. While signed artworks celebrated the unique value of individual contributions, the many that did not quietly underlined a collective impetus. Of course, any artist finds the content of a work, to which they give form, provided for by the immense labour of society. This is worth remembering given the way that the individual, abstracted from social relations, is usually foregrounded within capitalist ideology.

Protestors working on paintings, Ahmed Hashim, The Khartoum Sit-in, Sudan, 2019

While it might be tempting to look upon the works shown as constituting a humanitarian art of social protest, showcasing universal and eternally human themes around resilience in the face of adversity, some clear references to Sudanese political organisations such as the SPA and the SDU-UK, alongside the presence of rs21 introduced a live element of political solidarity to the event.

This made it easier for visitors to actively participate in developing the exhibition’s subject matter. rs21 members in attendance helped provide visitors with information about the Sudanese Workers’ Alliance for the Restoration of Trade Unions, and were able to offer advice on how to support this group via a motion to be passed through local trade unions.

The first day of the exhibition fell on the day that the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change agreed a power-sharing agreement with the TMC, demonstrating the pace events into which we were intervening, and the dangers of viewing ourselves as passive bystanders. The situation in Sudan remains tense, and hopes have since been deflated by the maneuvres of generals and bureaucrats, but no agreement will undo the mass workers movement that has emerged in Sudan over the last few months, nor cause the people of Sudan to unlearn the experience of their power. Those who do not move do not notice their chains, and having been educated by the movement in Sudan, we cannot forget the oppressive social relations that movement has pulled into sharp relief, nor can we ignore them.

As the exhibition’s introductory text stated:

This exhibition appeals to you not as a spectator, but as a partisan. We ask not only for your curiosity, but for your solidarity. The repression in Sudan is the result of an international coalition of reaction including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and the Janjaweed militia benefit from EU funding directed at ‘migration control’ around the Horn of Africa. The repression crosses borders; our solidarity must do the same.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here