Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

How four Sudanese artists joined forces to preserve the country's cultural past, present and future

The collective Locale was designed to unite Sudan’s art community from across the world

A spread from Locale's 'The Room Is the City' (2016), the first publication the collective made. Courtesy Locale 
A spread from Locale's 'The Room Is the City' (2016), the first publication the collective made. Courtesy Locale 

With the art scene in Khartoum long underfunded, Sudan’s rich cultural traditions have moved towards its active diaspora, with artists, writers and designers moving back and forth between the Gulf and their home country.

In 2016, four young Sudanese creatives decided to unite this community, wherever they might be. Calling their collective Locale, they sought to develop tangible opportunities for Sudanese artists to work together.

“Collaborative work comes naturally when you are in a diaspora,” says Qutouf Yahia, a Sudanese writer in Sharjah, who is one of the four founders, along with artist Rund Alarabi, designer Aala Sharfi and writer Safwa Mohammed. “You’re always looking for your home and other people in your community.”

The four members of Locale. From left, Rund Alarabi, Safwa Mohammed, Aala Sharfi, and Qutouf Yahia. Courtesy Locale
The four members of Locale. From left to right: Rund Alarabi, Safwa Mohammed, Aala Sharfi and Qutouf Yahia. Courtesy Locale

“We saw a gap within the Sudanese arts community for a platform that offered collaborations for artists, as well as critique and feedback, so we just took it upon ourselves to start it,” Yahia says. “We all come from different disciplines, and we just pooled our talents together.”

Locale’s projects are varied, ranging from DIY publications to an important exhibition in Khartoum last December. Its first two magazines, The Room is the City, published in 2016, and Hunak, from 2017, addressed the question of place.

The Room is the City reimagined the architecture and decor of Sudanese houses as if they were satellites of the country itself, asking artists and writers to show what makes a Sudanese home.

How do we make sure that our history is kept, and articulated by all the voices in the country – not just one type of ethnicity or political party

Rund Alarabi, Locale

“Certain knick-knacks, certain items – and hospitality,” says Alarabi, who lives in Jeddah. “Sudanese people like to be ready to have guests. We have guest rooms rather than bedrooms.”

Hunak, which is Arabic for “there”, centred around the feelings of being away, as Yahia puts it. “It’s a book about not being diaspora, but just being elsewhere, like being in Brazil and wanting to be in Sudan, or being in Sudan and feeling stuck and wanting to get out.”

Locale’s most significant project was in December last year: the show This Will Have Been: Archives of the Past, Present and Future, which ran for eight days at the House of Heritage in Khartoum and was co-curated by Hadeel Eltayeb.

Comprised of archival photographs of Sudan from the 1960s to the present, the exhibition addressed what Alarabi describes as “the lack of information, the misinformation, or the many truths that exist around one event” in Sudanese history. Panel discussions and film screenings ran every evening, to open up the exhibition to people further.

Locale's exhibition This Will Have Been in Khartoum featured archival images of Sudan, together with documentation of the recent Sudanese Revolution. Courtesy Locale 
Locale's exhibition This Will Have Been in Khartoum featured archival images of Sudan, together with documentation of the recent Sudanese Revolution. Courtesy Locale

Sudan once had extensive photography and video archives, but many of these were destroyed through neglect, or left to be housed in western repositories. History was also instrumentalised, as the country suffered through the separation of north and south, the violent repression of tribes in Darfur and under the Omar Al Bashir regime.

Locale’s decision to collect Sudan’s archives was a brave one – particularly as the project began before Al Bashir was overthrown, when the Sudanese art world was still highly restricted.

Over the course of two years, the four of them researched archives abroad, and got in touch with members of the Sudanese community to ask them to contribute images and their stories, such as the son of the late photographer Al Rashid Mahdi, who documented many of the historical moments and events of Atbara, in the 1950s and 60s.

The team also came across a journalist in Khartoum who collected magazines and publications from the 60s and 70s, and showed some of his newspaper clips.

“First, we wanted to dissect what makes our Sudanese archive,” says Alarabi. “The second question was, who are the gatekeepers? Who are the people that control the content? And why are we, as Sudanese people, kept out from the ability to research and to access our archives? So many of them exist in other countries, like Germany or Britain, that we do not have access to as Sudanese people.”

The show was meant to go up in June, but it was cancelled due to unrest in the country – during which, Locale says, they switched tack from working on their own projects and instead sought help from abroad, posting information and news on their Instagram platform, Locale_SD.

When the team returned to the show, the mindset had changed. Locale added a new orientation – “The Future” – and began thinking about how the protests were being documented, as an archive formed around them in real time.

“How do we make sure that our history is kept, and articulated by all the voices in the country – not just one type of ethnicity or political party?” says Alarabi. “This has been the case for many of the materials that we have right now and so many of the stories.”

The collective produces publications and exhibitions by the Sudanese cultural community. Here, one of the "minizines", Saiwan. Courtesy Locale
The collective produces publications and exhibitions by the Sudanese cultural community. Here, one of the 'minizines', 'Saiwan'. Courtesy Locale

The lifting of censorship also allowed them far greater freedom. They were able to bring in material that would have been tricky before the revolution, such as Hajooj Kuka’s aKasha, a 2018 film set in the Nuba Mountains that had been widely screened outside of Sudan but had never been shown in the country. The size of the audience was far above what was expected, and the response, Locale says, was tremendous.

There was a sense of freedom and hope and looking forward in the air,” recalls Yahia. “The spirit of the people was so engaging and positive about what we were doing, just because of what it represented for the art scene in Sudan, and what the future could hold.”

Now, the group is working on a catalogue to go with the exhibition, which is supported by the grant organisation Mophradat. The team is also an active participant in Gulf art scenes. Locale collective ran a booth selling The Room is the City and Hunak at Focal Point, the popular art book fair by the Sharjah Art Foundation, in addition to the solo practices of the founders. Mohammed, who runs Abu Dhabi’s spoken word event Backyard Poetry with Yahia, recently performed her poems at Louvre Abu Dhabi, and Alarabi shows with the Jeddah powerhouse gallery Athr. Sharfi, who interned at the Fikra Design Studio, works as a designer in Dubai.

“We are the middleman right in this space, where we are not exclusive to people who are in Sudan and we are not exclusive to people who are outside of Sudan,” says Yahia. “It has created this really amazing space for projects.”

Updated: August 10, 2020 09:01 AM

Editor's Picks
THE DAILY NEWSLETTER
Sign up to our daily email
Most Read