Artwork by Assil Diab. Image courtesy of Ola Diab

Sudanese street artists give Khartoum a makeover

About the Author
Ola Diab
Ola Diab is a Sudanese journalist based in Qatar with extensive experience in the print and digital media industry in the country. She also runs an online Sudanese cultural magazine, 500 Words Magazine.
About Red Envelope
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

In Sudan, decades of economic and political strife that marked the latter half of the 20th century, meant a lack of the necessary urban planning and regeneration of decaying areas. Following the 2019 revolution, the country’s streets and buildings were given a makeover, courtesy of Sudanese street artists.

In December of 2018, a series of anti-government protests broke out across Sudan, leading to the ousting of former president Omar Al Bashir by April 2019 and the appointment of a transitional military-civilian Sovereign Council led by prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, which came into power that following August. As the nine-month political revolution took form, a parallel movement in street art was born, and today, reminders of the revolution colour the built fabric of the country. The walls that frame Sudan’s streets remain painted with words and portraits that tell tales of the revolution, blending urban art with the country’s spatial forms.

Sudan’s architecture is diverse. The country was home to several civilisations, like the Kingdom of Kush, Kerma, Nobatia, Meroë and others, which flourished along the Nile, leaving behind their traces in mud structures sourced from the banks of the river. The country’s built environment also features Islamic and colonial architecture, introduced during centuries of foreign rule and influence. Many of these structures remain today, with examples including the University of Khartoum and the old Presidential Palace.

Artwork by Alaa Satir. Image courtesy of Ola Diab

Following Sudan’s independence from the British in 1956, modern architecture emerged with regional expression, reflecting the country’s culture, climate and resources. But by the 1990s, Sudan witnessed a range of contemporary international architectural styles that dramatically changed the urban landscape of its cities, particularly Khartoum. The new architecture was excessively applied, and used unfamiliar building materials for its construction.

Urban development in Khartoum is defined by different types of irregular settlements – or what Khalafalla Omer calls a “manifestation of inappropriate planning policies that lead to chaotic urban forms” in his piece Khartoum: Urban Chaos and the Reclaiming of City Character. Because of Sudan’s decades-long economic and political instability, the country lacked the necessary urban planning for its continued development in the latter half of the 20th century. As Omer put it, “[Khartoum] features many poor urban structures, which harm the appearance of the city,” and this can be said for most of Sudan’s cities.

Artist Assil Diab works on an artwork. Image courtesy of Ola Diab

As a result, street art in Sudan has been the country’s latest, community-driven endeavour to beautify the urban environment, and its creators are responsible for enhancing the urban environment across its cities.

Throughout the revolution, the artistic movement that arose transformed the dust-filled, cracked mud and concrete walls of Sudan’s buildings with remarkable murals, most of which script popular slogans used during the uprising and depict Sudanese life pre- and post-revolution. A good amount of the street art seen in and outside of Khartoum was created especially during a months-long, mass sit-in, known as Al Qeyada, which took place in front of the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

Although the sit-in was brutally dispersed in June 2019, markers of its significance, and the artistic consciousness brought to life with it, blanket the walls that surround the area.

Artwork by Alaa Satir. Image courtesy of Ola Diab

“People were confined by the walls,” said graffiti artist Assil Diab. “Beyond them were the streets, the Rapid Security Forces, and the government – in other words, the war was behind them. But on the other side, there was unity, peace and people beautifying the area, and not only by painting the walls, but also by spreading positivity.”

Diab has been painting on Sudan’s streets and public spaces since 2012, but during the revolution, she began a series titled Martyrs Graffiti, which immortalises the young men who lost their lives at the hands of the former regime. “The art movement was part of the peaceful revolution,” she said. “It was our weapon as artists, musicians and poets to fight against the system.”

Echoing Diab’s sentiment, artist Alaa Satir added that when Al Qeyada took place, the artistic voice of the city grew louder, with big murals of bold messaging splashing across Sudan. “Art was a way to add pressure and keep the momentum going,” she said. “It was, without a doubt, one of our biggest weapons for civil disobedience.”

Artwork by Assil Diab. Image courtesy of Ola Diab

Street art found its canvas on the walls of both private and public structures. Sudan’s semi-open homes and institutions are enveloped by large walls that ensure the privacy of the users inside. These walls became the most prominent public platform for the artists’ expressions.

“In 2012, when I started, I focused on the general infrastructure and public works in Sudan,” said Diab. “And I realised that the country is very underdeveloped. It’s just beyond the state of deterioration – you find people living in good homes, but the streets and the street walls are in terrible conditions. Sudan is a very big, empty canvas, and there are a lot of walls and spaces. We need colour; we need to beautify the walls. And as a country with different groups, cultures and religions, we have a lot to say and a lot of stories to tell.”

“Street art helped the streets of Sudan come to life,” added Satir, who dedicated her revolution-inspired artwork to giving women a voice and depicting their place in the demonstrations. “It was a reminder of the amount of talent we have in Sudan, and the amount of stories we have to tell. It only made sense that art becomes a part of the streets as well – making them a place where people want to be, and where our history is proudly displayed.”

Read more from Red Envelope.

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the first journal themed ‘Urban Planning & Regeneration’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

Volume I, journal I is available to read in digital format here.