Contemporary Art in Sudan

In contrast with the modern art of Senegal, South Africa and Uganda, Sudanese contemporary art comes from the wonderful work of the country’s expatriate artists since the late sixties. Their extensive international networking - across Africa, the Middle East, Europe and America - suggests the flexibility of their cultural backgrounds and the impact of their professional training in Khartoum, primarily at the School of Fine and Applied Art, and overseas. The exodus of these artists from their professional base at home is poignant.

Efforts to come to grips with the context for contemporary art in the Sudan are confronted immediately by two hurdles: the country’s extraordinary complexity of time, place and peoples (the population of 25 million contains 500 ethnic groups; 40 per cent of Sudanese are non- Muslim), and the present inadequacy of African art studies to address these phenomena (from Ulli Beier to Jean Kennedy). Even an accessible movement like the Khartoum School tends to be reduced to cliché descriptions such as „traditional Islamic calligraphy transposed to western, fine art canvas“, or „the synthesis of sophisticated Arabic calligraphy and instinctive geometry of African decoration“. Both miss the cultural ideals and range of artistic expression that distinguish this vital project.

Sudan is the largest area of land in Africa. Straddling the Nile between the desert of Egypt and the forest of Uganda, the area gave rise to distinctive kinds of Nilotic societies, associated with cattle pastoralism and divine kingship, whose people shared personal adornment as a key form of aesthetic expression. It both preceded and influenced the kingdom of Egypt: the pharaohs of the 8th and 7th centuries BC were kings from Nubia.

Significant other layers of historical influence include Kerma, Meroë, Christian, Islamic, Ottoman colonialism (Turkish-Egyptian, from 1821), the Mahdiya (Khartoum local rule), Anglo-Egyptian colonialism (British administration from 1898), post-colonialism (from 1956) and arabisation. For most of this time, regardless of who was ruling from the north, southern Sudan, ethnically akin to Uganda, was underdeveloped, exploited and excluded. Political independence has resulted in little national unity or economic improvement; rather, nationhood has been dominated by civil wars, further aggravated since 1989 by a fundamentalist Islamic military regime.

However, the Faculty of Fine and Applied Art of Sudan University of Technology (formerly Khartoum Technical Institute and Khartoum Polytechnic, not to be confused with the University of Khartoum) has sustained an impressive scale of operation. Organised in eight departments, the staff number about 40 and the students about 400; over 80 per cent are male. The core subjects are drawing and art history; subject specialities range from fine art and calligraphy to more obviously vocational courses like ceramics, industrial design and art education. This institution, 50 years old in 1997, has had four phases: the colonial influence, rising in the thirties; the establishment of a separate school and quest for a modern Sudanese identity, 1947-64; upgrading the school and further quests, 1964 to the early 1980s, and modification during the current „state of decline“.

Western-style art education did not begin as a grand personal initiative, like Senghor’s for Senegal. Rather, it developed slowly from within the colonial system, as a credible and popular subject, in ways similar to Ghana. In both countries, art lessons commenced at the primier boy’s secondary school, in Sudan the Gordon Memorial College (founded in 1902; precursor of the University of Khartoum). In 1934, to complement standard British-style art lessons, the College introduced a design department for the applied arts, with specific efforts to draw on local practices such as calligraphy, leather and woodwork. The instigator was Jean-Pierre Greenlaw, a UK-educated teacher, researcher, illustrator and author, who was passionate about the heritage and cultures of Sudan.

Meanwhile, from its establishment in 1937, the Institute of Education at Bakht al Ruda had offered art as a component of teacher education, also running short courses on visual aides and producing textbooks. These two initiatives provided a wide range of experience for Sudanese with a secular education, engendering an awareness of the potential for art.

After the Second World War, the Gordon College department opted to separate and become a specialised School of Design, which emphasised the vocational aspects of training. The first supervisor was J.-P. Greenlaw; other staff came from the UK and Sudan, including Shafiq Shawif (in 1947) and master-calligrapher Osman Waqialla (in 1949). Affiliation with the Khartoum Technical Institute in 1951 stimulated the transition into further education. The following year, the renamed School of Fine and Applied Art offered a three-year diploma programme. It proved remarkable in revealing and shaping artistic potential, and was the critical scaffolding for modern art in the Sudan.

Throughout the fifties, the brightest students went overseas to the best art schools in London; nearly all returned to teach at the Khartoum School, which also became the label used for this group of artists. They are: Mohammed Abdalla (Central), Taj Ahmad (RCA), Kamala Ishaq (Slade), El Nigoumi (Central), Amir Nour (Slade, also Yale), Magdoub Rabbah (Slade), Ibrahim El Salahi (Slade), Ahmad Shibrain (Central). A combination of different kinds of excellent training, inspiration and camaraderie guided their efforts towards the creation of a modern artistic identity, which could express their dual African and Islamic identity. This is characterised by graphic inventiveness with calligraphy, usually without colour, „bending basic marks“ into imagery expressive of Africa. Other kinds of syntheses were also created between materials and imagery, as seen in the ceramics of Abdalla and El Nigoumi and the sculpture of Amir Nour. There is some internal debate concerning the patrimony for „calligraphy on canvas“ (Waqialla, El Salahi, Taj Ahmad) and also concerning the group’s membership, which has tended to omit those artists who did not conform to the Khartoum canon.

The School became a fully fledged university in 1964, with a four-year programme leading to a BA degree. Until the early eighties, it maintained a rigorous and exciting programme that resulted in a broad range of production and critical activity such as the issuing of manifestoes and research into folklore. An MA in Fine Arts and Art History began in 1995. While the second generation continued to explore calligraphy, it was in more varied media, such as printing and even performance (Hassan Musa). Most artists were engaged in celebrations of colour (Bushara, Diab, Musa) and the development of personal or internal imagery (Ishaq). There was another round of overseas scholarships in the seventies, this time following a frist degree in Khartoum and often involving research as well as practice. This group includes Beshir „Bola“ (Sorbonne), Musa (1974, Montpellier), Diab (1972, Madrid), Bushara (1972, Slade). Their work is stimulating and a strong force in contemporary African art.

Elsbeth Court
from: Clementine Deliss, Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa; Paris, New York: Flammarion, 1995

Sudanese contemporary art

© Dec-13-2003 - Michael Hüther -