Khartoum, Sudan On the outer wall of the morgue in Khartoum, a peach-colored building attached to a hospital, a spray-painted corpse hand with green nails emerged from the ground. One of the fingers had a label with the words “Missing”-a reminder of the 200 bodies left inside, most of which were unidentified protesters who were shot and killed during the 2019 revolution. The smell of rotting corpses lingered in the street, which was the result of continuous power outages, which caused the refrigerator inside to be closed every day. Next to the hand painting, the word “anger” is written in Arabic.
This mural is just one of hundreds of murals that have appeared on the walls of the Sudanese capital in the two years since the revolution. Most depict the crimes of martyrs, politicians, the Nubian queen and the previous regime of Omar al-Bashir.
What started as a protest against rising food and fuel costs in December 2018 turned into a coup in April 2019. The eight-month protests included sit-ins, boycotts, “million dollar marches” and the cancellation of Bashir after 30 years in power. Sudan subsequently formed a joint civilian and military government, called the Sovereign Council, to lead a 39-month democratic transition.
Throughout the revolution, since then, artists have helped capture the dissatisfaction of ordinary people. During the months when an estimated 2 million people sat in the military headquarters in Khartoum, they painted murals, distributed leaflets and organized chants until the sit-in was violently dispersed by paramilitary forces on June 3, 2019, and more than 100 civilians Be killed.
A few weeks later, on June 30-a historic day marking the anniversary of the beginning of the Bashir regime-protesters took to the streets, demanding civil rule and responsibility for the June 3 attacks. Now, two years later, the artists who promoted the uprising through their works attracted international attention are once again at the forefront of political radicalism in the country, frustrated by the government because of the lack of justice for the victims and the influence of religion on some people.
“We can only continue to do art because the situation is too bad,” said 20-year-old street artist Medo Kagonka, who created this mural on the wall of the morgue. Sitting in front of the tea table outside the building, he bravely put a rainbow headscarf that symbolizes LGBTQ pride on his wrist. “The army and security forces are still in power, so the revolution is not over yet.”
From subculture to mainstream
The Citizens Laboratory is located behind a colorful brick building in the Al Zohur neighbourhood of Khartoum, a residential area close to a cemetery in the city. This space is the brainchild of 45-year-old film producer Hajooj Kuka and 28-year-old curator Duaa Tarig Ahmed, who decided after the events of 2019 that it was necessary to provide a space for the exploded underground art world in Sudan.
“We need to keep the spirit of sitting still alive,” said Kuka, who was sitting under the rotating fan.
The laboratory is an old two-story house with very little furniture. At the entrance, a group of hip-hop artists snorted while smoking cigarettes. Inside, activists shared political poems in a blackout air-conditioned recording studio to escape the heat. In the backyard, a group of graffiti artists laughed at the Tik Tok video. KUKA and Ahmed meandered through the room, advising each group, like the glue that brings everyone together.
Before 2019, the art world in Sudan was mainly composed of a few painters who worked in studios, not organized, and far away from politics. Now, Ahmed says, the idea is to create a new cultural scene that includes all types of outspoken artists.
“We want to change from subculture to mainstream,” she said, stroking her short curly hair, and after the November 2019 revolution abolished the public order law that regulates women’s clothing, she stopped covering her hair.
Kuka, who lived in Kenya before the protest began, said that it was during the revolution that the Sudanese public learned to appreciate the power of art and discovered the country’s artistic talents. However, despite changes in the country’s perception of art and improvements in personal freedom-such as allowing women to choose how to dress-the laboratory continues to be harassed by those who strictly interpret Islamic rules because it is a place for unmarried men and women A place where you can socialize freely.
In October 2020, Kuka, Ahmed, and 9 others were arrested for public nuisance charges and sentenced to two months in jail after participating in a mixed-sex theatre workshop that used experimental dances to depict the suppression of the security forces in 2019. During the two weeks of imprisonment, the artists held sit-ins on the streets and used social media to draw attention to the country’s “art emergency”. In the end, they attracted the attention of global film festivals and Human Rights Watch, forcing the authorities to release them.
Since then, despite being seen as a shame of unruly in Sudan, Kuka still wears long dreadlocks, his safety has been threatened with multiple threats, and said that he was unmarked with links to the country’s security forces Vehicle tracking.
“This is why having a citizen laboratory is so important, because artists can feel safe in numbers,” he said. “We cannot deny that there is a difference from the Bashir era, but the current government believes that the development is not what we think it is.”
