Artist/Activist Elshafei Dafalla Mohamed
On Tuesday I attended a talk by visiting artist Elshafei Dafalla Mohamed in Sorenson Theater. Then yesterday I was able to spend time talking to, and learning from, this remarkable man. I was captivated by the artist/activist and fortunate for the opportunity to talk one on one. The downside is that I can’t possibly include everything I’d like to in this blog. So I encourage you to take the time to meet him before he leaves Babson next week.
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.
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.”
Elshafei cannot be placed in a single identifiable ‘box,’ nor, he says, can any of us. Our fingerprints lined up on a wall side by side in Hollister Hall, though unique to each individual, demonstrate that we are more alike than different. His mission, through his art, is to help people understand this. Art is a powerful, universal language. With it he hopes to give voice to those who don’t have a voice.
Next Tuesday, November 17, Elshafei will present: “Unshackled Memory” in Knight Auditorium, 6-9 p.m. It is an installation and performance to remember those lost during the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade. 3400 paper boats painted in colors representing traditional African dress, as well as flags from African nations will be on display. Live African drumming, poetry, and song will be be performed.
Photo of Elshafei was taken by Adam Elfil, other photos are by the artist himself, Alshafei Dafalla Mohamed.