The photographer and writer Enikö Nagy, who has criss-crossed a remote region of Sudan in search of local images and spoken words, sees herself as a chronicler of the unique beauty of Sudan’s rich cultural heritage. “This is not a picture book in the conventional sense, nor a view of Sudan from the outside,” she says of her new volume Sand in My Eyes: Sudanese Moments. “This is a collection of typical Sudanese moments, an intimate look at a beautiful country that has a lot to say. I hope that those who read my book feel they are there, and find elements of their own culture through Sudanese eyes.”
Nagy is an ethnic Hungarian born in Romania and raised in Germany, who was posted to Sudan for the then German Development Service, or DED (currently known as GIZ – Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit). When Nagy’s contract ended, she stayed on in Sudan and embarked on a 30 000 kilometre journey in the rural region of Kordofan, researching and documenting intangible heritage. Over five and a half years, Nagy documented more than 120 interviews with tribal and religious leaders, poets, shamans, elders and everyday folk from 45 ethnic groups; she gathered 26 000 photos and 2500 pieces of oral tradition, including proverbs, myths, songs, folk tales, and ritual verses. Nagy compiled her research into a literary picture book and an international travelling exhibition which opens at the MAXXI Museum in Rome on 19 October.
“There is a need for a counter-narrative on Africa; it is time for our various cultures to see eye to eye,” Nagy explains. “This is not merely the land of war and poverty, or the perfect place to see elephants. We need Africa more than it needs us: we have so much to learn here, to enrich our cultures, to put away our ethnocentrism, in terms of social and human development.”
Nagy argues that the world has much to learn from the traditional societies of Africa. “Traditional nomadic and subsistence farming societies, like the ones I came to know in Sudan, present many alternatives to the crises of the present-day world, of modernity and globalisation,” she says. “These societies live a largely self-sufficient life reduced to the essential, with local economies and regional trade. They are not destroying their environment, they haven’t compromised their nature. They have a strong community life, a sense of social justice and kindness. We should try to learn from them.”
It is difficult to label the work done by Nagy. The first impression, leafing through the book, is that one has in one’s hands a poetic and beautiful book on Sudan’s varied cultures. Delving more deeply, it becomes clear that the book is a collection of intangible heritage, one that documents social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge of nature and the universe, traditional craftsmanship and oral traditions. “In my travels, I sought out Sudanese values, beliefs and life philosophies, as glimpsed through moments of daily life,” says Nagy. “Nomads, traders, farmers, fishermen, city people and mountain people all find their place on these pages. I discovered a world of respect and dialogue, a world where traditional methods based on peace and reconciliation solve problems that our legal systems would take years to handle. In these communities, everything is shared and no one is left alone.”
Oral lore documented by Nagy reflects that “settled farmers adore their land, which is fundamental for their identity,” while in speaking with nomads, Nagy learned they have no close relationship to any one place. “Their memories of places are linked to a particular person met, or a good rain. They believe that life itself is movement.” To illustrate this point, Nagy quotes a poem by Islamic jurist Imam Al Shafi’i: “‘Gold is like dust in its place of origin, only if it leaves it acquires the value of gold. Stagnation can spoil even water, which is only sweet if it runs.’ The core idea of nomadic life is movement and family,” continues Nagy. “This is the understanding of happiness.”
Different cultures interacted with Sudan, blending into the present cultural heritage. “From Persians to the Ottoman Empire, from ancient Greeks to Western Africans and the Arab world, you find these influences in Sudanese oral literature and poetry.”
Enikö Nagy tells of many people who contributed to the project. “Someone was always hosting me, while other people helped me in different ways: it became a multinational project. Internationally-based editors, designers and translators donated their work, while local painters, actors, folklorists, villagers and even medical doctors joined my travels as local guides, exploring their own country from a new and different angle.”
Nagy recounts many challenges, including winning the cooperation of the authorities and corporate sponsors. “I had to convince people that I had no hidden motives. Due to the political situation, there is some administrative suspicion towards foreigners. Otherwise Sudanese are incredibly welcoming and they have a great sense of hospitality. They understood and were pleased that I wanted to show the positive side of their country.”
Nagy’s work is a labour of love for Sudan, but also a way to challenge common misperceptions about Sudan and Africa. “Somehow Sudanese are not allowed to see their country in a beautiful way,” says Nagy. “They’ve accepted the view of being from a poor country that needs help from outside. This view doesn’t do justice to Sudan. It lacks the perspective of how beautiful this country is, how full of culture, history, wisdom and lessons we all should learn.”
The exhibition “Sand in My Eyes, Sudanese Moments” will be on view in Rome at the MAXXI Museum (Museo nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo), 19 October – 6 November 2016. Enikö Nagy will be present at the opening ceremony, to be held at the MAXXI Museum on 25 October at 6pm. A bilingual reading of narratives from the book with screening of a documentary short film about the project will be held at LIBRERIA GRIOT, Via di Santa Cecilia 1/A, on 22 October at 6pm and at ST. STEPHEN’S CULTURAL CENTER FOUNDATION, Via Aventina 1, on 24 October at 6pm. These events are open to the public.
The book is available in the MAXXI bookshop and online (ISBN 9783940190079) as well as through the official website www.sandinmyeyes-sudan.com.
ICCROM is happy announce the forthcoming Sand in My Eyes: Sudanese Moments exhibition that highlights the rich intangible culture of Sudan. This exhibition comes in conjunction with ICCROM-ATHAR’s project for the rehabilitation and revitalization of the historical port of Suakin, on Sudan’s north-east coast.