In this episode of In Your Face podcast series, Francesca Recchia sits down with artist and activist Alaa Satir to discuss the ongoing revolution in Sudan and the key role that art has played in it.
Alaa Satir is a Sudanese artist, activist and illustrator from Khartoum. She graduated in Architecture from the University of Khartoum and has been one of the leading forces in the ongoing Sudanese revolution. Her first personal exhibition Morning Doodles(2017) explored feminism, social media and politics. In June 2018 she launched her own brand, named Planet B and is currently working as a graphic designer, illustrator and cartoonist
Francesca Recchia: Hello and welcome to a new episode of In Your Face Polis Project Podcast. We are here today with Alaa Satir and I am Francesca Recchia. Alaa, welcome to our podcast.
Alaa Satir: Hey, Francesca, how are you?
It’s a great privilege to have you with us. Alaa is an activist, an artist and an illustrator from Sudan. She’s based in Khartoum and we’re talking to her from there. Welcome, Alaa.
Hi, how are you? The pleasure is mine, thank you for having me.
For us it’s a great opportunity to have you on our podcast because I think it’s very difficult to understand what is actually going on in Sudan at the moment. I would like you to help us reconstruct the steps from December 2018 to the 30th of June 2019.
Well, what has been happening is that we have been having an ongoing revolution since December 2018, specifically on the 19th of December of 2018. There are a lot of reasons why we chose to start this revolution; we have had a military dictatorship that lasted for the past 30 years and it was a very unjust system. We don’t have good education or a good health system because all the money was going to the military and to finance war. This finally drove us into a very severe economic hardship that made us really struggle for our basic needs like petrol, or bread or even cash. But the main reason that have been the straw that broke the camel’s back is much more profound than just the economic state of the country: it is the fact that this system has basically driven us into so many civil wars, it has broken us as a nation, ruled us with so much hatred, so much tribalism. So it was time for us to say this is enough and to take to the streets in the hope of overthrowing an entire regime, not just one person. Then what happened, the revolution, was too long; it was not until the 11th of April that we maybe had our first step towards seeing some change when we overthrew Omar Al-Bashir, who was the president of Sudan. But the fight wasn’t over yet. Because as I said, we’re not overthrowing one person, we’re not overthrowing one face, we wanted the entire regime gone, we needed the military rule to end, we needed a civil government. So, people started a sit-in on the 6th of April, the same sit-in that overthrew Al-Bashir, it continued because we realised that our demands were not fully met. So, it lasted for another two months until June 3rd when the sit-in was cleared out very violently: we lost more than 100 people and mass rapes happened; it was a devastating day and kind of broke us, made us feel very sad and devastated, but we rose again because, and we had the biggest protest yet, basically marching for the same demands we’ve had since December. So, this is a quick way to tell you what has been going on since December.
Thank you. So, who all are on the street? Who is leading the protest? Who is protesting? Is it a slice of society or is it across the board?
Going to the street you will quickly realise that it is not led by just one group of people, it’s led by the people, the Sudanese people. Sudanese people are leading these protests, coming from different tribes, coming from different economic backgrounds, all of them are leading the protest. It’s not just one small group of people or us following a specific party or a specific body. So, it’s basically led by everyone.
One thing that is quite difficult to understand from the outside is how in April there was a very strange holding hands between the people and the military that was probably what actually managed to overthrow Al-Bashir at that moment. Can you explain to us how is the situation going?
What happened in April is that, after overthrowing Al-Bashir, the forces of freedom had changed, basically all the opposition parties agreed to sign an agreement that would ensure justice and freedom in Sudan. So, together as one unit, they decided to negotiate with the military council that was at the head of the country after the reign of Al-Bashir. So they negotiated with them an agreement of transferring a power to a civil government in a peaceful way. These negotiations one day they would go well and one day they would go badly- until suddenly the negotiation and the talk stopped and right after this very brutal attack on the sit-in happened. There was an attempt for the opposition party to negotiate with the current, don’t want to call it a government, but the current council, that’s basically in-charge now to lead us into another phase in a peaceful way, but that didn’t work. I don’t think they are capable of negotiations to be honest, they are all about blood and killing, that’s it, and getting their way and staying in power. We know that now.
