Amongst the various merchants and tea ladies of al Souq al Arabi, one of the city’s oldest and most disreputable open-air markets, Khartoum’s contemporary art scene brews. Hidden above market stalls bursting with produce, toys, electronics and clothes are a collection of sunlit studios where some of Khartoum’s best amateur and professional artists create fine art that explores topics from the youth-led revolution to the divine femininity of the African woman. Deeply talented and beautifully abstract in their expression, these artists often share studios in the small makeshift offices housed inside the high rise buildings within and around the Souq. One organization that seeks to amplify the creativity of the Souq’s scene is Rahiem Shadad’s Sol for Change, a nonprofit that aims to grant artists exposure and revenue through exhibitions, showcases and galleries. Raheim is a curator redefining what it means to exhibit art in Sudan; I caught up with him at his new gallery in al Souq al Arabi.
Why did you open your current gallery location in al Souq al Arabi?
Never have I worked with full on professional artists nor have I ever had more than 20 meters of wall space to exhibit anything. Through my artist friend who I had invited to a previous gallery I met my business partner Nicole; we immediately synced and had the same ideas of what curating in Sudan should look like. She told me she had this gallery space in al Souq al Arabi and I said I wanted to see it and I loved it so we said let’s do it.
What are the challenges you face as a curator?
Let’s just start off, from the get-go, with the fact that there is no curating in Sudan. It almost doesn’t exist and there are no icons to follow. There’s also the issue of public opinion. I don’t want to say that
most people in Sudan are extroverts, but they’re very- they require a lot to be excited. Most people in Sudan are used to seeing art as an expo where fifty artists are filling the entire wall and not leaving one inch empty. What we do is we put a big piece on a wall and leave nothing around it, so you can focus on the piece and you can live the artist’s story and that is not very common here. So it gives us a marketing issue.
We’re slowly working that challenge out.
Does your location in the Souq impact the way you curate art?
This location in the middle of the Souq al Arabi is not the favorite place of people here considering how messy this place is and everything.. [laughs.] We’ve called it the ‘gem of al Souq al Arabi,’ so there’s real pressure to create something that is super elegant and super fancy yet super cultural in the middle of this place. Access is an issue here, with jams and traffic and fumes and the noise and all the things that we see, so we need to work around all of that to be able to deliver something that equals the value of the artwork.
Do you think there’s anything that can be gained by being in this location?
Definitely. I think al Souq al Arabi in general resembles eighty to ninety percent of the truth of Sudan. The diversity that al Souq al Arabi has is very rare to be seen anywhere. If you just sit down at the tea lady downstairs you’ll see someone who’s Nubian, Arab, from the East, from the North and so on. In addition to that, the Souq is a hub for business and trading, so it has all kinds of interests and passions; it is a place where hardworking people come. I think al Souq al Arabi is an underground society in itself. Having people to go through the jam and the fumes and noise is a part of the experience because they have to acknowledge what Sudan is, they have to acknowledge what Sudan
has and that these are the Sudanese people, one hundred percent. You have to acknowledge the Sudanese person and then stand in front of Sudanese artwork; that is the message that is being delivered in this gallery.
So this underground network that exists here, this gallery and the artists and the studios here and there, do you see this network staying here in the Souq? Or are people only here until they can go somewhere better?
I think that having something happening in the Souq that would require you to put in just a little extra effort to reach it makes you really appreciate the art that is being created here. It makes you get out of your bubble a little bit. As for artists, I think most artists might rent a place outside of the Souq to exhibit, but I don’t think in terms of studios they would leave. Because here you are literally two steps away from the biggest bookstore in Khartoum, two steps away from someone who can do your carpentry for you, two steps away from the guy who can do your framing, so most artists would prefer to work from here, it’s just natural.
