Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 9th April 2017

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Sudanese artists showcased for first time in London


A painting by Mohamed Abdalla Otaybi.

A painting by Mohamed Abdalla Otaybi. (Frederique Cifuentes)

London - Frederique Cifuentes’s exhibition Sudan: Emergence of Singularities is primarily an attempt to break the isolation of contemporary Sudanese artists from the international art scene. The title indicates that very little is known about contemporary Sudanese art, which the photographer and documentary film-maker is determined to put on the map.

Singularities [is] about each individual artist who is part of this exhibition,” Cifuentes said. “Their work is unique as is their contribution to the art scene in Sudan. It is now time to show this art in the West.”

The exhibition includes abstract art, ceramics, traditional filigree jewellery as well as photographs showing scenes from the conflict in the southern Nuba region and houses in Khartoum that reflect the ostentatious lifestyle of the nouveau riche.

There is also an introduction to theatre in Sudan with a 9-minute documentary that sheds light on the Shoaf Drama Group and features a comprehensive timeline of events that shaped theatre in Sudan from 1900-2000.

Yahya Zaloom, the director of P21 Gallery, a charitable trust that promotes contemporary Arab art and culture, said the focus was on contemporary Sudanese art that has never been shown in London.

“The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the Arab British Centre provided the funding and, after a year of hard work, which was more a labour of love, the exhibition was ready,” Zaloom said.

Approximately half of the works featured are by artists who live and work in Sudan. The rest are from artists in the diaspora. Several Sudanese are participating in film screenings, talks and events in conjunction with the exhibition,

Sudanese artists who want to exhibit abroad face many challenges. “The main issue is shipping and getting artwork out of Sudan not only because of the sanctions but also due to logistical problems,” Cifuentes said.

“There is no proper company to wrap, ship and provide insurance of the work. Artists also have problems getting a visa to travel abroad. In Khartoum, there are very few galleries. The art they exhibit is of a very good standard but marketing and curating is lacking. It is difficult to get good materials to produce artwork, and the weather makes it very difficult to preserve it.”

With internal conflicts and economic hardship, people have other priorities than buying art, which is mostly purchased by expats. “The government’s budget for arts is nonexistent; unlike in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there are no scholarships or grants for art students and there is no national art gallery,” Cifuentes said.

The art section of the exhibition features abstract paintings of the late Hussein Shariffe, who lived in exile. “My father used to say there was no way for artists to grow and thrive because of the government,” Shariffe’s daughter Eiman said. Shariffe also made films. His last production, Letters from Abroad, brought together Sudanese poets, who all wrote about being away from their country.

The paintings of Mohamed Abdalla Otaybi, one of Sudan’s best known contemporary artists, who lives and works in Omdurman, are some of the exhibition’s most striking. He uses vivid bright colours and black outlining in his shapes and figures.

The unique ceramics of the late Mo Abbaro were made following the traditional technique of Sudanese tribes who fire their clay pots by digging a large hole, packing the pots together and covering them with animal dung, which is set alight and gives a long, hot firing.

Photos by Nuba Reports network journalists provide a penetrating flash of insight into the conflict in the Nuba Mountains. There are striking images of fighters and ordinary people living in harsh conditions.

For the past 14 years, Sudan has been the centre of Cifuentes’s work. In 2016, she worked as the leader on photojournalism and conflict sensitive reporting training organised by UNESCO in Sudan.

Cifuentes said she wanted the exhibition to show the diversity of Sudan.

“With the current government, you only have one narrative – the Islamic narrative,” she said, “but Sudan had a history before the Arabs and there are some amazing tribes in the country.”

“It was important for me to exhibit different kinds of art forms from artists from different parts of the country. This festival is a trial. I hope it will be an annual event that shows something more positive than the political conflict and creates a dialogue among the Sudanese themselves and the Sudanese and non-Sudanese,” she added.

Sudan: Emergence of Singularities is to run at P21 Gallery, London, through May 6th.