That sounds very tough. Women have been very much at the centre of this revolution. Are there organisations that bring women together, how did that become the soul of the revolution?
It’s not organised in that way. I think it comes from this very clear understanding that we have been oppressed by this regime the most and everyone has a personal reason why they are on the street protesting. For women, we realised that they tried their best for this country not to be designed for women. It’s not comfortable for us. It’s not safe for us to be in this country because there are a lot of obstacles and there are a lot of boundaries that the government made that are political boundaries and then it transferred to be more like social boundaries. And there is a need in each one of us, there is a personal reason why we took it to the street. And it’s not organised by any organisation or anything. It just came spontaneously, we didn’t organise for this, we didn’t plan for this to be a women’s revolution. It just happened. But I’m not surprised that it happened, we have a long history- the previous revolution was also led by women. And this one I’m not surprised to see is led by women because, like I said, we have been the main casualties of this regime, so it only makes sense that we are on the forefront when the revolution happens.
Your series of drawings called We Are the Revolution has been somehow prophetic. Because it came before the start of all this. Can you tell us about this series of works?
It was very surprising to me that I started working on this on November 2018, just one month before the uprising and the idea behind this series was that I realised that we live in a society that has a lot of tight standards or tight expectations when it comes to us women. Just breaking those expectations even by doing something as simple as embracing parts of yourself that are not considered beautiful or don’t apply to society’s idea of success or beauty or something like that. That small act for me felt like a revolutionary act. Like embracing parts of yourself, trying to break those barriers everyday; I created this series of illustrations to illustrate this idea of women coming together, of solidarity, of igniting that revolutionary, rebellious side within ourselves, to be able to exist in a society or in a world that has so little expectations for us. So, this is how it started, but then it continued to mean even more with the revolution, because I realised that fighting for even your political rights is kind of self love, it’s a way of realising your own value and demanding more. Demanding your rights and your freedom. So, the revolution kept inspiring the series and it meant more than just empowering women, it became a way of documenting our journey in this revolution as women or as Sudanese people in general.
You’ve also been somehow the trigger for a series of graffiti outdoors. Can you tell us how it started?
I don’t want to take credit for all of it because, yes, when we started painting on the street there were very few murals out there, but I think there had already been a few out there. So, I’m not the person that started all of it. But there is a very long wall next to the sit-in area and we were the first people to start painting on it. Me and two of my friends, who are actually very familiar with street art and draw murals very often. For me, it was my first time. So, I contacted them, and I was like I think it’s a challenge, I’ve never done this before, but I think the wall is perfect, it’s long, it’s kind of the entrance to the sit-in area, and it will be a way to remember what we’re fighting for now and not to take any of it for granted. And not only to remind ourselves, but to remind this government that we’re trying to overthrow, or whoever is coming next that this were our demands, this is what we were fighting for and it will be a nice reminder in the streets. We didn’t want to leave the sit-in area without our own touch in it. So, my friends were very happy with the idea and the next day we decided to go and paint. We decided to do something very quick because it wasn’t 100% safe at the time, before the end of Al-Bashir’s reign: we decided to paint, everyone decided to paint their own piece, but they were next to each other and then we posted on social media: if you feel like you want to express yourself artistically, come join us, it’s a very long wall, say what you want to say. But it didn’t really need a lot of advertising on social media because once people saw us painting that wall, just two days later it was completely filled with so many people- women, men- everyone. Some of them are actually artists, some of them are amateurs but they felt like they wanted to say something, they wanted to leave their fingerprint. So, it was a very amazing thing to see, it was completely filled, it’s a very long wall.
So, from what you’re saying it seems to me that there is a very deep desire for a new sense of collectivity: everyone individually and spontaneously is taking to the street and taking on the opportunity to be together as a whole. It seems to me that one of the things that was repressed and now is coming out is this desire to be one as a people.
