An interview with Assil DiabRevolution
Editor’s Note: No revolution exists absent of art. From the creation of protest songs to iconic photographs, artists will always find themselves amplifying the cries of the people. Such has been the case in Sudan throughout the uprising. Where the people are, so is the art. The Mantle had the opportunity to speak with a number of artists including Assil Diab, a Sudanese artist and graphic designer. What follows is an interview conducted via email, edited for clarity.
Marie Lamensch: Has art always been a way for Sudanese artists to express their frustration with the government, or is this a rather recent trend? Do you feel like you have more freedom to be outspoken now?
Assil Diab: The artistic expression that has emerged since the protests started in December 2018 is the most dramatic and expressive yet, especially because we now have a social media savvy generation. A lot of artwork was digital as much of it was graffiti on the walls of the sit-in held at the military headquarters. Before 2013, the graffiti scene was almost non-existent, but it has now become the main form of creative expression used by the revolutionaries. Of course, there’s also music, poetry, and even fashion, but the art scene, specifically graffiti, tops all categories. You still have to be very cautious when painting outside the sit-in, a place that was considered a safe zone before the violent crackdown by the government on June 3. You can get beaten or shot for expressing yourself artistically otherwise, especially if your art is pro-revolutionary. As demonstrators against the government, we never have freedom to be outspoken, not before, not now. We are just getting larger in number, that gives us a bit more freedom.
ML: Tell me about your most recent piece. What is the meaning behind it?
AD: To celebrate the millions uprising on June 30, 2019, I’ve painted the 30th martyr on that day (30 martyrs by June 30th) in Al Safiya Family Club in Bahri, Khartoum. The martyr was 26-year-old Mohamed Mattar, who was killed in the massacre at the sit-in on June 3 by the Rapid Support Forces. The week following, June 30, I painted on walls, light poles, and even furniture - anything I could find outside around town. I used a specific shade of blue called Mattar blue. Before he was murdered, Mohamed’s Instagram profile picture was blue. It was apparently his favorite color. As a result, many people changed their profile picture to Mattar blue, including Rihanna, LL Cool J, H.H. Mayassa Al Thani, and even the BET awards, in honor of him and in solidarity with the Sudanese revolution. I wanted to take this idea of changing profile pictures to blue from cyber space to the real world. The government shut down the internet service in Sudan to silence the opposition and many of us are no longer connected. I wanted everyone to know what the hashtag #BlueForSudan represents by painting it around town and by having face-to-face conversations with other Sudanese. I wanted people continue the dialogue, I wanted them to talk about injustice, whether they are connected or not. That also includes the older generations who aren’t on social media.
ML: What role did art and artists play during the sit-in? Do you think it has brought people together? Did it bring energy and hope to the movement?
AD: The art scene that has come about during the current revolution is one of the most positive and enlightening things we’ve ever seen. There is so much undiscovered talent that has really blown up artistically and musically. The positive vibes expressed by protestors was just contagious. It is addictive and it is not leaving. That’s why many never went back home after April 6 when it all started. Everyone was taking pictures of or with the artwork, conversing with the artists, and sometimes even wanting to try painting on their own walls. It’s kind of like how some cities become tourist attractions because of their art scene. That’s what the sit-in became. The Sudanese revolution exploded because of the amount of artwork poured into the sit-in and on the internet.
ML: Are there particular works of art you have seen throughout the protests that have really spoken to you? What was it about them that was so meaningful?
AD: I was introduced to the old Sudanese flag that was first introduced in 1970 by a military junta. It has the current pan-Arab colors of red, white, black and green. I only came to know about it because it was depicted everywhere: profile pictures, texts, illustrations, photographs. I am drawn to it rather than the current Sudanese flag (red, black, green & white). I am almost always amused to see the various ways the old flag is encrypted in all the artwork. It always stands out.
The pieces of art that portray violence and rape spoke the loudest to me. As an artist, I honestly have difficulties visualizing these critical and threatening issues. So when I see them portrayed perfectly in an illustration or painting, I can’t help but get emotional. It is sad to know a martyr was shot dead, but it’s worse when they have been raped and beaten to death. Most of us don’t know how a martyr died, so when it is depicted in an image it makes you feel something.
ML: Are there artists on the ground in the protests you're following?
AD: I know personally many of the artists on the ground and online. The works of Jaili Hajo, Mustafa El Nasry, Wael Sanosis are mostly digital. I really was drawn to Mughiras’ work at the sit-in because his art represented the diversity of Sudan and those who have been taking part in the protests. Galal Yousif’s work was also exceptional in size and quantity; you’ll find his work almost all around the sit-in at the Military headquarters. There were thousands of painted walls there and everyday I’d go through some of them, knowing that one day they wouldn’t be there anymore. I made sure I keep a mental memory of each piece.
ML: Do you think the revolution has given a new meaning to what it means to be an artist in Sudan?
AD: This revolution specifically, introduced many creative people to each other. Many of us learned and were inspired by each other. The revolutionary music stimulated my mind, poetry progressed my mental and visual vocabulary, the avant-garde fashion provoked my senses, and the artwork enthused me.
As artists, we had the most powerful weapon. We chose to protest peacefully by using art as our strength against the violence used by the government. Our creative expression was also our way to communicate with the world, to bring attention to what is going on in Sudan. Most of the protestors only speak Sudanese Arabic but art was the international language.
All art provided by Assil Diab.
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