Offering to take me to visit the studio of a painter based in the Souq named Almoghera Abdulbagi, Raheim leads me through a winding five minute walk through a crowd of traders, buyers and vendors. We duck into a seemingly abandoned building nestled between two storefronts and brave the trek to the top floor where I pass a few doors with signs signifying what lies behind them: a lawyer, a consultant, another lawyer. We knock on the last door in the hallway, painted a brick red, and are greeted by an artist who was borrowing the studio to paint. He had set up right in front of the open window, where the cars and sounds of the pedestrians lie far below and the buildings of the financial district glisten in the near distance. The studio was beautifully sunlit; the walls were covered from ceiling to floor with sketches and drawings. A series of breathtaking paintings- that I would see framed the next day at AlMoghera’s solo exhibition- were propped up around the room to dry. In that airy, golden, colorful studio, it was difficult to hold back curiosity about the artist behind the art. I met up with Almoghera outside the University of Khartoum a few days later, where he was collaborating with local artists on a mural.
Tell me a little bit about your journey towards becoming an artist.
To be honest this whole art and painting thing started with me pretty early but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it because there was no teacher teaching it in high school or something that would make
me think to pursue art. I ended up trying to get a certificate in interior design but that wasn’t an option unless it was a bachelor’s degree, so I ended up doing fine arts instead. It was a really hard beginning trying to create a relationship with painting and color, but now I’m studying fine arts and painting at an institution. There, I feel like I have full freedom to do the things I want to do and explore themes that can touch anybody, whether it’s to do with culture or society.
Now that you have this freedom to create, how do you go about choosing a theme for your art?
For example, your recent exhibition at the gallery in the Souq explores the diversity of women, or the “divine feminine.” Diversity in Sudan is plentiful. On any level, whether its culture, language, tribalism or even just skin color, and people can’t get along because of systems like politics or colonialism that disrupted ourcommunities and brought in racism, regionalism and this pervasive movement towards Arabism; everybody wants to be Arab and forget who we really are.
So do you think of yourself as a political artist?
Any artist could be a political artist without necessarily belonging to one political party or schema but the topics we handle and the solutions we find are coming from an artist’s perspective, of what we see to be right or wrong. The revolution was able to achieve a lot of wins that were right; there have been organizations in Sudan for years that were not able to achieve anything for women’s rights or humans rights, but the revolution was able to achieve this. It is incredible enough that women were referred to as kandakas, which is a word that was only reserved for the Queen of Nubia in older times. So respect for the woman was found, she had a place amongst men, and her role was clearly defined [as a revolutionary.] So this is what I’m honored by, that women were on the frontlines of the revolution and men followed that lead.
Is that what inspired you?
Yes, all of those things are inspiring to me. An artist’s inspiration always comes from the nature around him, whether it’s the community, life at home, higher education, his grandparents.. all of these things are his pathways to knowledge and the things that inspire him. Environment has a huge impact on anybody, so whatever your environment is is what you end up deriving themes from.
You work out of your studio in the Souq al Arabi, how do you find this location?
Well, firstly the Souq allows you to be close to the people. Secondly, I’m very comfortable there because it has a massive diversity of people and tribes and I see different topics and issues discussed there everyday. So I find myself very comfortable there.
Is there a culture between all the artists there?
It’s like any community, we all know each other and have our different sects and unions. The younger guys, we tend to meet up at the cafes or congregate on the streets of al Arabi and drink from the tea
ladies. We also gather at events, whether its museums or galleries and so close relationships naturally form. All our worries and thoughts about society and the world are the same, so there will always be someone who will add to your point of view rather than detract from it.
What is your vision as a Sudanese artist?
My dreams are always going to be big, but the idea is to have art reach the home of every Sudanese family and for people to connect to and value it. The rest of the world was already impressed with what happened here; Sudanese artists are known worldwide. But I don’t want the global attention that comes from the world, I want the global attention that comes from local recognition. I want my people to be the ones that will introduce me to the world, that would be enough.
ARTWORKS: ALMOGHERA ABDULBAGI
PHOTOGRAPHER: IBRAHIM MOHAMMED
TEXT: RUBA EL MELIK