Sudan: an artist’s tribute to women leaders of the pro-democracy movement

Almogera Abdulbagey has joined legions of artists across the world in using his art to support pro-democracy movements

Sudanese painter Almogera Abdulbagey at his Khartoum studio. Hamza Hendawi for The National
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Painter Almogera Abdulbagey, like many among the millions who rose up against Sudan’s dictator Omar Al Bashir, is convinced that the resilience and tenacity of women protesters were key to the continuity of the opposition movement in the face of the deadly tactics of the security forces.

Seeking to artistically document that vital role, Mr Abdulbagey picked up his brushes and painted 17 images of women clad in bright and cheerful colours while marching on the streets against Al Bashir’s 29-year rule of the vast Afro-Arab country. The women’s postures in the paintings project determination and their dress – from traditional Sudanese robes to western outfits – points to the diversity of their cultural and religious backgrounds.

"They are a cross between abstract and realism and they reflect the disappearance during the revolution of all differences between the Sudanese," Mr Abdulbagey told The National.

Curiously, the paintings are displayed in the fourth-floor foyer of a modest hotel in an even more unlikely spot for an art exhibition: Khartoum's bustling outdoor Al Araby market.

The choice of location seems deliberate.

A painting by Almogera Abdulbagey shows female protesters during the uprising that toppled dictator Omar Al Bashir in April last year. Hamza Hendawi for The National

Mr Abdulbagey, 25, whose views on society and politics are distinctly leftist, began his music and art activism at the Al Araby market along with more than two dozen other young men who played music and persuaded poor vendors and shoppers to paint with supplies they provided free of charge.

The collective, called Guitar Loun, was forced off the streets in 2016 by security agents loyal to Al Bashir, who was sentenced last month to two years in a correctional facility after being convicted of corruption.

He faces additional charges of conspiracy springing from the 1989 military coup and the fatal shooting of protesters between December 2018, when the uprising began, and April 2019, when the military removed Al Bashir.

“We wanted to deliver art to the streets and change the negative notions many people hold about youths in Sudan, but the authorities stopped us because we were not associated with the ruling party or any other pro-government group,” said Mr Abdulbagey, who is in his third year at a Khartoum art college.

The slender Mr Abdulbagey, who is from an area south of Khartoum, recounted his journey as an artist and a musician and how his participation in the uprising and the subsequent 58-day sit-in protest outside the army's Khartoum headquarters included manning barricades and engaging protesters in art and music.

“We performed in the Al Araby market and in similar places elsewhere in Sudan. We sang and offered children and adults material to draw and paint. We began in 2014 and it took us a month to collect money for each event. The government took us off the streets two years later because they are suspicious of crowds,” he said.

“At the sit-in, we staffed the barricades where we searched protesters before they could join. In the evenings, we played music using rocks, wooden objects and plastic containers. We sang or played Sudanese patriotic songs and oldies as well as African music.”

In many ways, his paintings are an extension of the artistic side of the Sudanese uprising. In a wider context, they are part of the artistic movement – mainly wall graffiti and murals, but also verse and fiction – that has emerged on the sidelines of every revolt against authoritarian regimes in the region.

"Women were at the forefront of almost every protest. They made up the first line of demonstrators and protected the men behind. They marched, ululated and chanted."

The murals and graffiti near and around the armed forces headquarters in Khartoum, the site of the sit-in protest violently broken up in June, were painted over by authorities soon after the protest encampment was dismantled, but they remain untouched elsewhere in the city as evidence of the days of the uprising and revolutionary fervour.

Mr Abdulbagey's exhibition is pointedly called "Azza," the name of the first woman to lead an anti-government street protest in Sudan in the early years of the 20th century. She was also the wife of nationalist leader Ali Abdul Latif, who led the opposition to the Anglo-Egyptian rule of Sudan, which gained independence in 1956.

“I started painting for the exhibition three months ago in recognition of women’s role in the revolution,” Mr Abdulbagey said at his studio, a room in a dilapidated building with a view of the Al Araby

“Women were at the forefront of almost every protest. They made up the first line of demonstrators and protected the men behind. They marched, ululated and chanted.”

In reality, women did indeed protect the men, but were often attacked by the security forces themselves, with hundreds of them detained or beaten up on the street. Some of them complained of sexual harassment by security agents.

“The revolution took art out of the cultural centres affiliated with western embassies and on to the streets. Art is now no longer just for the eyes of the bourgeois living in [posh] neighbourhoods,” he said.

Mr Abdulbagey says his next art project is also associated with the uprising.

"I will be visiting the scrap stores in Khartoum looking for the iron rods left from tyres we burnt during the revolution and use them to make sculptures," he said.