Sudanese Artist Draws from a Nation's Agony

Rashid Diab's paintings evoke the tragedies of famine and war in his country, but he hopes that they'll bring new energy and optimism to his countrymen.

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There are doctors and then there are doctors. Rashid Diab is the first kind with the Ph.D. in art from one of Europe's top universities. He may not know what to do for someone who, say, goes into cardiac arrest at a restaurant, but after a long absence from Sudan, the good doctor Diab has brought his canvases home. He hopes they will speak to his fellow Sudanese heart to heart.

On her recent to visit to Khartoum, NPR's Gwen Thompkins visited Diab's studio and filed this report.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Take a turn around Rashid Diab's studio and it would be easy to think he's gone girl crazy. There are women on canvases everywhere - on the floor, on the walls, on his painting table, and of course, on the brushes dripping with new women yet to be painted.

There's also a hovering passel of ladies in waiting here, one more beautiful than the next, who keep the art center he's built running smoothly. So it's something of a surprise when Diab says he doesn't know anything about women.

Dr. RASHID DIAB (Painter): I will never understand any woman not because of the problem of the woman, the problem - my problem with the woman that people only see as a partner maybe, could be sexually or - but I see woman are very far from it, very far.

THOMPKINS: It's the aged-old story that can be traced from the biblical Abraham and Sarah to the likes of Justine Timberlake and Cameron Diaz. What gets between a man and woman, and how can they possibly sustain? Here's Diab's (unintelligible).

Dr. DIAB: What you should find is art, may comes between you and your lover. For me, artist is very, very, very important media to connect two spirits. Just to think she likes, she likes (unintelligible), can make your connection (unintelligible).

THOMPKINS: Diab doesn't make the same kind of pictures he did when he lived in Spain. Those paintings and etchings and lithographs, which attracted galleries, celebrities and even royalty, were mostly abstract. They were brilliant images that channeled his native Sudan in color and texture - powdery gilded reds, the kind of red meant to be seen ablaze on a dessert horizon; deeply leafy greens good enough to eat; the blue of teardrops and whispering waters. So what about those girls?

Dr. DIAB: I paint in a series. When I paint a woman just walking in this biggest space vanishing to somewhere, nowhere that means there's something missing there. That means there is something that is terrible happening.

THOMPKINS: He's right. These are not the girls, girls, girls of an Elvis Presley movie. These are women in every color of chador walking away from who knows where and toward who knows what. They are alone and adrift in blazing sand, which is no way to survive in a Sudanese desert. No way to survive, period.

Dr. DIAB: They leave behind the desert and the space. It's the idea of losing hope.

THOMPKINS: For Diab, these women are both mythic and all too real. They are walking away from Darfur, from Eastern and Southern Sudan, places in the shadow of Sudan's central government in Khartoum that have been made fear by the miseries of war and even before that by the lack of water and food and the seeds needed to one day become food.

Dr. DIAB: We had now Khartoum for this almost 10 million leaving Khartoum. Where are they coming from? Were they coming from east and west and south, so that we start feeling the problem long time ago. You can smell what is happening here.

THOMPKINS: After massive(ph) years in Madrid, Diab moved back to the relative quiet of Khartoum in 1999. In a way, he's here to do what Picasso did in Spain in the 1930s. Taken together, Diab's paintings amount to a kind of "Guernica" for the people of Sudan.

But while Picasso's painting was meant to sound the alarm of war in vivid and even grotesque brush strokes, Diab says the people of Sudan respond to different images. He says the punch of his paintings comes in having Sudanese people see themselves suspended in absolute nothingness, without context or reference to any living thing. It's what makes his work both beautiful and terrible.

Dr. DIAB: Just being alone is a problem. Being alone in the space, biggest space without knowing where are you. This is a problem. Being in a way are the woman is a problem. I mean, this is - all of this together but with a nice very prophetic conception of artistic vision.

THOMPKINS: Only an artist can think of depicting human suffering with a nice aesthetic. But consider the image that brought Diab back to Sudan. It was a photograph of a hungry Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture on the desert floor. That exquisitely rendered shot won photojournalist Kevin Carter a Pulitzer Prize. It brought new international focus on famine in Sudan, and it moved Diab to buy a one-way ticket home.

Dr. DIAB: It's a terrible photo. What I'm doing here is helping my country. There's something wrong.

THOMPKINS: Somewhere in all that nothing Diab likes to paint appears to be another more encouraging message. It's embedded in his rambling esoteric art center, in the national art competitions he sponsors, in his classes for children, his exhibit space for fellow artists, in his gardening and primers on art. He seems to be encouraging his fellow Sudanese to feel something as primal as the love between a man and woman, and that is love of country, the entire country. In Sudan, it maybe the rarest love of all.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.

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