“A double exposure of two photos from the cemetery. The one above was taken before the burial ceremony. Berber 2023.”
Since the war broke out in April 2023 in Khartoum - where the photographer and artist Hassan Kamil had previously lived and where he was born in 1993 - Kamil has been producing a series of multilayered visual works that meld together two or three photographs. Hassan explains that this has been the way his brain can artistically express his juxtaposed thoughts and emotions and make sense of conflict-induced trauma, which includes both the fallback from having to forcibly migrate and comparatively overlooked considerations such as nostalgia.
The top picture, with its subjects all looking into the horizon, while a graveyard lays just beneath their legs, captures displaced Sudanese peoples’ collective feeling of loss while simultaneously longing for a fulfilling life. As in the image, it often feels as though our efforts to improve our individual and collective situations are continuously thwarted by conflict-induced pit holes, which are in this case literally underfoot. At the centre of the image, the two standing figures’ body language speaks to the perpetual anxiety and worry a vividly uncontrollable future causes, which is inflamed by the still unravelling consequences of having spent previous decades under Sudan’s unjust and corrupt rule.
Hassan Kamil’s story is important because it distils the experience he shares with over 6.5 million war-displaced Sudanese people, including that of my own and my family’s, into a singular narrative. It also crucially showcases the collective on-going emotional and political reinterpretation of previously familiar spaces within Sudan. Before the war, Kamil would visit his mother's hometown of Berber, in northern Sudan, to enjoy various holiday festivals and listen to his family reminisce about the past and speak of the various identities the small town had embodied. Because Kamil’s reinterpretation predates the on-going conflict, he dedicates large portions of his work to an exploration of the town’s neglect while still displaying its oft-overlooked beauty and richness. Through this process Kamil is reminded not only of how much he has lost, but of how much he never had the chance to discover prior to seeking his present refuge. Like myself and so many others, he is ensnared between wakefulness and dreams.
“A self-portrait. I took the photo during our early days after leaving Khartoum. Berber 2023.”
I regularly encountered Hassan’s works in my curatorial practice following the 2019 Sudanese revolution that upended 30-years of authoritarian rule and ushered Sudan into a dreamlike sense of revolutionary possibility. I have since been captivated by his deep-bluish photographs and nostalgic frames, which still inspire my own process of self-questioning. While these images reflect Hassan’s experience, they made me feel as though I’m looking at a manifestation of my own long-lost memory, which triggered my own investigation into the invasive estrangement of place, memory, and dreams many Sudanese are now experiencing.
“My Khartoum’s cousins, walking back home. It's their first time here in Berber. Berber 2023.”
Hassan and I finally spoke following the outbreak of the conflict when he uploaded a 2-minute Instagram video of various shots from the war’s initial days. The video shifts from scenes of him and his family under a table as the sounds of explosions engulf them and then shifts into life on the streets and on a bus as they flee from Khartoum. The video concludes with a brief shot of young musicians in a square on the edges of downtown Khartoum singing to a guitar’s thrum. The song, which was originally written by the poet Abdelmonim Abdelhai, describes this collective feeling of being caught between Wakefulness and Dreams.
For those familiar with Sudan, the song and Hassan’s photographs conjure eerie collective memories of, and nostalgia for, the 2019 revolution against the then-ruling regime of Omar Al-Bashir. A chant that echoed through the hundreds of tents erected on the wide street facing the military headquarters in Khartoum as hundreds of thousands Sudanese revolutionists marched, demanding freedom, peace, and equal justice: (All of the country is Darfur) “كل البلد دارفور"
While this phrase remains a revolutionary catchphrase, it requires a nuanced interpretation as Darfuri marginalisation was associated with an extreme level of often ethnically targeted violence, that has at times been genocidal. This chant nonetheless embodied the collective scream in the face of the regime’s agenda of centralised development, segregation, and exploitation of millions of marginalised people.
"Wide shot of the ruins of Al-Zamarna houses, a prominent family that left, in the middle of our neighbourhood. Berber 2020”
Hassan’s images also recall the word الاقاليم(Al-Aqaleem) which is a Sudanese way of describing anything outside of a 50-kilometre radius from Khartoum’s centre. The term evokes an empty space with mud houses thrown around a dusty scenery every hundred metres. It literally translates to “the regions”, but it has an expanded meaning, which is how my family and many others would venomously wield it when stating that someone was “coming from the regions”. It implied that the individuals in question were uneducated, inadequate, and culturally distant from our self-righteous sense of cosmopolitanism and sophistication.
