Hadiiqat Il Bambaan – The Teargas Garden
These paintings were painted in Sudan over the past three years. We found a house surrounded by an overgrown garden. At dusk thousands of birds swirled in the air as they came to roost in the tall mature trees that protected the garden. It was a spectacle of noise and movement each evening in the hour after the sharp intensity of the day; before they settled for the night. If you clapped your hands you could silence the whole flock for a second, before they resumed the cacophony of twittering. High up above the black shite hawks, African Kites would circle the thermals or perch on the eves of the house cock eyeing the prey. We would sleep our three month old daughter under the trees until we saw one of these big bird of prey swooping over her cot. It reminded me of a painting by Rembrandt of an eagle carrying off the baby Ganymede on Zeus’s orders. In the painting the baby Ganymede is pissing itself out of fear – a squirt of urine descends down the canvas. There is a pencil study for the painting in which the child is shitting itself out of fear. The soaring wings and the gravity of piss. That combination of the aspiration of existence with muddy sinews of reality.
Where I have directly borrowed from the context of Sudan then it is just from oblique observations – the bowls that the virgin bathes submarines in milk based on the plastic buckets the woman tea sellers use to submerge their cups and trays in grey soapy water, the use of the gloss paint from the Nile Paint companies range of 7 colours that are the palette used to paint the cities architectural fixtures, the meaning of submarine in Sudanese slang to denote an government informer/a lamb taken from the flocks brought into the city for Eid Il Adha. Almost incidental observations. The canvas they are painted on comes from the tent makers who make the awnings for weddings and funerals. Whilst the Sudanese flag runs through the weave of the stripes it is its rough unprimed texture that attracts me to it. They are paintings about a different real, a far more symbolic real that was more universal to place and context.
We cleared and planted the garden. As things flowered, I would add them to paintings. I would take the big canvases out into the garden and paint them from life. Protests against the government began in earnest in December 2018. The garden thrived in the relatively balmy heat of winter – new flowers to paint and add. One late afternoon the revolution came to our street. I was in the garden painting, the kids were playing. Black smoke rising from the tires up through the branches of the trees, the confusion of the birds. The young voices of the revolutionaries coming from over the garden wall was beautiful in the way it simplified hope with its trinity of demands – – Freedom, Justice and Peace. They were clear in their aspiration of existence to which the paintings seemed convoluted tangents, the layered meanings rich and decadent in comparison.
A crocodile of primary school children came out two by two of the mosque’s madrassa, each child holding a Sudanese paper flag and they snake through the burning tires chanting the same mantra as the Shabab. And then we hear the bam, bam of the first tear gas rounds. Young girls, hijabs across their faces acting as Sayiidat Il Bambaan (Canister Huntresses) trapping the cannisters under plastic buckets that a moment before were beating out the rhythm of the chants. We take our kids inside. Teargas Cannisters land in the garden spewing their plumes of gas. There is no breeze and the white mist settling into a thin wispy haze around the paintings.
It was that night that things changed in Sudan. The security forces had lost control – spontaneous demonstrations erupted in nearly every area of the city. Where they had run out of teargas they started trying to run protestors down in their Toyota Landcruisers (locally referred to as “Thatchers” after the British prime minister – so called for their tough uncompromising build!). A funeral procession was attacked. A doctor shot who was treating injured protestors in his house. The hospital had been attacked by the government forces – threatening staff, arresting the injured. Outside an announcement of a death would energize the crowd with anger and mourning and the sound would rip the night open again.
In the morning I drove up through the city to go sailing on the Nile. The hospital walls were covered in revolutionary graffiti. It was clear that fear had evaporated from the city, that people would no longer be terrorized by the state – that simple truths had replaced complex repressions.