On the importance of looking back when looking forward
The Sudanese painter, visual artist and art historian Rashid Diab talks to ArtScoops about his mission to preserve and perpetuate the country’s cultural legacy by supporting a new generation of artists
Your Sudanese heritage has always been inherently woven into your work. What do you think it is that draws you back to your birthplace when creating art?
Heritage has always meant a great deal to me, I think in large part because Sudan is blessed with such a rich and diverse history and culture. The country is home to more than 500 tribes, each with its own music, dance, poetry, colours and artefacts. I’ve always found this large-scale individuality fascinating and have explored it extensively over the years first-hand by travelling throughout the country, then in my art and also on an academic level. In Sudan, we have a saying which is: “If you forget the past, you lose the future.” As an artist, I view the past as an intangible feeling deep inside of me – a collection of elements, ranging from childhood memories to calligraphy and colours, such as the way the desert transforms at sunset. All of those memories remain with me to this day and I’m still adding to them with what I continue to see and learn.
Untitled, 2020 - 87 x 87 cm - acrylic on canvas
How did the 2+ decades you spent in Spain studying and working influence your art?
I realised while studying art in Khartoum that it was important for me to travel abroad and experience other cultures. I’d managed to visit a few countries in Europe and elsewhere when I received the news that I’d been awarded a scholarship to the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain. I moved there in 1979 and that was my first experience of bitterly cold weather! Of course, there were challenges and adjustments to be made, but I loved Spain and my time there was invaluable to my development as an artist. Most importantly, Spain provided me with the artistic techniques I needed to bring the elements and vocabulary I’d brought with me from Sudan to life. I also had the opportunity to learn new disciplines, including printmaking and sculpture, and soak up the culture through visits to museums. There’s something about studying abroad that not only broadens the mind, but also instils confidence and helps you to learn to express yourself better.
You work across a range of media. Do you always choose your medium or do you think sometimes the medium chooses you?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing art, whether colouring as a child or painting as I got a bit older, just using whatever materials I could find and not always knowing what I was doing. Sometimes I didn’t even wait for the paint to dry! Over time, I began to realise how important it is for artists to build relationships with the materials they’re using. Now I look back and can see that I gravitated towards certain materials at key points in my life. I think typically, I won’t know at the outset what material to select but eventually end up choosing the medium that I think will help me to best channel my inner expression. Right now, I’m painting on canvas with oils and also doing illustrations in ink.
Things not to say to others III, 2021 - 80 x 80 cm - acrylic on canvas
You have done much to support the development of education in the field of creative arts in Sudan. What aspects of this role have you found particularly satisfying?
As a teenager, it was very difficult for me to convince my parents that art was a suitable career choice, in part because families have long preferred their children to opt for traditional professions and also because there were no other artists where we lived in Madani, south of Khartoum. I still remember my parents asking me how I planned to earn a living through art when no one we knew had ever bought a painting! These early experiences made me determined to have my own space where I could exhibit my work and that of others, and also teach and give advice to young artists. Today I’m thrilled that I’m able to do that across the spaces I have, including Dara Art Gallery and the Rashid Diab Arts Centre, and hold residences, workshops and lectures. This was my dream and as a project that involves supporting young artists, it’s the one that’s brought me most satisfaction. Today, when parents come to voice concern about their son or daughter wanting to study art – and they still do (!) – I tell them that art is a gift from God and an opportunity to play a part in Sudan’s cultural legacy as it continues to unfold.
Distance in perspective, 2020 - 91 x 85 cm - acrylic on canvas
How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect you in your work?
If I’m honest, when we were locked down here in Sudan for some time, I enjoyed having an excuse to stay indoors, organise myself and work! Being focused in this way brought me closer to my work – somehow, I felt able to see it from different angles and think about the presentation. As a result, I felt inspired to explore new concepts and ideas.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a new, two-part series of paintings with women as the main subject. Women’s pivotal role in Sudanese society – the part they play in keeping families together and the suffering they endured during the civil war – has long been a source of fascination to me. In this first series, the women I’ve painted are fading away to reveal a large void. I like to steer away from politics in my work, so the motifs and messages are created in an artistic, colourful way that also suggests hope. I see my work as a continuous reflection of the society we live in and its evolution.