It was no accident that this dangerously distancing language inhabited the gulf between our lived sentiment towards these spaces and a public or political one. The political strategy of labelling Khartoum as the only cultural hub and source had social and ideological implications that made it a tool of authoritarian rule. Even as it conjured a utopian image of all who were in Khartoum, or desired to be, it was detrimental to everyone who did not belong to the fairy-tale.
This problematic narrative can be traced back to al-Bashir’s strict Islamic regime, which ruled Sudan for nearly 30-years, and was politically inspired by Hassan Al-Turabi, an Islamic scholar and anthropologist who believed that a country only prospers when everyone looks, behaves, and is culturally the same. Al-Bashir actively propagated and weaponised an idealised Sudanese identity through limitations on individuality and expression and his rhetoric was largely embedded in Khartoum.
Paradoxically, while this was detrimental to the country's immense cultural diversity, it allowed individualistic expression to bloom in the “regions” that so many people in the capital thought of as unsophisticated. Reem Abbas and Ruba Almalik’s book “Undoing Resistance” documents 3 years of the authors’ research, during which they mapped these suburban cultural spaces and revolutionary nodes outside of Khartoum. Their fascinating study of the cultural production within Al-Gezira, Kassala, Port Sudan, Al-Shimalya and Kordofan highlights how artists expressed opposition and alternatives to inequality and oppression.
As we found out during the past few years of revolution, silencing these emergent countercultural expressions proved impossible. Rather than solely reflect narrow regional concerns, the music, visuals, and literature from these regions were relevant to everyone in Khartoum and the diaspora, which often maintained ties to the capital. They also sang of these oft-spurned spaces and their dreams. And yet, even as they ricocheted through the country, the regime maintained a tight grip on the wheels of economic development.
Hassan’s images showcase the contours of a new demographic repartition that created significant economic and social disparities between regions like Berber and Khartoum that arguably drive the devastating on-going conflict. Take a city like Atbara, which is economically wealthier than Berber, although the latter has a richer cultural heritage. Even so, Atbara became the focus of Bashir’s regime, which deepened the same economic favouritism the city had experienced under British-led colonial rule, which ended in 1956 but the post-independence regime often replicated. Similar patterns of development took shape in Tutti, which is an island in the Nile River near Khartoum. Development was focused around the islet and Tutti became increasingly derelict to the extent that it now resembles a slum rather than the urban centre it was prior to colonial occupation; like Berber, questions of cultural value or significance in Tutti were neglected.
The dynamics of the authoritarian Islamicist regime’s selective focus and care might have been fuelled by the ruling elite’s fear of culturally rich communities and their related power, which threatened to challenge Bashir’s coercive grip. And yet, these patterns of rule still tinge our collective Sudanese perception of different places of origin. Perhaps this is because, like Hassan and I, so many Sudanese do not have families who have been in Khartoum long, even though we once called Khartoum our home. When Hassan returned to Berber, he learned that the merchants who came from the city were some of the wealthiest and most powerful in the souks of Omdurman, which is a city that practically merges with Khartoum and forms part of the greater Khartoum area.
“Small parts of you die with every distressing news from Khartoum.A family photo taken during a live report of an airstrike in Khartoum. Berber 2023. “
Hassan’s image of a group in a house in Berber watching the news of the war on a small tv attached to a derelict wall speaks of these tensions. Even as technology and development were accepted and welcomed, the space was never updated and the wall a new television was hung upon was never painted. The photograph powerfully embodies the feeling of drowning between wakefulness and dreams; even as the individuals watch Sudan’s appalling destruction, they simultaneously inhabit a space that is confined within similar constraints of what is, was, and perhaps could be.
“An afternoon view from my grandmother's house. Berber 2021.”
Hassan told me he witnessed discussions - specifically after the war began - on the need for the inhabitants of Berber to develop the region. But he also noted that rarely did these conversations take a political turn or were formulated into political demands. Those same wealthy businessmen seemingly never thought to direct their political will or finances towards economically revitalising the town.
Sudan’s war entered its seventh month at the time of writing and Hassan’s images powerfully suggest how Sudanese artists’ work continues to advocate for neglected spaces, even as the country’s politicians and warring parties abandoned or even destroy them. Like Hassan, I hope that the currently displaced and increasingly fragmented Sudanese community can move away from the liminal space between wakefulness and dreams towards a new future that does not replicate the violence and targeted inequities of the past. As the conflict disturbingly displaces and rewires our memories, hopes, and dreams new imaginaries of possibility are collectively taking root that question what was and what could be as we begin to conceptualise what Sudan now is and might still become.
”The neighbourhood kids playing football during a surprise sandstorm. Most of them are from families who returned to Berber because of the war. Berber 2023.”