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A Sudanese Village Arts Festival Looks Back to the Future

The village of Karmakol, site of the Karmakol Festival. Photo by Khalid Albaih. Used with permission.

About half a year ago I came across a video that was making the rounds on Sudanese Facebook, about an arts festival scheduled to take place in December 2017 in a northern Sudanese village with a funny name I never heard of before. The village, whose name is Karmakol, turns out to be the birthplace of Altayib Salih, one of Sudan’s most celebrated writers.

The arts festival sounded incredible and I immediately applied to participate. The organizers told me I was the first to apply, and invited me to join the team coordinating the Art House as well as to conduct workshops.

­They also told me the story of how this unusual arts festival in such an out of the way location was first dreamed up.

It all started when a team of filmmakers decided to make a short film inspired by Altayib Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North. So they packed up their equipment and traveled to Karmakol, 330 kilometers north of Khartoum on the western bank of the River Nile.

In the course of trying to make their film, the team had countless meetings with the mayor, the village elders and the family of the author, in an effort to negotiate village politics and tribal differences and bring everyone together. After several months, all parties came to an agreement to establish the Karmakol Cultural Center, with a plan to renovate the part of the village where all the family homes had been abandoned in the 1980’s due to the Nile’s continuous flooding of its banks. They also agreed to launch an annual international Arts festival which would take place in these renovated Nubian style houses, or hush, as they are called in Arabic.

A traditional dwelling in Karmakol. Photo by Khalid Albaih. Used with permission.

As a political cartoonist who uses art and culture as a tool of resistance, I get invited to a lot of “artivism” events. But because of the risk of being targeted by the Sudanese government, this was the first time I had participated in a public event in my homeland.

Even before I arrived in the village, I knew that this Karmakol Arts Festival was going to be a deeply personal experience for me. I had no idea what to expect, so I decided to remain open to whatever it would end up being.

I arrived in Khartoum in December 2017, and after a few days of weddings and visiting family and friends, headed to Sudan Film Factory, from where buses were transporting organizers, volunteers and attendees on the six-hour journey to the festival. As we left the city the random urbanism of the capital gradually disappeared, to be replaced by desert and those villages that make you wonder if the few people that live there know or care what year it is. It felt like we were driving back in time.

The festival was incredible and drew people from surrounding villages, as well as many from Khartoum. In the few days I stayed in the village I saw urban intellectuals, artists, engineers, urban designers, tourists, volunteers, members of civil society organizations working with the local community, farmers, teachers, government representatives in tribal clothing. I saw a marketplace coming together organically not only with the people of Karmakol, but from the surrounding villages too. Young art school graduates from Khartoum worked alongside local artists and builders to restore these beautiful traditional houses. As the scene unfolded, you could almost imagine characters from Altayib Salih’s books walking through it.

Sudan doesn’t have a film industry like our northern neighbor Egypt, but we were treated to two great Sudanese feature films in the Festival’s open-air cinema. The first, from 1984, was called “Tajooj”, starring the actor Salah ibn Albadya. The second film, “Iman”, made last year, starred Salah Ibn Albadiya’s grandson Ibrahim, in a gesture that embodies the Festival’s spirit of cultural continuity.

In the Music House, anyone who wanted was invited to jam with some of Sudan’s coolest bands. Sufi chants and traditional music mingled with the mixed English-Arabic songs of stylish city musicians.

“Some wondered: “Why is this art if I can draw the same khrabish (gibberish)?” The Omda (Mayor) always answered, “Fananin majann sai—these are the crazy artists.” Photo by Khalid Abaih. Used with permission.

In the Art House, artists used a variety of media to transform, recycle, interact, discuss and collaborate with the public in open spaces free of any censorship except their own.

I watched children and their parents properly experience a modern art exhibition for the first time in their lives. Some laughed distinctly at the image of a bare-chested woman, some just walked in and out, but a few stopped and asked questions about what these artworks meant. Some wondered: “Why is this art if I can draw the same khrabish (gibberish)?” The Omda (Mayor) always answered, “Fananin majann sai—these are the crazy artists.”

. نتحدث اليوم عن إحدى أهم المجموعات الشبابية الموسيقية التي إشتهرت حديثاً، وباتت محببة جداً لدى الشباب السوداني؛ فرقة أصوات المدينة. بدأت أعمالهم عن صداقة وطيدة أصبحت بعدها سبباً في اتخاذ الفن والموسيقى وسيلة للتفاعل مع الآخرين في ما يتعلق بمحاور مختلفة كنشر السلام، وأهمية العمل الخيري والتطوعي، والتي انعكست بصورة شخصية عليهم كونهم من المؤثرين إيجاباً على من حولهم في المجتمع. هل سمعت أغانيهم؟ وماهي أغنيتك المفضلة لهم؟ شاركها معنا هنا! Today we are posting about the popular young Sudanese band "Aswat Almadina”. They started as friends but that friendship took them to broader horizons; beyond music and into peace, charity and voluntary work and more generally into anything community development related. They never hesitate to devote their positive energies towards the individuals around them, using their music as an effective means to touch our hearts and minds. Do you know their songs? What is your favorite one? Share it here with us! www.aswatalmadina.com #KarmakolFestival #Karmakol #Nafeer #مهرجان_كرمكول

A post shared by مهرجان كرمكول الدولي (@karmakolfest) on

The thing I appreciated the most about this bold social experiment of using art to bring together parts of Sudan that exist in such different worlds, was that while the people of the village maybe didn’t always understand what we were doing, they respected it as part of society as they experienced its benefits.

There’s a term in the “art world” for a big cultural investment that puts places with limited international profiles places on the map. It’s called the Bilbao Effect and is named for a small city in northern Spain where a leading international architect, Frank Gehry, built a world-class art museum and transformed the city in the process.

“Karmakol didn’t have a billion-dollar building, but it had something the area and the artists needed in order to flourish—freedom.”  Photo by Khalid Albaih. Used with permission.

Karmakol doesn't have a billion-dollar building, but it had something the area and the artists needed in order to flourish—freedom. And for me, that is what this festival was all about. The fact that it took place outside Khartoum, the seat of government power, gave the artists and participants freedom from Big Brother, the censorship that’s constantly watching and blocking every gathering of young creatives in the capital.

Creativity often scares governments, and unfettered creativity scares them even more.

But this freedom offered the participants in the Karmakol festival a rare look back in time at the Sudan our parents told us about, but also the Sudan that could have been and, hopefully, the Sudan that could be.

I went back to the future. And it was full of hope.

Khalid Albaih is an artist, independent cartoonist and designer from Sudan. See his work on Instagram.

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