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Sudan: When Utopia Becomes Reality

Sudan: When Utopia Becomes Reality

The exhibition “Thawra! ثورة Revolution! Sudan: The History of an Uprising,” featured at the Rencontres d’Arles 2021, revisits the revolt, which broke out in Khartoum in late 2018 and led to the fall of the dictator Omar al-Bashir, as seen through the eyes of eight Sudanese photographers and the film director Hind Meddeb.
Civilians climbing huge billboards to yell “Freedom, peace and justice”. Sit-in, military headquarters, Khartoum, the 19th of April 2019 © Ahmed Ano

In late 2018, the revolution began north of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. There followed five months of revolt during which the Sudanese took to the streets by the thousands. First, they held peaceful demonstrations, and then a sit-in, where a young woman stood on top of a car and recited the verses of a Sudanese poet: a video of the event went viral around the world. The young woman is Alaa Salah, who has since become an icon of the Sudanese revolution. “The day I was admitted to the university,” she wrote in her book/witness testimony, Le Chant de la Révolte, “my father said to me along the way, ‘This is a new period of your life, and you must never be silent, you must know how to say no’.”

« The martyrs are not dead, they live in the heart of the revolutionaries! » Photogram of Hind Meddeb’s film.

On April 11, 2019, after thirty years of religious and military dictatorship and years of civil war, the Sudanese finally ousted Omar al-Bashir, the man who had ruled supreme since his coup in 1989. As in other contemporary revolts, social networks acted as a point of contact, in particular for photographers who were both participants in, and witnesses to, this historic moment. Despite the risk of being arrested and tortured by the regime’s political police, photographers never stopped documenting the events.

A series of chance encounters gave birth to the exhibition “Thawra! Revolution! Sudan: The History of an Uprising,” set up at the Trinitarian Church as part of the Rencontres d’Arles 2021. Juliette Agnel, one of the exhibition curators, had just arrived in Sudan when the revolution began. “I was commissioned by the European Union and the art center Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire in early 2019 to do a photographic series in Sudan.” Prior to being a curator, Juliette Agnel started out as a photographer. When she arrived in Sudan, she had seven days to complete her series. She got into a car and drove across the country with Duha Mohammed, a young Sudanese photographer “who is also a designer, a young woman full of energy. I watched her post images of the uprising on social networks. We became very close, I asked her a lot of questions about her life, her friends. I was amazed and blown away by this woman’s courage: she did things without worrying about the danger she was putting herself in.”

A young girl looks if the road is cleared by the police and secret service so that demonstrators can leave her house safely. El-Abaseya, Omdurman, February 2019 © Metche Jaafar

When the project was completed, Juliette Agnel returned to Paris, but Sudan has stayed with her. “I followed [the events] from afar, as best as I could. The uprising received very little media attention in France, and I found myself watching Arab channels even though I couldn’t understand the language.” She communicated with her acquaintances who stayed behind, talked a lot with Duha, who sent her the names of photographers to follow, and who became the co-curator of this exhibition. Among these photographers, Juliette Agnel selected eight (five women and three men) and created an exhibition project based on screenshots from social networks. “It was impossible to get in touch with the photographers. The connection there was no longer working. They were under lockdown: no flights, no Internet.” Agnel submitted the project kind of randomly to the Rencontres d’Arles, and they expressed interest in the subject.

A demonstrator whose inscription at the back of his shirt means “A revolutionary of Kalakla, down with the dictatorship! »; he stands on the central railway of Khartoum which was part of the sit-in area of the army HQ. Khartoum, Sudan, the 13th of April 2019 © Muhammad Salah

The exhibition focuses on the first months of the uprising, from the demonstrations to the sit-in, “moments of jubilation, joy, revolt,” before things took a sinister turn with the massacre of June 3, 2019, when the army and the Janjaweed militia (the same paramilitary troops that were involved in the Darfur atrocities, among other things) attacked the Sudanese revolutionaries. Tents were set on fire and more than 150 people were killed. The photographs on display reveal a defiant nation, as in this image by photographer Muhammad Salah which shows a man standing in the central railroad in Khartoum: on the back of his beige sweater, we can read in Arabic: “A revolutionary from Kalakla. Down with the dictatorship!”

The images are complemented by a twenty-minute excerpt from the documentary Our Voices As Only Weapons by Hind Meddeb. As in her other films, the filmmaker identifies with the rebels. Following the advice of three Sudanese friends who could no longer travel to their country for fear of losing their refugee status or being imprisoned upon arrival, she went there with a camera in hand to allow them to vicariously experience this moment of hope. After the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, where she made two documentaries (Tunisia Clash, 2015, and Electro Chaâbi, 2013, respectively), she noticed that, in Sudan, the movement had learned from the earlier, Arab Spring uprisings. In an interview for the magazine Araborama, Meddeb even speaks of a “post-Islamist” revolution, where the level of tolerance at the time of the gatherings allowed “the believers and the atheists to coexist.” This was an ideal that many countries, Arab or otherwise, have been trying to achieve. “There was a sense of harmony,” she added, “everyone coming together, the homeless and the well-off… it was a form of utopia.” It was a utopia turned reality, and we find it again in the exhibition which combines poetry, revolt, and art, “just as the revolution did,” ensures Juliette Agnel.

By Sabyl Ghoussoub

Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.

“Thawra! ثورة Revolution! Soudan: The History of an Uprising”

Ahmed Ano (b. 1993), Suha Barakat (b. 1986), Saad Eltinay (b. 1995), Eythar Gubara (b. 1988), Metche Jaafar (b. 1998), Hind Meddeb (b. 1978), Duha Mohammed (b. 1993), Ula Osman (b. 1998), and Muhammad Salah (b. 1993)

Exhibition curators: Juliette Agnel and Duha Mohammed

Église des Trinitaires

July 4 to September 26, 2021, part of the Rencontres d’Arles

More information here.

Sit-in in Khartoum, the 14th of April 2019 © Muhammad Salah

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