On an Interview with Ahmed Elmardi on Islamic Fundamentalism and Art in Sudan in the 1990s

Just came across this article the other day in the impact of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ on Sudanese artists and thought a few excerpts might be fitting here. Not to suggest that what Ahmed Elmardi, at the time of the interview a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, described in 1992 necessarily applies to contemporary northern Nigeria. Rather as a possible point of departure for thinking about the impact of northern Nigeria’s piety movement(s) on local art practices, in a comparative sense. See, some of the issues he mentioned made me think, hold on, does or does that not apply to northern Nigeria? So, maybe that’s of use to others thinking about the impact of piety or indeed other social/political movements on the arts – and certainly not only in Muslim countries. To this end, it would probably proof useful to provide a quick background on Islamic piety movement(s) in Sudan as, unfortunately, the article tends to obscure the specific Sudanese context behind a notion of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ as a, i.e. one homogenous movement.[1] As I’m not an expert on contemporary Sudan, let me instead point you towards the BBC’s country profile for a starter and for more recent analysis I love to read Alex Thurston’s Sahel Blog with regular news updates also on Sudan. I’d love to be able to recommend some more substantial reading on Islam and politics in Sudan but I got to confess I can’t. But now to the article …

One of Sudan’s most famed artists is Ibrahim el Salahi and the article introduces the discussion of contemporary arts in Sudan quoting a statement he made in 1967:

‘There are many Islamic scholars who have been asked this question [about the perceived conflict of Islamic doctrine and the use of human figures in his art] and they say there is nothing at all to restrict you from reproducing the human image as you want. In a way it’s a kind of prayer, too, because you are appreciating God’s creations and trying to think about them and mediate on his creativity.’ (Kirker 1992: 8, there quoted after Marshall Mount 1973: African Art: The Years Since 1920. Bloomington: Indiana UP. 108.)

This statement, however, Elmardi suggested was made ‘before the Islamic Fundamentalist movement was a part of the cultural life and political life of Sudan. They existed but were not a part of the intellectual life at the time at all.’ (Kirker 1992: 7) By contrast he characterised the contemporary situation during the early 1990s, i.e. after the successful military coup in 1989 also called National Salvation Revolution’s by Omar al Bashir, as follows:

‘The Islamic Fundamentalists have their own definition of artistic expression; they don’t yet have a clear theory about it. But as long as the artist himself is regarded as a member or semi-member or just friendly with the movement, he might have the right to express himself, with the one exception that he can’t use any sexual imagery.’ (Kirker 1992: 7)

Here, one might want to note Elmardi’s emphasis on politics rather than religiously inspired sentiments towards any particular art form. Their concern with artists, the ‘anti-artist feelings’ expressed by members of Bashir’s movement he suggested, were directed against the community of practitioners rather than their works. Artists, significantly, were regarded as different and uncontrollable. This doesn’t involve the art activity itself in detail, but it is more feelings against the artist as a person.’ (Kirker 1992: 7) Such, in universities, Elmardi reports, opposition to Bashir’s movement was often focused around the art schools and drama institutes. Concerns about ‘the arts’ or particular art forms, then, rather should be considered expressions of a preoccupation with the producers and the potentially subversive messages of the work. (Kirker 1992: 8)

In fact, he observed neither ‘the arts’ as such nor any particular art form were a particular concern to the so-called fundamentalists. They were pre-occupied with other issues and with the arts only in so far as they violated notions of decency – hence, the prohibition of sexual imagery.

‘They (Islamic Fundamentalists) don’t deal with this subject (artistic expression) traditionally. It’s a new issue for them. Now they have expanded and all of the sudden they discover that they have to deal with a lot of new problems. So, they just make a compromise towards art and towards other areas. They just don’t discuss it as long as you are “their person.”’ (Kirker 1992: 7)

At the same time, however, he suggested members of the movement had ideas about ‘Islamic art.’ (Kirker 1992: 7) However, how concrete their ideas of particularly Sudanese Islamic arts were was not elaborated. Instead, Elmardi suggested, that the idea of Islamic arts here was, on the one hand, based upon the idea that

‘the most important essence for a human being [was] to worship God, while other activities (such as making art) [were] just subordinate, not valuable.’ (Kirker 1992: 7)

On the other hand, ‘their final goal [was] to replace Western art teaching, including the model, with Islamic art.’ (Kirker 1992: 7) Here then the concept of Islamic arts was not positively defined by what it implied but in opposition to so-called Western art/art teaching. In this sense, the question might be asked to which extent this was particular to art teaching or an expression of a more general suspicion of ‘Westernised’ education as such? Elmardi at least suggested such when he argued that

‘Since they (Islamic Fundamentalists) took over, they are changing the laws of all universities and academic institutions. … An important aspect of Islamic Fundamentalism ideology [sic] is the “Islamization” of knowledge. Sometimes “Islamization” means “Arabization.” They have made a law that any professor at a university can just teach in Arabic. We used to have two languages in teaching and they both go together. … Islamic Fundamentalists think that whenever people learn another language, particularly a Western language, they are going to become Westernized and when they become Westernized and when they become Westernized, they are going to be harder to control.’ (Kirker 1992: 8)

The other ‘Other’ against which Islamic arts were defined were, according to Elmardi, localised ‘African’ art traditions. Bashir’s followers, he explained,

‘… tried to make some modification in the National Museum. They fired the chairman of the National Museum because of this beliefs and his ethnic origin which is Nubian. He has a personal interest in the Nubian culture which they don’t like to deal with. … This has always been a problem for Islamic Fundamentalists because the ancient civilizations of Meroe and Kush were strong and have a lot of achievements. Fundamentalists can’t discuss that.’ (Kirker 1992: 10)

