Amado Alfadni identifies as half-Sudanese, half-Egyptian. But the parts of his identity were not created equal in his surroundings. Monuments to Egyptian history, he saw, manifest in larger-than-life spectacles to tower over cooing crowds with pyramids, mosques, libraries, and citadels.
True appreciation of Sudanese history, Alfadni found, was a little harder to see, which is what led the hyphenated artist to his love of archival art, which he took as an avenue to study his Sudanese heritage. “When I started, I began by studying history, especially the hidden history that's made up a lot of African history,” Alfadni tells us. “My family was involved in a lot of this, so it's kind of a personal history as well.”
Alfadni's backgrounds use 'tazkarat horeya', or freedom passes, that were given out to Sudanese people in Egypt to indicate the end of their service as slaves.
To create his artwork, Alfadni scours through centuries-old books which showcase Sudanese people through colonial eyes. More than the run-of-the-mill orientalism we might be used to in depictions of people of colour, a look into the portrayal of Sudanese images by British and Egyptian hands is a window into a more nefarious history of slavery, “how it was popular in the 19th and the beginning of the 20ths century when the British and Egyptian armies were taking Sudanese slaves as soldiers,” says Alfadni.
“They don’t depict them in a very humane way,” he continues. “But I could choose ones that had a certain pose, that looked at the camera from certain perspectives, and I'd use the image as an icon, while using motifs in the background that simultaneously raise and answer questions about the Sudanese colonies of the time.”
Pointing at some of these motifs, Alfadni shares the background behind the background; in some of the images, you can find stamps from the era, letters written by people at the time, or tickets — known as 'tazkarat horeya', or freedom passes — that were given out to Sudanese people in Egypt to indicate the end of their service as slaves.
“The British army would use Sudanese slaves as soldiers to colonise many parts of Africa,” Alfadni explains. “These Sudanese soldiers were even sent abroad to Mexico, India and even Indonesia, practically every part of the map. This is what I'm trying to present here in the collection.”
This is lifelong work digging into generations of hidden history—history very easily buried under colonialist culture and patterns that persist to this day.
Amado Alfadni is currently exhibiting in Sulger Buel Gallery's 'WAVES: Art from North Africa' group exhibition in London, which includes works by other North African artists like COMBO, Ilyes Messaoudi, Hany Rashed, and Soad Abdulrasoul.
While the collection on display was created months ago (Sulger Buel Gallery's exhibition was meant to be shown live in April or May, and only delayed and moved online due to the pandemic), the exhibition seemed perfectly timed with the rise in online discussions on race.
But for Alfadni, this is more than a passing conversation or a hashtag. This is lifelong work digging into generations of hidden history—history very easily buried under colonialist culture and patterns, some which seem to persist to this day.
“This was planned long before everyone started talking about race,” he says. “Everyone now is trying to look back and remember hidden information. We all have this kind of common story, and we forget about how we look at the Other and how we treat the Other. It's powerful, how it started in the States but is now all over the world. I had seen people questioning the concept of racism before and talking about racism here over social media, but I've never seen this much interaction about it.”
These Sudanese soldiers were even sent abroad to Mexico, India and even Indonesia, practically every part of the map.
Even when this current conversation ends, when the hashtags and the calls to action cease to be, Alfadni plans to continue his work to demystify his Sudanese heritage, just as he had been before it began. Forgotten but not gone; as long as our shared history remains hidden, the question of why it has to be that way will persist. And when the answer to that question rears its ugly head, when we can see that a people's monuments come in the form of the oppression they face rather than the buildings and statues their ancestors leave behind, it will serve as a reminder for why this art needs to exist, to be seen, and to be listened to.