Since the 1970s and ’80s, the trope of exile has become quite common for practicing artists in East Africa, and yet stories of cultural figures seeking refuge within the continent—rather than, say, in Europe or America—are still seldom told.
The reasons intellectuals, artists, poets, and writers in the region left their homes in this period were rarely voluntary. In the mid-1990s, Hussein Halfawi, Salah Elmur, Eltayeb Dawelbait, and Abushariaa Ahmed—four students of the College of Fine and Applied Arts Khartoum, an institution that helped to foster the “Khartoum School” of the 1960s—would leave Sudan to escape self-appointed president Omar al-Bashir’s sharp curtailing of freedom of expression. Salah started to spend time in Cairo, while Halfawi and Eltayeb moved to Nairobi. After his own stint in Nairobi, Abushariaa finally settled in Kampala.
It was in Nairobi that, twenty years ago, the quartet reunited and struck up a friendship. Now, the exhibition “Rendezvous” provides another chance for the four artists to convene. The gesture of this “meet-up” emphasizes the significance of the negotiations of place and time while evoking the movement of ideas both physical and virtual. Eltayeb reworks wooden cupboard doors and panels to activate the histories of the objects and their former owners, while in his ink paintings, Abushariaa highlights the role women played in the revolution that ousted al-Bashir from his thirty-year rule. The combination of these images draws our attention both to the values these artists have taken on or left in the various places they’ve lived and to their personal experience of travel– voluntary or otherwise. Above all, we see the insatiable human need to stay connected despite the invented obstacles of geographical and political borders, which have been made all the more daunting by the pandemic.