My earliest memory of making art is from growing up in Bahrain in the 1990s. I was about 5 years old, and I was drawing some scribbles for my father to use with his freshmen pathology students. As I remember it, my scribbles were over-stylized representations of a purplish cell slide my father showed me. What I loved most about my earliest artistic efforts was the way my father explained everything to me as though I was in his university pathology class. Even though I couldn’t fully understand it, he made that abstract purple cell the most matter-of-fact thing in the world. They weren’t just circles, they were cells with different thin membranes living in their own little world inside all of us. My childish drawings helped me — and maybe even some enthusiastic medical students — understand the structure of something that I couldn’t have seen with the naked eye. I still occasionally find myself using art to work through abstract, difficult ideas, using art to explain something a little bit better, even if just to myself. Race and racism are among those constructs.
North Sudan, where I was born, is an Afro-Arab country. We speak Arabic, but we are African, and have visibly darker skin than most Arabs. I’ve often read that our uneasiness with our mixed identity is a direct product of colonialism. This makes racial identity complicated. Do I have to choose a single identity? Does reckoning with these questions make me less Sudanese, less African, less Black?
When I was a young teenager living in Bahrain, a Middle Eastern Arab island in the Persian Gulf, I wrote a blog post that referred to the country as having “a majority of white people.” I realize now how ridiculous it was to refer to a Middle Eastern — a person of color — as white. I probably thought since I was al sodah — “the Black” — then my Bahraini friend, with her long straight hair, must be baidah, or white, because what else was there besides “Black” and “white”? This oversimplification showed up one day during my Arabic language class in primary school. My classmates and I found the definition of Sudan in the dictionary. “Sudan: The country of Black people,” one of them read out loud. This brief, nicely packaged definition seemed to alleviate their curiosity about me, the only Black kid in the class, by answering the question of “what” I was. Everyone silently accepted that I looked different — because I was from the country of Black people.
That childlike simplification of race is surprisingly prevalent as we continue to talk about race as adults. So when I finally moved to “the country of Black people” in 2002 for architecture school, I was surprised to witness how uncomfortable this large Black country was with its African identity — and its tendency to front a more Arab-friendly version. Ironic, considering that at the time, Sudan was the largest country in Africa.
I remember being openly confrontational but privately disheartened to see how the majority of people in North Sudan regarded my dark skin. As if it was a hindrance to my ability to accomplish things that, in the cultural context, were deemed of high importance: like getting married “on time” or being regarded as beautiful, seemingly the most celebrated aspect of being a woman, aside from having kids. I got used to people commenting on my dark skin only a few seconds after they met me. “Oh,” they would say, “if only you weren’t so dark.” Some even went out of their way to suggest a bleaching cream. “Don’t you want to look clean?” they would ask. I noticed that when I embraced my African features by wearing my natural hair in box braids or Afros, I often received the signature Sudanese side-eye, curious as to what the problem could be. “Is she from Zimbabwe?” somebody would chuckle loud enough for everyone to hear. “Oh, you speak Arabic. I thought you were African.” Aren’t we all?
When I left Sudan for Toronto, Canada, in 2017, I was secretly hoping to rid myself from these seemingly conflicting identities so I could finally slide under the generic banner of “Black.” One black blob in my sketchbook. I like simple solutions, too. But after George Floyd was killed in May of 2020 and race conversations bubbled back to the surface, thanks to the collective effort of Black Lives Matter, I wondered if the North American definition of “Black” was wide enough to include me and all my unresolved identities. Would I be recognized as a Black voice to be listened to? Would simply living in North America make me fit into a different narrative about race, at least in other people’s eyes? Since relocating to Canada, I try not to be openly confrontational about racism, when talking to other races. As a Black woman, I tread lightly to avoid having the “angry Black woman” label sprung on me, and I brace myself for strangers wanting to touch or comment on my “exotic” hair. This is different from the racism I grew up with.
Today’s cultural climate seems to dictate a dichotomy: “white,” and everyone else lumped under the now-popular term “people of color.” It’s another overly simple solution that points to the problem: A default white race, and everyone else lumped under a made-up race, trying to unite and sort out differences as diverse and complicated as the collective human race.
But as I became part of more conversations about race, often representing the Black voice, I realized that the simple solution, that black blob in my sketchbook, had to be broken into all of its overlapping colors. I speak and create art from my experiences as a Sudanese woman who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Bahrain and moved to Sudan as a teenager, a woman who traveled between Italy and Asia and then moved to Canada. Racism was served in all these countries, but with a different seasoning each time, and so my experiences became flavored with complexities that I tried to deconstruct in my art.
My childlike scribbles have evolved into ceramics and illustrations, which sometimes dwell on ugliness: microaggressions, racism, mental health stigmas. But sharing experiences and stories through artwork is a collective show of personal strength against cultural weaknesses: Art is a way to share my opinions and to criticize social norms, adding a new perspective to an old conversation. In some ways, nothing has changed: the purplish scribbles and my recent ceramics are both attempts to understand something better. I’m constantly adding color to my little black blob, even as I try to break it apart and understand it. A little dance between the place held for me in the world, and the space I carve for myself in it.
*A version of this essay was originally published on DohaDebates.com: