Art creation and war propagation have an unexpected commonality - they’re both distinctly human activities that create everlasting effects on society. War destroys, art creates. War propagates fear, art invents freedom. Time and again, during times of societal decay, artists have come forward and used their art to create awareness, bolster morale and most of all, humanize the victims of war. Through paintings and poems, sculptures and film, artists have brought to life the sufferings during humanitarian crises - to give individual lives an identity beyond simple statistics.
Abdelrahman Abdalla, a Sudanese artist who fled to Ethiopia earlier this year is among such artists using his art to highlight the ongoing civil war in his country and its jarring effects on the citizens in Sudan.
A civil war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), rival factions of the government of Sudan, broke out in April 2023. The war is concentrated in the Darfur region and around the national capital of Khartoum. What started as a military revolution to oust dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 quickly turned into a war for authority in the country, followed by the rapid removal of civilian leaders from the Sudanese government.
Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, said earlier in November that the violence against civilians is “verging on pure evil,” according to the Guardian. SAF, led by Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the opposing paramilitary RSF under Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo are caught in the ugly trap of greed for resources and power - as well as long-standing rivalries and hatred. According to UNHRC data, more than 6.7 million Sudanese have been displaced since April.
Abdalla, who was born and raised in Khartoum and worked there till he was forced to flee to Ethiopia in July 2023, is one of the millions of displaced Sudanese citizens. Through his art, he seeks to create awareness of the conditions in his homeland and portray the pain endured by the citizens. His prominent art project Dark Tears serves to project the dire suffering of Sudan's innocent civilians, depicting their emotional journey while navigating a period of rampant violence in the country. In an interview with AfricaNews, Abdalla said he created his art as a result of "a lot of feelings to express about the war."
Expressing the depth of his project at the exhibition held in Ethiopia, Abdalla told AfricaNews that he devotes all his time to his project, conveying Dark Tears to be the "darkness that is happening in Sudan."
Through his artistic ventures, Abdalla spotlights the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. His art challenges the armed violence and insecurity leashed upon his community, while simultaneously advocating for a peaceful and inclusive Sudanese society. At his exhibition in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Abdalla reiterated that his art was not only to inform but to help the community.
"When you see it, it will help you to see what is going on in the human mind, human pictures, human anatomy, some paintings are distorted, a lot of distortions of the city, a lot of distortions of the human faces, human figures. It is exactly what is happening in the war. So people can get a message from this if it is a visual message or psychological message to see something has happened to these human beings," he said at the exhibition, according to AfricaNews.
Before the start of the civil war, Abdalla was the head of the Sudanese Plastic Artists Union and an assistant teacher at the College of Fine and Applied Art at Sudan University. The core of Abdalla’s inspiration for his work has always stemmed from his community, choosing to teach as a way of engaging with and giving back to his community.
Sudan saw a rise in new artists following the 2019 revolution for a democracy - giving rise to a burgeoning art scene that had begun to receive regional and global attention. With the civil war ravaging Khartoum, where many of the country’s major art galleries are situated, artists have feared the loss of years of artistic endeavours. Significant damages and looting also plagued the Sudan Natural History Museum and archives at the Omdurman Ahlia University, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said in May.
Artists like Abdelrahman Abdalla, however, continue to foster revolution through art. Striving for justice, peace and inclusivity for their community, Sudanese artists continue to create art portraying the situation in their countries - even as refugees displaced by the war. “I have a lot of time now. It is not like when I was home, having to go to the market to buy things... Now my full time is just for painting this project,” Abdalla told reporters at his exhibition, highlighting the loss of normal life and the sense of helplessness the war has brought upon him.