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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

305 My tools help me to lift up people who are struggling and help them find their voices

Day 305: Friday January 15th 2021:

“My tools as an artist help me to see the bigger picture to lift up people who are struggling to help them find their voices.”

I remember one day when I was very young, my father asked me what I wanted to be in the future. I said that I wanted to be a soldier. A soldier who carried a gun was powerful. He could do what he wanted. I wanted to be strong and powerful like Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the action movies. These kinds of movies and the civil war in Sudan brainwashed kids’ minds by telling them that having a gun would make them strong and muscular. That was a game that was played on us kids; even today, those who are involved in the school shootings in the United States think they are strong because they have a gun.

My dad was not happy with my response. As a kid, I looked up to the President, who was a military person, and others before him who were also in the military. Even today, in the news, when you see leaders from different countries, they all come from a military background. My father and my mother, who believed in knowledge and science, didn’t wish for me to be a soldier.

Not long after, I realized that education could help me use my voice for good. A voice for change can be stronger than any bullet, gun, or bomb that destroys humanity, culture, art, and history. I realized that, by continuing my education, I would become a better person for myself, for my family, for my community, and for the world. At the age of thirteen, I started to become interested in art. My cousin who was a videographer invited me to help him out. This is where I learned about photography and creating videos. I learned to understand light and darkness in images. I learned to document regular things like meetings, weddings, parties, sports – anything that had value in the community.

(Unshackled Boats)

My parents always encouraged me to be creative. They didn’t train me in the area of art, but they supported me. I remember my mom gave me a set of colors when I was in elementary school; that set of colors was so valuable to me. I came to appreciate artisans from my community who used different techniques such as weaving, embroidery, and drawings in creating their cloths and clothing. I was truly inspired by them. I began to recognize art as a valuable tool of communication. I knew then that I wanted to be an artist.

“My tools as an artist help me to see the bigger picture – not only to create pieces that will shine a light on human rights but also to lift up people who are struggling and help them express themselves – to help them find their voices.”

- Artist Elshafei Dafalla

Elshafei grew up in Sennar, Sudan, the largest country in Africa and one of the five largest in the world. 115 languages are spoken within its borders and there are about 700 ethnic groups! It is clearly not a country of just Muslims and Christians – culturally it is so much richer. As the gateway from western Africa to the Middle East and the holy lands, many people travel through Sudan and end up settling there, which explains its cultural diversity.

Elshafei loved art from an early age and recognized it as a valuable tool of communication. His parents, both teachers, encouraged him by providing the tools to teach and nurture his natural ability. He realized early that his hands could be used to create more than just words on paper; rather they could be used to communicate beyond the restrictions of language.

He went to the School of Fine and Applied Art at the Sudan University in Khartoum, and later earned a Master of Fine Arts from the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

For two years (1996-2000) after college in Sudan, he chose to live among the Umbororo people of Sudan, a nomadic tribe often belittled and feared for their ways. The tribe’s self-sufficient life is dedicated to following their animals seeking grazing and pastureland. ElShafei found them to be surprisingly open and welcoming. He immersed himself in their culture and began to understand and appreciate their freedom as an ideal way to be. They travel, sometimes crossing borders, without ever being asked to show who they are or why they’re there. They neither own nor carry identification and find no need for it.

While among the Umbororo, he taught them art; and he learned from their art. He gave them paper – both children and adults – to draw whatever they wanted. They drew beautifully simple animals drawn in a free form with no sense of being restricted by the size or shape of the paper. The freedom of their artistic expression inspired him years later as a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Michigan, to create several large (some 200+ lbs.) sculptures of their drawings. These sculptures were displayed on a main street of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2008, earning him the Golden Paintbrush Award from the city of Ann Arbor.

(Umbroro Art in An Arbor streets)

This African, male, Muslim, teacher, activist, award winning multi-media artist, is so much more than all those labels. As he said at the beginning of his presentation, “I am not what I wear; I am what I do.”

Make art not war.

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