Since December 2018, flashing images of protests in Sudan have appeared in mainstream media. This, however, barely touches upon the ongoing struggles of the changing local and diasporic dynamics of what ‘citizenship’ and belonging in Sudan mean (see ISS research project). Many acts of citizenship (see Isin and Nielsen 2008) have been most visibly associated with artistic creativity that spread across Sudan and in diaspora. In this article, we reflect on how art has been one of the key drivers of the revolution and the transformation of local and diasporic citizenship claims pertaining to Sudan.
The December 2018 Sudanese Revolution: A Hub of Artistic Creativity
The revolution was propelled by demonstrations all over Sudan. The demonstrations demanding freedom, peace and justice culminated in a million persons march happened on the 6th of April, 2019. Demonstrators reached the Army headquarters in Khartoum and were joined by people from all over Sudan. Since that date, large swathes of the Sudanese population had been occupying a space in front of the Army headquarters (midan al itisam): the sit in space. Almost two months of occupation of this space created a world where revolutionaries could join to realize their objectives of freedom, peace and justice. They demanded that military forces that overthrew Omar El Bashir (representing military junta that came to power through a coup in 1989) on 11th of April hand over power to a civilian led transitional government.
Artistic and creative practice has played a seminal contribution to the development of resistance and the revolution. The genesis of the sit in space had reignited a flurry of creativity ranging from painting, photography, filming, spoken word and whatsapp messaging that conveys information about its evolution to diverse audiences: the Sudanese public , the diaspora and the outside world, through graphic design, slogans, speeches, song lyrics and live recordings. Prior to the protests, art in public spaces of Khartoum was rare. Women artists were significantly more absent. During the sit in, the walls of the city became covered with extensive murals or art work.
Within the sit in zone a huge 3 km canvas was being prepared by artists within the premises of a technical training school. This canvas was to be presented to the public. It would encompass artistic symbols as well as the signatures of those who would represent all those who dedicated their lives to staying in place. Another zone, that was a rubbish dump, had been transformed into a space of beautiful art. This creative practice gave a clear sense of belonging and facilitated making political claims for many, regardless of gender, class, age and ethnic origin.
Art is fundamentally linked with revolutionary processes and plays an important role in creating a sense of belonging and citizenship. Through painting the walls of the army headquarters, singing in public, filming and photographing, the demonstrators performed acts of citizenship, expressing their ideals and demands for Sudan and their own understanding of rights as Sudanese people. With the digital access and the instant sharing of messages of hope, despair, and demands for justice, freedom and civil rule, it became possible to disseminate these practices across the globe both for those remaining in Sudan and those in diaspora.
The sit-in period was characterized by protracted negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the driving force of public mobilization the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA). This was a fraught process that included the involvement of the notorious Rapid Security Forces (RSF) militias under the leadership of Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti) the second man within the TMC. On the 3rd of June at the crack of dawn on the last day of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan, the TMC brutally dispersed the people occupying the sit in space. Live bullets were fired on peaceful civilians and many people were mortally wounded, killed, raped and injured (see dying for the revolution BBC). This massacre was followed by measures aimed at terrorizing civilians and executed by the RSF that patrolled the streets, randomly harassing, beating and raping. The erasure of most of the creative acts of citizenship by painting over many of the murals on the walls of the sit in area was set into motion in order to wipe out the achievements of the revolution and silence its call. Notwithstanding that Khartoum remained eerily silent for 10 days with the internet quickly disabled and people fearing to leave their homes , the mobilization rapidly persisted.
Art, erasure and making of citizenship
The erasure of art orchestrated by the TMC, in the aftermath of the massacre, points to the power of art and artists to create a political space for expression of citizenship. Yet, the massacre and the erasure led to other creative practices in music and visual art that frames new contours of belonging and political rights. During the six months of protests and especially during the massacre, many lost their lives. They were framed as martyrs. They became a motivation for the youth who started proclaiming their right not to be forgotten: ‘we will not forget and we will not forgive, blood for blood we will not accept monetary compensation’. This expresses their intent to persevere in creating a better Sudan worthy of their sacrifice. This particular narrative of how martyrs are predominantly represented is visible in the music of Ahmed Amin.
In visual art, the work of Assil Diab, a Sudanese artist living in Qatar, illustrates the significance of remembering and documenting the sacrifices of those who died during the peaceful protests. Alongside a group of artists, she paints wall murals depicting the faces of the fallen on the walls of their family homes. She seeks permission from their families to bear testimony to the fact that Sudan has not forgotten their sons and daughters (graffiti art).
Through art, young musicians and visual artists are constructing a new model of a deserving citizen, a martyr. The calls for freedom, peace, and justice, sit alongside other claims to citizenship depicted here through these ‘good deaths’. This medium instills that martyrs are occupying a worthy place in the hierarchy of citizens in Sudan. This is just one aspect of how art plays into some key imaginaries of belonging and provides a reading of diverse ways of participating in the revolution as an evolving nation-making Sudanese project that emanates from the local and from afar.
Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz lives between Khartoum and London. She holds a Ph.D in Social Anthropology, with a special focus on Medical Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research focuses on cultural understandings of health and well-being. She has been following the unfolding upraising in Khartoum since December 2018 and has been documenting the everyday protest practices, focusing specifically on the artistic expressions. She is also a co-researcher with Kasia Grabska in the ISS-funded project on creative practice, mobilities and in development in Sudan.
Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.