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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.

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Homeless man paints powerful message

Here on Comboni Street, the Sudan Unite message comes out loud and strong. There is a life-sized portrait of a child – painted by homeless children with paint given them by Sudan Unite – one leg painted with the flag of the southern based liberation party SPLM; the other leg is painted with the flag of the northern ruling Islamist party, the National Congress Party.

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Another painting by Hamid features a Noah’s Ark full of people, some in the garb of southern Dinkas, others in the clothes of western Darfuris; some dressed as Arabs, others dressed as Nubians from the north.

Some paintings, like Hamid’s, are technically impressive, while others are simple but powerful in their message. One homeless man, given paints by Sudan Unite, painted a Sudanese flag, ripped in half, but painstakingly stitched back together.

British role in historical division

The Ottoman empire unified the North and South of Sudan for the first time in the 1840s, says Jaffar Taha, a historian at the University of Khartoum and a member of Sudan Unite. But it was the British who specifically forbade northern Sudanese Muslims from entering the then-animist south, and thus created the cultural divisions that still exist today, he says.

“When the British said let the Nile be British, we inherited the problems of present-day Sudan,” says Dr. Taha. “But then, since liberation, what did we do as nationalists to solve that problem? We, the generation of independence, failed to solve the big problems of the unity of our country, and now we are paying the price.”

A lesson from Sudan's donkeys

For Hamid, the answer to Sudan’s problems is for Sudanese to stop acting like donkeys.

Hamid knows his donkeys. As an artist, he’s practically obsessed by them, and donkeys are a kind of theme that pass through landscapes that deceptively look like simple Sudanese country scenes, but in fact are a kind of social commentary.

He lays out a dozen brand-new watercolor paintings on the dusty street in front of a sidewalk cafe full of students. The students walk out to view the paintings of a man they all know. Hamid is about to lay one painting right into a mud puddle, and the students start shouting “No, no, no, no!" A mischievous grin forms on his face.

“Who is guiding, the man or the donkey?” he asks, pointing to a lovely watercolor of a man whipping a donkey along in a donkey-cart. “I don’t want to be like a donkey, without knowing the meaning of yes and no, without knowing what I’m carrying on my back. I have my own vision of life, my own dignity, my own respect.”

IN PICTURES: Sudan elections