Kind. Hospitable. Respectful of family. A great talent. Invested. Invested in South Sudan. Invested in Africa.
If I could describe Abul Oyay in a few short words, that would be it. And while those words are only a small fraction of what makes up her entire person, they are words that anyone would be proud to be associated with. In her own way, in her own little corner of the world, she is actively doing her part to bring change to her native South Sudan.
I had the privilege of meeting up with her late last year, when the embers from yet another contested election were just dying down. What was supposed to be an exchange of ideas about her art morphed into a conversation about heritage, family, politics. As with most artists I know, it’s never only about the medium, but the richness of what informs it.
South Sudan has been through the ringer. Much more than can be sensitively and tactfully summarised in a paragraph or even a blog post. I had to put a personal frame of reference on it to try and understand it myself: our own 07-08 post-election violence. At the time, I was in New York. I was out of school on my winter break, and was on the internet multiple times a day, trying to keep up with the news. Once while running an errand, I saw a yellow school bus full of happy, oblivious children and thought to myself: “My country is burning, and no one cares.” It didn’t seem like there was an end in sight. Yet South Sudan has been through much worse, over an even longer period. But even in the midst of it all when conflict still rages on, there is hope.
Abul (her name means “drums” or “dance” in Shilluk) is part of a movement of South Sudanese artists called Ana Taban. She is one of their founding members, and as a visual artist, uses her work to highlight issues in her home country. Her unassuming nature belies her gift for painting, and is a rare, endearing quality in this insta-famous, almost narcissistic era in which we find ourselves. Homegirl has been around the block. Born in Ethiopia, she moved to South Sudan at the age of four to live with her paternal grandmother. Because of the conflict there, she later moved to Uganda, where her stepmother and other siblings were at the time. She spoke haltingly of her not-so-unique family situation (this is Africa after all; polygamy is rampant, even acceptable in some cultures). Haltingly, but always with a respect and delicacy that did not go unnoticed by me. I have yet another word that might be ascribed to her: discretion. That intangible quality so appreciated and yet so unsung in communal societies such as our own. For university, London was the destination. South Sudan should have been next, but 2013 happened, so Abul chose to come to Kenya instead. And that is where we met.
ME: So how long have you been a serious artist?
ABUL: Since 2012. I was in London, and materials are cheaper there, so I would just go buy them. At the time, much as I had a lot of friends, during the holidays I would just remain in London and paint. I think it’s just a love for art. I would go to galleries, and most of my [early] pieces were always … I was drawing things that other artists had drawn.
Is that how you built your skills?
I don’t know, but it was always like, if I looked at a piece and I really admired it, I’d be like, “wow, I can do that, or I can try to do that.” And then I would copy the same image to see if I could do it. But I was also creating my own work. In 2011 when I had made enough – I think it was like 20 pieces – I had my first exhibition in Juba. I flew in all the pieces. I decided I was going to give it all to charity. Dad was like, “you know, you can give it to the military, the war veterans and all that…” But then I also found this lady – she’s a Ugandan who had worked in South Sudan during the conflict for a long time. She had started a children’s home for girls from the age of 8 up to 16. So I thought why not give it all to her. I didn’t take it seriously at first, but we actually managed to raise about 30,000 USD and Dad was like, “you said this was for charity, so give it all.” I thought maybe I was going to deduct whatever I had used for the materials, but he was like, “no, give it all.” Which is really good.
Ana Taban. How did that come about?
Ever since the conflict started I have always wanted to create paintings that are about things that are happening in the country; there are also artists who sing about the conflict. In 2015 around December a friend who works with the Norwegian People’s Aid told me about a budget they have for community empowerment and things like that for artists. We decided if we came together as artists, we might get more money than if one of us applied. So, we sat down and looked at what each artist was doing in their community and this is how we decided to contact every artist [we knew] and explain it to them. The plan was to recruit some people from PAWA 254 and then go to Juba and have an event there, but in July (2016) the crisis happened.
When that happened, everyone who could manage to left South Sudan – some came to Kenya, some went to Uganda – and we decided that instead of flying in the guys from PAWA 254 (we were unsure of the security) we would get the few that were in Juba and bring them here to Kenya. We initially intended to facilitate the whole thing at PAWA but Boniface Mwangi suggested we get out of town – because it was only a weekend – so we could concentrate more. We chose Naivasha because that was the location of the Peace Agreement. We wanted something historical. The three-day workshop was very intense, and the good thing is, people were very inspired … at the end of it all we produced a song, we came up with values … then we did the launch in PAWA 254 and in Juba as well. And since then we’ve just been growing in a way.
