Growing up, Khalid Albaih, found it hard to make friends and at home he practically grew up as an only child considering the eight-year gap between him and his older brother. So Albaih took to drawing his friends and also pouring over comics which cultivated an imagination he would later use as a form of political resistance.
He knew at an early age that he wanted to be an artist. However, in his Sudanese parents’ house, he was not allowed to say that that’s what he wanted to be. He grew up in a context where people expected to call him an engineer or doctor, not an artist. Albaih grew up in the Sudanese diaspora, in Doha, Qatar. He says he lost everything connected to “home” because of politics which his parents were active in, but tried to shield him from. Because of this sheltering, a young Albaih did his own research on what had forced his family to flee Sudan.
From his politically active parents’ library, he discovered more about the situation in Sudan. Albaih’s classmates in his school in Doha, were representative of 22 nationalities and they all found themselves there because of politics back home. What Albaih and his classmates had in common was satire and jokes. They would all crack jokes about the presidents and politicians from their home countries. This was their own resistance to their political realities that had displaced them.
He also enjoyed the political cartoons that were embedded in the publications his father brought home. These cartoons were created in a way that enabled cartoonists to cleverly transgress while staying out of jail. For Albaih these political cartoons taught him how to push boundaries in a creative way.
Art presented Albaih with the tools to process his political rage. To him, art is about expressing ones dreams and nightmares. “A society with no outlet to its anger, risks radicalising its children.” Although Albaih’s creative tools have changed over the years, perhaps the tool he is best known for is satire. His ability, through his political cartoons, to look at life in a poignantly, ironically funny and sad way that makes people think. “Calamities will make you laugh. Look at Donald Trump, look at the coups in Africa right now, you cannot help but laugh even though its really sad,” he says.
The young Albaih grew into a professional political cartoonist going by the moniker, Khartoon, a word play on the words cartoon and Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. His political commentary and cartoons appeared in high profile publications such as The Guardian, The Atlantic and Al Jazeera. He went viral in 2016 when he drew a cartoon of Colin Kapernick, the American Football player, who was, at the time, protesting the American National Anthem by kneeling. In the cartoon, Albaih shapes Kaepernick’s notorious afro into the shape of a black fist invoking images of historical African American athletes such as, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympic Games, in protest and defiance during the American anthem.
Despite his effectiveness as a political cartoonist, Albhair shares that his, is a privileged position, as he is not in the direct line of fire. He has, over the years, spent time as an artist in residence in countries such as America and Denmark. He shares that prior to going to Denmark he had suffered from a creative block which led him into a depression. At that point he had been writing and drawing for eleven years and then suddenly he could not create anymore. Fortunately he found himself on a great program in Denmark that unlocked something in him, however the problem is “they think they saved you,” he says.
In Denmark he spent much of his time in libraries. It reminded him that whereas places like Denmark are spoilt for choice when it comes to grand libraries, there are barely any in his home country of Sudan. That’s when he realised that perhaps being a political cartoonist was, but one stage of his creative life, and that he now needed to transition into another stage of creative life in response to the frustrations of that particular moment.
“How do I express my frustrations now?” is a question Albaih was called to answer. In response, he birthed a project that would end his loneliness as a creative. He embarked on creating a graphic novel, in collaboration with other Sudanese artists, on the history of Sudan, its identity, culture and traditions. He wanted to tell the story of Sudan through, not a political eye, but through the eye of an artist. The illustrated book is called Sudan Retold , presenting the story through the work of thirty artists.
Through the making of Sudan Retold, emerged another idea- designing and building a library in Sudan. Albaih says it has been frustrating trying to convince funders of the importance and need of a library in a country like Sudan where it is thought of as a luxury. Even potential funders in Sudan do not get the idea and according to Albaih it is because they have never seen a library before. With his persistence, the project developed momentum until it was halted by the COVID-19 lockdowns. In 2021 he was able to assemble a project team which created a mobile library which was a great achievement considering the constraints and also, they began plans for a design competition for the main library. However, the 2021 coup in Sudan halted their momentum. Today they have a building earmarked for the library but still lack the funding to proceed.
The mobile library and the bigger one that beckons is Albaih’s way of building a tool in Sudan that will ease the frustrations of young people in Sudan. To provide a space that can be an outlet for anger which can be eased by the availability of knowledge.
Albaih describes all his work as creative resistance. “With creativity anything can change. To have a creativity movement one needs people to see creativity as important and not a privilege. Art is seen as something not native to places like Sudan. It is not seen as a benefit to the Sudanese people.“ he says. And bringing art and creativity back from the foreign “art world” back to the people, is the dream Albaih’s acts of creative resistance hopes to make real.
In 2023, Sudan Artist Fund was one of the recipients of the Creativity Pioneers Fund, placing creativity at the center of more inclusive, equal, just and thriving communities.Read more stories like this →