Artist Rashid Diab’s self-styled mission to revive Sudanese culture
KHARTOUM - When he talks about the art scene in Sudan, there is a look of sadness and despair in the eyes of Rashid Diab. The country’s internationally acclaimed artist has exhibited his work in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
There are approximately 2,000 artists in Khartoum but there is no national art gallery to exhibit their work. Diab’s Dara Art Gallery attached to his residence in central Khartoum, his arts centre and four other private galleries are the country’s only exhibition venues.
Diab has discussed the possibility of acquiring the post office building from colonial times, which he described as “a work of art,” for a national art gallery. He said he was adamant he would continue contacting officials until the building was transferred to artists for their use.
“The government’s relationship with culture is very ambiguous,” Diab said. “No one knows if they want to conserve the old buildings and preserve the identity of the city. They have a big Ministry of Culture but there is no budget and the ministry is filled with untrained people.”
A law was passed ten years ago stating that the waterfront area in Khartoum should be used for museums and the promotion of culture. However, the government has been building unsightly new structures instead.
Since the 1950s, modern Sudanese art has been auctioned and sold to collectors around the world. The works of visionary modernist painter Ibrahim el-Salahi are displayed in the Tate Gallery in London but there are no works by Salahi in Sudan.
“The young generation does not have any idea about modern Sudanese art, which needs to be collected and kept in Sudan,” Diab said. “The day will come when we have a museum of modern art and there will be no art to put in it.”
Born in 1957, Diab was raised in Wadi Medani on the banks of the Blue Nile. He graduated with honours from the Khartoum College of Fine Art and moved to Madrid where he studied art at the Complutense University. He received a doctorate in painting from the university in 1991 and joined the faculty as an art teacher. He was the first Arab African to teach at the university where he remained for nine years.
In 1999, he decided his country needed him. “Sudan had a very bad reputation and I could not tolerate people talking about my country in a bad way. I had to change that,” Diab said.
He bought a massive villa, which houses the Dara Art Gallery and his studio. “The factory where I produce my art,” he jokes.
In 2000, he bought 3,200 sq. metres of land and built five villas to be used as an arts centre. There are accommodations for artists, workspace, two galleries, a blue meditation room where you can hear the silence and a massive garden with a stage and performance area.
The Rashid Diab Arts Centre is decorated with the artist’s earlier work: traditional folk themes, Arabic calligraphy, animals, human figures and African motifs. He said he was inspired by the “Nile, the silence of the desert and the ability of women to give unconditionally.”
Diab’s colourful art is centred on traditionally clad female forms moving away in time and space. “Everyone in Sudan is trying to find an identity. Ethnic groups may have settled in the city but mentally they are at home [in their village],” he said.
“My art is portraying life in Sudan — capturing everything. The political and the social context is transformed into images. When you have no freedom of expression, you can’t say anything. You have to speak through painting.”
Diab insisted he has no interest in politics. The administration of the arts centre takes up a lot of his time as does travelling abroad to organise exhibitions and lecture. He has become an unofficial cultural ambassador for Sudan. His art is currently on display in Qatar. In January there is to be an exhibition in Nairobi and in March in Egypt.
“Culture involves large expenses and the results come later,” he said. “Through art people change their ideas; they appreciate new things.”
Many people in his neighbourhood had never been inside an art gallery. Now they eagerly wait for new exhibitions.
When asked about the challenges of running an arts centre, Diab said: “Life itself is challenging in Sudan.”
“In Sudan, everyone has an element of Sufism in his life — you know there is something unifying you with God — you are part of God. We say ‘inshallah’ — everything depends on God — we have good health and we can work. If we gain or lose something this is part of life. We have to accept it.”