The Cartoonist Who Took on Sudan’s Regime
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he's helping a generation of Sudanese artists tell their own stories.
By Mat Nashed
Khalid al Baih was watching the beginning of the Tunisian Revolution from the basement of a museum in Doha, the capital of Qatar. It was December 2010, and the Sudanese cartoonist was supposed to leave his workplace, yet he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen.
Inspired by the demonstrations, Al Baih drew the flags of five North African nations on his fingers. The thumb was Libya, the pinky finger Algeria, the index finger Egypt, the ring finger Sudan and the middle finger Tunisia. Al Baih then took a photo of his hand and posted it on Facebook. Tunisia was the only finger he flipped up.
“The drawing was titled The Rest Will Follow and it went viral,” says Al Baih, now 39.
His prediction was right. But as the euphoria of the Arab Spring faded, Al Baih struggled to find meaning in his work. That all changed when nationwide protests erupted across Sudan in December 2018. For years, Al Baih believed that Sudan was dominated by two narratives: it was in perpetual conflict when depicted by the media, or it was a victim of foreign conspiracies according to state propaganda.
In the 1990s, none of us read the first page of a newspaper because it was propaganda. The only honest section were the cartoons on the back.
Khalid Al Baih
The internet became less effective in challenging these narratives. During the early years of the Arab Spring, Al Baih had built a huge following through his Facebook page Khartoon! — a pun on Sudan’s capital of Khartoum and cartoon — yet he stopped attracting new audiences once the algorithms changed in early 2018.
But with Sudan now navigating a transition to democracy, Al Baih is leading the way in reshaping narratives of his homeland by elevating the voices of Sudanese artists.
Born in Romania to foreign diplomats, Al Baih spent his formative years in Qatar. His father was a diplomat under Sudan’s second dictator, Gaafar Nimeiry. But once Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989, Al Baih’s father was one of many officials purged from the new regime.
From then on, Al Baih’s Sudanese identity was constructed as a member of the diaspora. In Qatar, Al Baih went to an international high school where he made friends from across the Arab world. The one thing they had in common, he realized, was that they all made similar jokes about the dictators ruling their respective countries.
“In the 1990s, none of us read the first page of a newspaper because it was propaganda. The only honest section were the cartoons on the back,” recalls Al Baih.
More than two decades later, in 2016, Al Baih moved to the U.S. to attend Colby College for a one-year art residency. That’s where he conceived the idea of a graphic novel that would tell the story of Sudan through the eyes of local artists.
The following summer, Al Baih flew to Khartoum to lead a seminar in front of dozens of Sudanese artists in the German Goethe Institute. As a harsh critic of the regime, his peers were shocked to see him in the country. His presence alone inspired graffiti artists, songwriters and cartoonists to craft narratives of their homeland. “All the artists told a story of Sudan through their work,” he says. “We even had a chef share a narrative through a recipe.”
In fact, Al Baih went back to Sudan often during the final years of Bashir’s reign by bribing officials at the airport. Though he risked arrest, his ability to enter the country untouched, he says, sent a message to his peers that the regime wasn’t nearly as powerful as it claimed.
Last year, Al Baih released the graphic novel Sudan Retold in Khartoum, Berlin and London. By then, Sudan had overthrown Bashir and formed a joint civilian military council to navigate a transition to democracy. With Sudan in the media again, Sudan Retold offered illustrations of 31 different perspectives of the country and sold about 2,000 copies.
“I have seen how people react to him in Sudan, especially the young technophile artists and creatives,” says Larissa-Diana Fuhrmann, a German anthropologist who co-edited Sudan Retold with Al Baih. “It inspires him to meet them in person and to exchange ideas with them.”
Months before the book was published, Al Baih also opened up a comic book library — called Khartoon Corner — inside the Goethe Institute in Sudan. As a child, Al Baih found hardly any Arabic comic books where African or Arab characters were celebrated as heroes. Khartoon Corner intends to fill that gap by providing a new generation of Sudanese youth with fictional role models.
Baih also co-heads the Goethe Institute Fund, which has so far awarded six Sudanese artists with financial assistance to undertake big projects, including a music album and a short film. He’s now seeking a sponsor for another effort, the Sudan Art Fund.
“Al Baih has always used art to communicate and bring artists together,” says Louise Christine Larsen, a friend of Al Baih and a Danish art historian who specializes in political cartoons. “And I think he inspires new artists to have a voice — a critical voice.”
When he isn’t working on his own projects, he often spends time with his family in Denmark, where he is completing another art residence. Married with three kids, Al Baih enjoys drawing with his children and keeping up with the news.
Since the revolution, far more Sudanese have started producing political art, yet there are no guarantees that the country will remain a haven of free speech.
Larsen and Fuhrmann worry that Al Baih will grow disillusioned if the democratic transition is derailed. They already saw Al Baih struggle through a period of devastation after the Arab Spring went awry.
This time, Al Baih is staying grounded and he’s urging his peers to do the same. He knows that Sudan faces big obstacles to rescue its economy, rein in paramilitaries and convince the U.S. to remove Sudan from its list of states that sponsor terrorism. But for Al Baih, those challenges make artists indispensable in helping Sudan imagine and realize a freer world.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Al Baih’s father was an ambassador; he was a diplomat. And he attended an art residency at Colby College, not the University of Maine.
- Mat Nashed, OZY Author Contact Mat Nashed