Freedom, justice, peace
Graffiti artist Assil Diab agrees with Kuka’s view. Diab is known as SudaLove and is known for the big faces of murdered protesters she painted on the wall near their home. She said that among the three requirements of freedom, justice and peace, only part of freedom has been achieved. Today, people’s basic needs are not being met; Sudan’s inflation rate exceeds 350%, fuel shortages continue for several days, and there are frequent power outages.
“I drew more than 40 martyrs killed by security forces in Khartoum. Most of my family members told me that no one from the government department contacted them,” Diab said, pulling her T-shirt away from her body. “Moms will tear off my clothes and cry in pain.”
Diab, who lived in Qatar before the protests began, decided to move back to Sudan and use her skills as an artist to serve the revolution. Wearing a pink gas mask and a colorful bag full of spray cans, Diab painted murals around the city. When the protest began, people questioned her motives, but today, whenever she paints, there is always a small group of people around her admiring her work.
By painting the murals, Diab deliberately puts himself in danger. Before the law on how women dress in public was repealed, she worried that wearing loose pants would cause her trouble. In one example, the family of a deceased protester formed a wall of people when she finished her work to protect her from security forces.
“This is a display of fearless power,” she said, tears in her eyes.
Like Riffat Makkawi, a 58-year-old human rights lawyer, he founded the People’s Legal Aid Center to represent marginalized people who cannot afford legal advice and also provides free support to artists.
Makkawi chose tortoise as the central slogan because slowness and stability will bring justice. He said he was very worried about the arrest of Kuka and other members of the Citizen Lab in October 2020 because he knew the authorities were afraid of art.
“Artists are those who continue to inject blood into the revolution,” Macawi said, raising his finger. “That’s why on June 3, the security forces not only killed the protesters, but also wiped and smeared the murals.”
Makawi hopes that the guidance he provides to artists on the national legal system can be shared with the public in a creative way. “As lawyers, we are bored. Art can better convey the message of justice,” he said firmly.
‘We have lost too much’
On the top floor of a five-story sand-colored brick building, Elhassan Elmountasir created a black canvas with white text and green geometric figures. The abstract painter explored the fashion trend of camouflage after the revolution, which he said showed the public’s manifestation of Stockholm syndrome, and they adopted the uniform of the oppressor. He said that the problems facing the country are now more vague.
“In the past, the Sudanese people had a goal, which was to overthrow the dictator Omar al-Bashir. Now the demands of the revolutionary groups have been split,” he said. “As the political and economic situation becomes more chaotic, many people feel deceived.”
In May, after the Sudanese army killed two demonstrators commemorating the second anniversary of the protests, one of the two civilian women appointed to the 14-member committee resigned. Ayesha Musa Saeed accused the military leaders of putting aside the civilian members of the council and deliberately preventing the development of the country.
Jonas Horner, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Sudan, told Al Jazeera that as Sudan’s historic transition faltered, it is no secret that the military is seeking to ensure its economic interests, while supporters of the Bashir regime are trying Take back control.
“If they succeed, the newly acquired personal freedoms of women, journalists and artists may be reversed,” he said.
Elmountasir said that after the “color revolution” filled with art in cities across Sudan, international collectors, galleries and funders turned their attention to Sudan. European foundations such as the French Institute began to organize exhibitions in Khartoum to reflect on the revolution in 2019.
“Before the overthrow of the regime, this is impossible,” he said with a smile, looking down at his shoes. “Freedom to talk about everything; it feels good.”
Reem Aljeally, 23, wears a colorful headscarf and round glasses. She is the founder of the art platform The Muse multi studios and a painter. She has created three murals depicting women participating in the revolution. The most watched mural shows a woman wearing a white headscarf — the traditional cloth wrapped around the body and head of Sudanese women — while carrying people forward. She said that the attention to the Sudanese art scene encouraged her to pursue a professional art career, despite her training as an architect.
On Monday, for the first time in the history of Sudan, the Supreme Court ruled that a member of the intelligence service was guilty of crimes against humanity. He shot and killed Hassan Mohamed Omar, a medical student who participated in a demonstration in December 2018.
Aljeally said that this has rekindled hope that the country will unite during the transition and become a democracy.
“We have lost too many things now, not just artists, but everyone,” she said. “We can’t go back.”
The reporting of this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center.