Definitely. I think you have to be aware of how Sudan is or how it was in previous years. To understand that for us art is- for other people it might seem like the natural thing to do like you’re going through something of course you’re going to express yourself artistically, it’s the natural thing to do. But for us it seemed like a very powerful tool of civil disobedience. It is not something that comes naturally, it’s something for which you have to break so many barriers and you have to break so many walls to get to. It’s not easy for us to express ourselves either artistically or in other ways. Freedom of speech is not something that is commonly practiced. So, those murals meant so much more. In our environment, in that time, it meant so much more than pieces of art or something that you do, like I said, naturally. For us, they were signs of resistance, they were signs of barriers that we are trying to break. A kind of Sudan we are hoping to build- that has more freedom of speech, where people can easily express themselves whichever way they wish. So, the sit-in area wasn’t just a place where we go and discuss political things or a way to cast pressure on the military council or something like that. It was much more than that. It was like a creative hub. You’d be astonished by the creative ways people come up with every day to express themselves. Whether with art, or murals, or with music. There is a stage there and almost every day there is an artist or a musician performing, art finally meant something for people, it meant something more. And we started to realise how valuable it is and it’s a way to break that fear barrier. If you can talk about your ideas out loud, if you can criticise authority out loud using art or using other means, it means that your task of overthrowing the regime becomes a bit easier. And they understand that, dictators understand that. They understand that freedom of speech is very powerful and very threatening to them. That’s why they tried to eliminate it in the past years, in every way possible.
You said that this is not spontaneous, this is not something that comes natural, this is something that means a lot within a specific context. Could you help us construct the kind of constraints and fears and obstacles that prevent the desire to express yourself?
For example, it was easier for us to paint these murals within the sit-in area, which felt like it was a liberated land or something. It felt like it was the revolutionary zone where it was easier for us to do things our way. But if one of us, especially before the sit-in, during the protest, decided to paint a wall on the street or something, they would definitely get arrested and beaten and anything could happen to you. So. it’s really very risky to do something like that. Not only on the street, but even on social media. Social media provides more freedom because it’s not easy to track people: especially if everybody is talking, it becomes hard for them to arrest everyone or track everyone down, but it’s always a risk factor to it. There’s always a possibility that you will get arrested or you will not get released easily if they find you writing anything or doing anything that criticises their regime. So, that’s how dangerous it is, and it’s always been like that. Even the media is kind of owned by them. So, even during the revolution when everything was happening, when people were dying, and you watch Sudan’s national TV, you realise that they don’t report anything that has to do with the protest, even the newspapers hold back a lot while writing about the protest. They tried not to criticise the regime as much as possible. So, freedom of speech wasn’t really practiced, we didn’t have a lot of room to express ourselves in that way. That’s why the new way of self-expression was different and new to us.
One thing that you mentioned is interesting to explore a little further. So, social media has been really important and quite instrumental both in terms of coordination and but also to amplify a message that otherwise, as you said, official news would not report. Can you tell us how it works and what role did the diaspora play in all this?
Social media has played a very big role to be honest. Media was almost not present during the revolution and it felt like it was our duty to report on what’s happening. So everyone used their own social network or social media accounts to report on what’s happening, to mention the amount of killings that were happening. It felt that the world has to know and if the media is not helping us spread the word, then we have to do it ourselves. The diaspora actually played a big role, especially after the internet shut down, after they cut off the internet. It became hard for us, who were in Sudan to report anything and that’s when people outside of Sudan, Sudanese people who live outside of Sudan, started doing very heavy campaigns, to promote what’s happening, to tell the world what’s happening, even the Blue for Sudan campaign started. A lot of people say that social media does not have that big of an impact, but coming from this revolution and seeing how much of an impact it had, it’s very hard for me to say that. So, it had a huge role, social media had a huge role. People in the diaspora had a huge role because at some point we just needed more people to know more about this. We owe it to the people who died, we owe it to the people who got really hurt during the protests, especially on the 3rd of June. So, it felt like we owe it to them, the world knows who they are and what they died for.
So the news from the 3rd of June was really sobering and it’s amazing to see that despite all that horror people took to the street again at the end of June. With all that tension and things are not going as smooth or linear as we would have hoped. So, what is next?