So, how does the situation Elmardi suggests correspond to contemporary northern Nigeria? I don’t have any conclusions yet although, as suggested above, some of the issues he raised made me stop and think …

I have discussed by reservations about using terminology such as ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ in discussions of culture and cultural policies elsewhere. But also with regard to Elmardi’s discussion I’m not sure whether to describe Bashir and his government as ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’ actually contributes to our understanding of 1990s Sudan and particular the situation in which various art students and artists found themselves. Rather, Elmardi seems to suggest a situation reminiscent of other secular as well as religiously legitimised regimes. No doubt, Elmardi’s reference to Nazi artistic policies was intended to further discredit Bashir’s government through establishing an analogy. However, I think it is crucial that in addition to references to Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria elsewhere his discussion of the Sudanese government’s art policies does not single out religiously legitimised regime alone:

For example, the Fundamentalists form musician groups to replace the creative young musicians who are active in the society. These groups will then get all the funding from the government. They tried to form a theatre group and an artistic group. This is the way some parties acted in history, especially the Nazis.’ (Kirker 1992: 10)

Just like secular regimes, Bashir’s government expelled, jailed and tortured art students they considered subversive, on the one hand, but promoted others through commissions, loans or promotion to political offices. (Kirker 1992: 9) So the question might be raised to which extent the Bashir government’s policies towards artists were actually informed by their Islamist background. And, this in fact is the question that struck me the most with regard to my fieldwork experience in Nigeria. Islam was given prominence int he discussions of northern Nigerian arts I encountered before fieldwork. But while in the country I often felt Islam was a shorthand for a variety of discourses regarding ‘the arts,’ particular art forms, artists and art departments employed by various actors in a variety of contexts. Now, I stand to be corrected on this and would love to hear from anybody who thinks otherwise. And, this is certainly not to deny the religious dimension completely. But I would suggest that – as in the Sudanese situation Elmardi described - more often than not the religious argument hides a variety of other concerns, some of which might or might not be related to religion. I believe, for example, that departmental politics and competition for meagre funding might partly inform the strong views some lecturers not themselves based in art departments expressed about ‘the arts’ as being un-Islamic. - Interesting enough, Elmardi described himself and his arts as non-political and reports how he nevertheless was prosecuted:

‘[Kirker’s question:] Your own art is not overtly political. It could be described as abstract sculptural painting. Did your art change through all of this?

[Elmardi’s answer:] No, I don’t want that to bother me, I don’t listen to the TV since they took power, I don’t read magazines. I just stay with my family. … I think that contemporary art in Sudan is really for from politics. If you do this kind of art (political) you would be regarded as a propagandist or ideologist or whatever. Nobody likes this anymore. … I don’t like this (politics) to be my role. I just want to make my art. They don’t let me do that. I chose to be a non-political person, but despite this, they sent me to jail.’ (Kirker 1992: 9)

The other question Elmardi’s discussion raised regards the perception of ‘the artists’ or particular groups of or individual artists by local authorities as well as a wider public. He noted that within the universities opposition to Bashir’s followers was concentrated in the art and drama departments. Artists, in this sense, were perceived as troublesome. Equally I started thinking about that question while I was still in Nigeria but I didn’t have the time and resources to pursue it before leaving. And, admittedly I haven’t yet been back (oh, the pleasures of writing up!). But certainly, this appears to be an interesting question to pursue. I’m not primarily thinking in political terms here. Rather I remember how my association with some artists widely known for the consumption of alcohol and other drugs brought me into disrepute with others working at the particular site. (Yes, I should never have gone unaccompanied in the first place but with an experienced fixer or translator to make my case in advance, but that’s how you learn, or?) And, I wonder how these particular artists’ behaviour might have been generalised and informed particular ideas about ‘those artists’ in the local area and have reflected back on ‘the arts.’ I am sure whatever relations there are between particular artists’ behaviour and more widely held discourses about artists and ‘the arts’ are far more complex and complicated than this might be taken to suggest. After all the artists in question operated successful businesses and continued to recruit respectable patrons. What I am trying to suggest here is the value of research into (potential) art audiences – audiences that, crucially, include government officials as well as other authorities.

Anyway, just a few initial thoughts inspired by the interview with Elmardi. I might follow this up at some point to find out how other Sudanese artists assessed the situation for the arts and artists at the same time and how they characterise the contemporary situation. Not sure where to start my research though … and obviously my thesis must be given priority at the moment.

[1]Islamic Fundamentalism … The movement has been defined as “the reaffirmation of foundational principles and the effort to reshape society in terms of those reaffirmed fundamentals. … [Fundamentalists] adopt an identifiable approach to this common obligation, an approach to this common obligation, an approach marked by exclusivist and literalist interpretation of the fundamentals of Islam and by a rigorist pursuit of sociomoral reconstruction.’ (Kirker 1992: 5, there quoted after Marty & Appleby 1991: Fundamentalism Observed. Chicago: UP. 347.) Elmardi’s use of the terminology certainly reflects the specific contemporary Sudanese context. This, I believe, got lost once the term was applied in a, here, American context and linked to a more generalised discussion of ‘Fundamentalism.’ The above quoted Marty & Appleby, e.g. discuss ‘North American Protestant Fundamentalism’ or ‘Jewish Zionist Fundamentalism’ in their book. And, although the particular article quoted deals with Egypt and the Sudan this is not made explicit in the article. In addition the quote is framed by a more generalise discussion of Islamic art (in Africa) that do not refer to any particular Sudanese context.


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