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Sudanese art exhibit makes impact on campus

Published: February 2, 2007
Section: Front Page


“Leave the Bones and Catch the Land,” an exhibit of art by Sudanese refugees that has been up in Goldfarb Library since December, was taken down today to move in part to Tufts University. The art will also eventually return permanently to Brandeis, where it will be the beginning of a collection of Southern Sudanese artwork and cultural production called the Southern Sudanese Cultural Documentation Center.

The exhibit consisted of paintings created by young Southern Sudanese men and women who were displaced as children by the Sudanese civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the artists currently live in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The exhibit was put together by students in Professor Mark Auslanders (ANTH) Museums and Public Memory class in the fall of 2006 in collaboration with the Sudanese Education Fund (SEF), a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2003 to help Sudanese refugees coming to the United States adjust to their new lives in this country and continue their education.

The exhibit also included an auditory component recorded by the students and members of the Sudanese community of the greater Boston area, which explained the symbolism and cultural contexts of the paintings. The audio commentary was available on iPods that could be checked out from the circulation desk. [Students] felt very strongly that the voices in the exhibit should be the voices of the Sudanese themselves, said Auslander.

The Cultural Documentation Center, like the exhibit, was a collaboration between Brandeis University and the SEF. The SEF currently owns the paintings, but plans to donate them to the Cultural Documentation Center at Brandeis. Currently, the Center is still in its seminal stages. It doesnt really have a space, explained Susan Winship, director of the SEF. Its a concept.

Aduei Riak 07, a Sudanese Brandeis student intensely involved in the project, explained that the center cannot really begin to take shape until we have the funding. Still, expectations for the center are high among those involved in the project. In addition to the paintings and their current audio component, it is hoped that the center will eventually showcase other aspects of the culture of the displaced Southern Sudanese.

Were going to do an oral history project and record some of the music of Sudan, Winship said. Eventually, added Riak, we want something interactive, a place to actually go to.

I think this is going to be a good connection between the Sudanese and Brandeis University, said Franco Majok, a member of the Boston Sudanese community who was involved with the exhibit and the creation of the center. I hope it will go out to other universities.

The current exhibit began on a small scale, when students in a previous class of Auslanders created an exhibit in the anthropology building with a few of the paintings. The paintings originally came into Auslanders hands through the SEF, which had obtained them from Atem Aleu, a former occupant of the refugee camps and current Utah resident who regularly returns to the camps to teach art.

Originally, Winship explained, the SEF had decided to auction some of them off in order to raise money for the artists and to fund the SEF. Riak, however, felt that the paintings ought to remain together as a collection, on display to the public.

I thought selling them would be tragic, she explained. It would be like selling our history and our memories.

The SEF took her suggestion seriously. Aduei [Riak] said look, these are our cultural heritage, and we should find some way to preserve them, explained David Chanoff, a member of the SEF board. We began working with Mark [Auslander] and thinking how best to do this.

The SEF found private donors who would each fund a piece of artwork, and the paintings were handed over to Auslanders class to create a large-scale exhibit. An original exhibition was developed in Dreitzer gallery. But, Auslander explained, students in the class were disappointed because they felt that very few students had actually gotten to see the paintings.

With the permission of Perry Hanson, Vice President for Information Technology and Libraries, the class planned a new exhibit in Goldfarb Library, where it would be visible to many students on a daily basis. Says class member Miriam Landau 07, We literally threw out the syllabus in order to create the exhibit in Goldfarb. The idea for the creation of the Southern Sudanese Cultural Documentation Center was an offshoot of this project.

The exhibit has had a powerful emotional effect both on the students involved in its creation, and on members of the Brandeis community. It wasnt just about the paintings, it became the people, explained Rose Stimson, a Brandeis graduate student who was a part of Auslanders course.

Jerome Frierson 07 said, The most important function of this exhibition is that it views the world through the eyes of the victim Although it portrays depression and desperation, it shows that [the artists] still cling on to the hope and faith of a brighter future. And, Riak said, these paintings provide an invaluable historical lesson. People talk about Darfur right now, she said. Its one piece of the whole thing.