To be honest, like you said, after the 3rd of June a lot of people thought that this is the end of it, maybe we’re too broken, we’re too tired, we’re too sad to continue this journey. But, seeing what happened on the 30th of June, it just brings so much hope, these are the people who just came from a massacre. They witnessed a massacre that killed hundreds of people, you would think that they would be too scared to go out on the street again, against the same people who’ve been killing us for the past six months, so just seeing how many people are out there… It doesn’t mean we weren’t scared. Actually, going out we all knew that this could be another massacre, that they could kill us all basically. But still we went out there, we still lost people, unfortunately. But it makes you realise that it’s not done, the fight is there, people are even more angry because of what they did after clearing the sit-in in a very violent way – what they did is that they just created more angry people. And we saw it on the 30th of June that these are a huge amount of people because they created more angry people, because everyone was connected to that sit-in, everyone goes there almost every day. Everyone felt like this is the heart of the revolution, that this is their second home and they killed that, they erased everything in that place. So, people felt so angry and that’s why that was the biggest protest that we had till date. So, that gives me promise. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next but to be honest, at this stage I’m very relieved to know that the anger that started all of this is only amplified, it’s not dead at all.
So following up on this, one of the amazing things about the protest movement and the revolution is that it has been incredibly peaceful. So, after accumulating so much anger do you think the response will remain peaceful?
I definitely think so. I think this is something that we pretty much agree on, that it started peacefully, as a peaceful protest and it’s going to remain that way. They did so many brutal things and people still held to that peacefulness and held to that same peaceful path that we’re going on. So, I don’t think that’s going to break, we’ve really been going through a lot and we still very much held to the idea of we want this to be peaceful, we don’t want to start a civil war, because if we kind of get rid of that, or lose that we’re probably going to lose more people and this is not going to end any time soon. So, we are very aware of that and even in the way people deal with security forces in the street- you realise how much they keep their cool – we’re angry and everything, but we’re always keeping the fact that this is going to be a peaceful protest, we don’t want to break that in mind. We don’t try to provoke them in any way, there is video circulating online of one of the police forces who fainted for too much tear gas and the protestors were actually helping him to get to a hospital. The same security forces that were killing us for the past six months, when he was feeling bad, or he needed to be hospitalised, people came and they started helping him out. So that gives you how much we’re holding to that idea of peaceful protest. That it’s not going to break anytime soon or it’s not ever going to break, I don’t think so.
Well, this is amazing and gives us a lot of hope in this very grim time. Just another thing to understand, in the news it is almost all about Khartoum. How is the geography of the protest? Is there a connection to the rest of the country? Are there hubs of protests elsewhere? Is there a coordination?
Of course, unfortunately most of the news that you hear seems to be coming from Khartoum but it’s very important to know that this revolution and the intensity of the revolution and the intensity of the protests are happening almost everywhere else. Like there are a few major cities that on the 30th of June had protests as big as Khartoum. So, it’s not something that’s only happening in the capital. That’s maybe the beauty of it. Actually the revolution itself did not start from Khartoum. It started from Atbara, which is a city north of Khartoum and this is where the revolution actually started and then it started in Khartoum. So, the 19th of December it was not actually in Khartoum, it was in Atbara. That gives you a perspective that it’s really not just a group of people or a group of people that live in a certain city or something. It’s a fully Sudanese revolution.
One last question, one of the things that we hear is that you are all struggling for a new Sudan, that’s what people dream. What will this dream look like?
This dream is so big because maybe the problems we have with the current Sudan are major and we just want a country that we can all live in peacefully. Sudan is a very diverse country, we have people coming from different tribes, and we look different and different religions and so we just want to coexist and live together peacefully without the tribalism. Hatred and colourism is kind of eating our social fabric and the previous government basically helped that to happen, they kind of forced those very negative ideas into our society and broke us as a people. So, we need to reconnect and learn how to live together and love each other. Which is something that is starting to happen now in the revolution. People are starting to realise that one of the problems that we have are social problems, and we are trying to work on that. Also, we want a country that ensures good education and good healthcare for everyone, that doesn’t put all the money into war and into financing the military. There are a lot of things we need in the new Sudan. Also, the position of women within the society, there is a reason why we were on the forefront of the revolution, not just because they wanted to participate in the revolution itself, but because we want a big part in the new Sudan, we want to be a very important part within the community, within the government, within the new structure. So, that’s also very important and as we are kind of going on a political revolution, we are going on a social revolution as well. So, hopefully both will go well.
Thank you so much. It’s incredible to see how much hope and how much determination is there. So, I think from all of us, we can only wish you the very best. Thanks a lot, Alaa, for being with us.
Podcast and transcription edited by Zoor Barooah.