Of course, when it first started, there was the excitement. People wanted to know what was going on … and of course you have other people who always want to discredit everything – “oh, you know these are just young people making noise” –
They were probably suspicious because they did not understand it.
Suspicious. A lot of things. Some just thought we were there to make noise and paint the walls (laughs). Some thought it was an international organisation putting us up to it, like “you people, you can’t think of this.”
What exactly did you all go out and do?
We would paint on walls, but we would always ask to meet the owners beforehand. They would tell us their stories: what they felt about South Sudan … their experiences, generally. And then we would paint that on the walls. We started doing that because one time, before, there was a wall we really wanted to work on and we already had an image in mind – people protesting – but the owner was like, “no, you can’t paint this.” We had a message we wanted to write as well. It wasn’t that bad but again you know at a time like that –
It was a sensitive time.
So you ended up painting something else.
Yeah, something he wanted.
And then the most amazing thing: when we would paint, many people would gather – it was something they had not seen before – and when they understood what we were doing they would tell us their stories, and some would actually come and paint with us. I remember there was a time an old woman came and was like, “please, when you’re painting, make sure you paint my story.” She told us how when the conflict happened people came and broke down her door and took everything that was in her house. In a way she was lucky because she wasn’t raped or killed. It’s painful.
At first I used to think the South Sudanese would not understand what we were trying to do but I think art is –
Art is a universal language.
True. So she explained her story, as did many others. Some started calling us to paint their walls.
Besides the song you released and the paintings, have you done anything else?
We go to different states in Juba, to IDPs,* we go talk to the women in camps and the youth as well. We’ve gone to Malakal, we’ve gone to Yei – Yei and Malakal were badly affected. We’ve been to Bor and also to Kakuma. We still haven’t gone to Uganda, and it’s something we’re working on – I don’t know if you’ve read about the number of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda.
Usually we enact plays and skits and we just talk to the people, especially the youth, and tell them not to pick up guns or go fight. They can do something better. We show the women different ways in which they can create skills for themselves.
We’ve also produced a movie – it’s not yet out – it’s a story about what happened in South Sudan.
Have you seen any results? What are you guys hoping to accomplish?
We mainly want to let South Sudanese people (especially the youth) know that they don’t have to fight in a war whose cause they might not even know, ‘cause at the end of the day, it’s the youth who suffer simply because people play tribal politics. We tell them that South Sudan is for everyone – it’s up to them to deliver themselves. No one will do it for them.
So it’s up to them, the same way it’s up to us to figure out our own issues.
Exactly. ‘Cause you know sometimes we sit back and say, “oh, the UN is coming.” Come on!
So a basic summary of your message is that it’s up to the South Sudanese to solve their own issues, and they do NOT have to do it through fighting.
List some things you are tired of.
Well, war first of all. People dying. Corruption. Tribalism. Poverty. But if you look at all these things everything is –
Connected.That’s the sad thing: it’s all a vicious cycle. What’s your personal vision for South Sudan?
Oh my goodness. Personally it’s … I feel like every family in South Sudan can claim they have been affected by the conflict. Almost everyone has lost at least one person as a result of the war. You look at all of it and you’re like, “wow.” Sometimes it can be discouraging. It’s a loss for all of us, and for me as an artist I just want everyone to know that we are not ok, you know?
We need to address these issues.
Sometimes when I go to Juba for exhibitions some people are like, “are you crazy? Juba is not safe for you …” But I’m doing my part, so whoever thinks they are going to silence me then really, it’s their loss in a way because what I do is for the South Sudanese people.
I would love to one day have my studio by the Nile and not worry about something happening to me – that’s the kind of South Sudan I would try to work for. Whatever small part I can play personally. And I know there are many people who have the same mindset I have.
In 2016 I participated in the Ni Yetu walk with Boni and others – we walked from Kisumu to Nairobi. Of course, I had to read up on the Kenyan constitution, so I feel like I know the Kenyan constitution more than I know the South Sudan one. We would talk to people, give them copies of the constitution, tell them what their rights are … and I experienced so much kindness. People would give us water on the road, some would give us fruits, and there was just an atmosphere of freedom, and that’s what I want to see in South Sudan. That’s the kind of South Sudan I hope for.
You’re in Kenya. You’ve been to Ethiopia, Uganda. What’s your vision for the greater Africa?
The youth – in almost every country in Africa the youth are the majority. I feel the youth should stand up and take responsibility.
*IDPs: Internally Displaced Persons
Featured image sourced here.
All other images are by Ana Taban and were sourced here.
Interview has been edited for content and clarity.