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Sudanese Activist Artist Breaks Down Borders

  • Nico Colombant

Washington-based Elshafei Dafalla Mohamed works on miniature sculptures based on drawings made for him by the Umbararu nomads.

Washington-based Elshafei Dafalla Mohamed works on miniature sculptures based on drawings made for him by the Umbararu nomads.

A Sudanese artist from the restive Blue Nile region is using art and activism to promote the plight of people caught between borders and conflict.

In an audio montage of memories from refugees, the sounds of gunfire and explosions mix with crying babies. Narrator Michelle Orecchio describes how to reverse war's grip on so much of humanity.

"All it takes is wisdom and I am absolutely sure we can get it back into the box and bind the chains and lock the locks," she said.

The audio art is one of many creations by Sudanese artist Elshafei Dafalla Mohamed. The Washington-based activist works across artistic genres, from photography to installations and conceptual events to show the sameness of people, while also exposing injustices.

His own home region in the south of Sudan is experiencing conflict and humanitarian crisis amid the messy separation between Sudan and the world's newest country South Sudan.

On the wall of his room in a suburb of Washington, he describes pictures of a community event he regularly leads called "Water and Fire" where a fire is lit and then doused.

"The fire that is when I burned the partition and the partition represents a border, and by burning it I have hope that people and countries, these will be without borders," Mohamed said.

The name of his hometown on the banks of the Blue Nile, Sennar, means the edge of the fire.

Traditionally, bonfires were lit to attract travelers. One of the main ideas driving Mohamed's art is to show problems caused by man-made, artificial borders.

"People they should live without borders, that is how people used to live at the beginning. But unfortunately our politicians they start to build these borders regarding their own interests. It creates more problems than it creates peace. They should maybe work to destroy borders and make the world open and accessible," Mohamed said.

A new project Mohamed is working on is called "Harbor: Survivors Among Us."

The song he is using to promote the project contains the lyrics "Would I harbor you? Would you harbor me?"

The artist asks people to visualize the threat of being tortured for simply speaking one's mind, making art, or protesting.

He aims to portray torture survivors of whom more than half a million are estimated to be living in the United States.

Many of them have been granted or are seeking asylum, but still face problems and challenges.

Mohamed, who has been living in the United States over a decade, recently moved to the Washington area, even though it is not known as an artist destination.

He says he wants to be here to impact discussions taking place at the center of U.S. political power.

Ryan Brenner, a student activist and political science undergraduate at George Washington University, met him last year while he was staging a hunger strike across the White House to draw attention to the situation in the border regions between Sudan and South Sudan.

"I think art is a great form of activism. It definitely reaches an audience that other forms of activism cannot even begin to get to and his art definitely speaks volumes about humanity as a whole," Brenner said.

At a recent meeting at a Washington-based organization called Voices for Sudan, Mohamed showed her pictures of yet another art project he is conducting -- fingerprinting people to make giant color-corrected fingerprint murals.

He says the aim there is to show how beautiful fingerprints are misused for bureaucratic purposes.

Mohamed discussed with Brenner setting up a fingerprint event as a way to bring diverse people together to discuss issues such as borders, immigration and justice.

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