' I am a Sudanese diaspora-Cairene artist who has been exposed to two distinct environments growing up which have both tremendously influenced me and my work. I found great inspiration from the Sudanese culture, especially through my mother’s stories about her hometown in Old Dongla of Sudan. Every Friday morning, we would have homemade Ha’ysh biscuits with our milk-tea and she would relay us with tales of how she, as a child, would dig up earth with her young friends for stone cats to create Ancient Egyptian feline statues, to give them to the tourists in exchange for candy or sweets.
In fact, I grew up captivated by the legendary Therianthropy stories about how a human can take on animal form, and how my mother’s family’s would go on expeditions in the south to capture slaves, and how my maternal grandfather would eventually decide to leave the family slavery business and settle down on an island next to the river Nile. All these mementos we had at our house in Cairo, from the scent of the ‘Bint el Sudan’ fragrance mixed with different oriental incense that would perfume our home and the tin box full of old family photos.
My father, a descendant of a Sufi family, came to Cairo in 1951 as a young academic to start studies at the Al Azhar University, but then he fell in love with the city so much that he decided to abandon his scholarly ambitions. Instead, he bought a car to start work as a taxi driver about the urban streets, and he never went back to his hometown except for his wedding. With his tales of Cairo from the 1950s and 1960s, and all the celebrities he met, at that time he even met Muhammad Naguib, the first Egyptian-Sudanese president of Egypt, who offered him a job in an oil company that was a turning point in his life.
On the other hand, I was educated at an Egyptian school, where I experienced my black identity in a different way, far from the happy family and diaspora memories and stories. The Egyptian history curriculum depicted negative images of Sudan and an infamous image of being black was constructed in the media, that was also an atmosphere in which I struggled to comprehend and to endure the prejudice.
Being raised in downtown Cairo opened my eyes with other versions of my identity. In my cosmopolitan neighborhood, where the American University and French schools were located, I met diverse black communities. The American media was screened on local TV, depicting a different picture of black characters or of superheroes other than the stereotypes found in the local Egyptian media. All these various elements drove me more towards expressing myself through art, as painting gave me a room to recreate an identity, in which my Nubian heritage finally met with my Cairene present.
When the 2011 Egyptian Revolution happened, it raised many questions about contemporary political and social history, and to challenge the credibility of the mental images that have been put forward for 60 years through propaganda about the monarchy and foreign minorities. This led me to harness a new tendency or muscle to start digging deeper and to re-read the history, to reassess the negative images and the nuances of ‘the image of the other’. It prompted me to turn to archival art in my search for alternative images or portrayals of Sudan within the Egyptian and British colonial archives and to unearth the silenced history.
Thus, I began to move away from a reliance on official sources and use a newer form of research, probing for the genuine historic reality of slavery between Sudan and Egypt; and, especially, to look into the reality of the military slavery during the 19th Century. It led to my ‘Black Ivory’ project. So, I had changed tact by looking for documents that offered a different narrative and perspective about the Sudanese battalion in the Mexican War of 1864, whom the Khedive granted as a gift to Napoleon III.
I searched through the names of the soldiers who fought in the Mexican French war, until I found a press interview with one of the fighters - Ali Al-Jifoon Effendi - in an English magazine published in 1902. In it, he talked about being kidnapped as a child and later forced to be a soldier in three colonial armies. He cited important events, and stories of transformation - mentioned above as ‘Therianthropy’ - that were similar to my mother's stories.
This then led me to a decision to use oral history and construct an audio-installation to present Ali Al-Jifoon Effendi’s story, and to use his mother tongue, the Shilluk language. Shilluk is one of the tribes in southern Sudan that was linked to my family history, so initially I went to the community school In the Shilluk community in Cairo, but I could not find an interpreter there. At first, everyone refused to meet me because of my family legacy, so I went to the priest of the church to convince him to nominate someone to take on this delicate task. After an extended conversation, he decided to tell it to me himself.
During my artistic stay in southern Morocco to retrace one of the caravan routes that carried slaves to North Africa, I looked for the influence of slave culture in Morocco as well. The name of Sudan was often mentioned in family surnames or in the Gnawa songs referred to as ‘slaves’ music’. The tunes would speak of being stolen from the mother Sudan and referring to an abyss as opposed to modern political borders.
Now I am working on the ‘Alternative Museum of the Sudan’ project, which investigates identity in terms of the Sudanese region of East Central, West Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, through the colonial propaganda of the 19th and 20th Centuries, which has contributed to the formation of the stereotypes of the black community and its resurrection. This propaganda was, of course, exported to us and became part of our personal vision of ourselves. Through the exhibits of the Alternative Museum, my goal is to offer the unspoken history and to rephrase it, by using the archives I have found and truly investing for the truth of what happened.'