Artist returns from Europe to rediscover Sudan
There does not seem to be much here for an artist the caliber of Rashid Diab. There is only one small gallery. It is hard to find canvas or paint. No one has enough money to buy Mr. Diab's paintings, abstractions that like Sudan itself are a gorgeous mix of Arab and African influences. Even small works go for $1,000 or more. But two months ago Mr. Diab, 43, abandoned a good life in Madrid to return to Sudan. He left as a promising art student two decades ago and has now come back with his wife, two children and an ambition: to create a culture of art inside Sudan, a nation that produces many fine artists but cannot seem to keep hold of them. His dreams are big. He wants to make Sudan self-reliant artistically by teaching young artists to mix their own paint, to make their own materials for etching, to find local stone for sculpture. Along the way he hopes to show a skeptical outside world just how fine art from Africa, and in particular Sudan, can be. ''One of the problems that we have is that in America or Europe, many people doubt the existence of good African artists,'' he said. ''There is some special consideration for us as something surprising, something astonishing. If they expect us to keep painting animals or masks -- this is really impossible now.'' Sudan, a huge country in northeastern Africa, may be known to the outside world as a place of endless war and famine or as the place where United States missiles struck after the bombings at the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The United States said rightly that Sudan had once harbored Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the bombings, but serious questions remain about Washington's assertion that a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum that was attacked had been making nerve gas. But Sudan is also a place of great and spare beauty, where the African and Arab worlds meet, as do the two branches of Nile before it flows north across the Sahara and into Egypt. For half a century, the nation has also been known for its artists. Most of them were classically trained and favor painting over sculpture, the continent's dominant art form. But even as these artists tried to define the mixture of cultures and religions that make up post-colonial Sudan, they have tended to leave. Ibrahim al-Salahi and Osman Waqiallah, two pioneering artists who created the so-called Khartoum School of painting in the 1950's and 1960's -- semiabstract works characterized by Arab calligraphy and African themes -- live in England. Omer Khalil, an etcher, has lived in New York for three decades. Mohamed Shadad, one of Sudan's early abstractionists, lives in Cairo. The problems 40 years ago were nearly the same as they are now: no money, little access to the outside world and barely anywhere for artists to show their work. For the last decade, life has gotten more complicated because of a repressive Islamic Government that cannot decide if it wants to promote the artists as a national treasure or to harass them for being bad Muslims. ''The situation in Sudan financially is not good,'' complained El Tayib Daw el Beat, 33, a painter and textile designer who left Sudan several years ago to work in Kenya. ''The political situation now -- there no space for artists.'' With all Sudan's limitations, it may seem unlikely that it has produced so many good artists. Mr. Diab, one of the leaders of the second generation of prominent Sudanese artists, does not think so. ''Sudan is a rich country, with all types of inspiration for feeding an artist,'' he said. ''This mixture between Arabic and African people in Sudan, you can touch it in the street. You can see it in the colors of the people.'' That is one reason he decided to come back: to rediscover the country whose bright colors and open spaces have inspired his work. In Madrid he owned a gallery and taught art, and he intends to do both in Khartoum. He is turning his house -- still stacked with unpacked boxes that his 5-year-old son, Yafiel, plows with a toy tractor -- into an exhibition space for himself and other artists. Mr. Diab will run the gallery -- named after his 11-year-old daughter, Dara -- with his Spanish wife, Mercedes Carmona, also an artist and art historian. The one other gallery in town was opened several years ago by Ahmad Shibrain, one of the few influential Sudanese artists who did not leave the country. For teaching, Mr. Diab brought materials for etching and a kiln for firing ceramics. But he said that ultimately the expense of materials would force him to make supplies for himself and other artists. He made his own paints when he was young, and he said Sudan is filled with pigments that can be mixed with linseed oil to make oil paint. The nation also has high-quality stone and materials for etching, he said. If there are risks in his move, Mr. Diab plays them down. He said he did not expect to feel the same isolation from the outside world that he did when he was a young man who left Khartoum for Spain in 1980. ''I've really prepared myself for new period, a new life,'' he said. Some of his friends worry that the Government -- which has been accused of harassing artists -- may make his life difficult. But Mr. Diab said he did not expect trouble. ''I'm not in a position to say what they think about me, because you never know what they are thinking about,'' he said. ''I'm a neutral person. I'm not a dangerous person. They know all my life I have focused only on my painting.'' He said he also shared particular traits of many Sudanese: a sort of pride and stubbornness. For years he talked about going home and helping to rejuvenate art in Sudan. ''Being Sudanese, it is very hard to keep talking about these things,'' he said. ''I had to come back and do it.''
Ian Fisher en The New York Times el 23 de Octubre de 1999