Sudan election: Can art keep the country together?
As voters cast their ballots in the first Sudan election in 24 years, a group of artists are campaigning against a growing secession movement. From Sudan's top painters to a homeless man, they offer images of unity.
This week's Sudan elections – the first to be held in 24 years – will set the stage for a landmark referendum, in which southern Sudanese will have the right to decide whether to remain a part of the country they fought a civil war with, or to go their own way as a deeply impoverished but free, separate country.Skip to next paragraph
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With the unity of Sudan at stake, many Sudanese artists think that politics has become too important to be left to the politicians.
Polls regularly show that southerners seem inclined to vote for secession, a fact that saddens artists like Khalid Hamid, who view their country’s diversity as one of its main strengths.
“I’m feeling guilty that I didn’t realize that we are at the point of separating,” says Mr. Hamid, one of Sudan’s top painters, and one of the founders of a new artists' collective called Sudan Unite. “But our diversity is our strength as a nation. We can make a Sudan like we dream of.”
The group has recently begun a campaign to paint public areas with images that emphasize Sudan’s rich cultures – a blend of Arab and African; Muslim, Christian, and animist – each strong and proud, but able to coexist.
Resolutely apolitical, determinedly optimistic, and secular in outlook, the artists and intellectuals of Sudan Unite say they support the right of southern Sudanese to vote for separation if they choose. But separation, they say, would be a terrible loss for Sudan, and would leave both north and south much weaker and poorer.
Rare message of optimism
Even though a 2011 referendum will follow close on the heels of this week's vote for president and parliament, which have already exposed deep divisions between the once-warring parties of the North and South of Sudan, the members of Sudan Unite refuse to believe that their efforts are coming too late.
That's why they are taking their message to the streets, painting murals, holding public impromptu concerts, and reminding Sudanese of all religions and cultures of how much they all have in common.
“We decided to take action, not to stop the people of the south to express their desire for separation, but to show the beauty of all the people of Sudan, and the respect for all the cultures of Sudan,” says Sabry Babikar, a researcher in international law, and co-founder of Sudan Unite.
He points to the rich collection of Sudanese around him: northern Muslims, Christian southerners, sipping tea in the late afternoon, in front of a long wall of murals depicting the various cultures of Sudan.
“It’s the politicians who say we can’t live together,” he says. “But here we are, all sitting together.”