Gor Soudan: We’re All In This Together

Along with the rest of them II, 2012. Gor Soudan. Acrylic on cardboard. Source: Gor Soudan, Kenya - AFRICANAH.ORG. Accessed: 26/08/21.

Gor Soudan is a conceptual artist working out of Kisumu and Nairobi. His current materials revolve around found objects, which he then transforms into work that often comments on current socio-economic issues. In some of his previous projects he has worked with pages of the Kenyan constitution, melted down plastic bags and what he calls “protest wire”—tangled and salvaged from destroyed property during 2007 post-election violence. The transition from his earlier, more figurative work to his current sculptures, mostly consisting of protest wire, charts a fascinating journey from subject matter exploring individual fragmentation to a more collectivist outlook.

Soudan’s earlier work mainly featured these ghostly, featureless figures draped on large sheets of cardboard, held up with nothing but strings. The fascination with found objects existed even then, and most of his paintings were rendered on cardboard, corrugated tin, and pieces of plastic—discarded items that no one would miss. Taking those items and transforming them into art gives us as viewers the two-fold experience of recognition of what the object used to be, and the recognition of what it is now, and that engagement with the idea of recognition is something that he has referenced throughout his career. 

For an artist so inspired by real-time events in current politics, his work has an introspective quality to it at first, which seems at odds with ideas of artwork that is so often labelled as “political art”. However, I would argue that Soudan approaches the idea of the political as the personal, and this approach explicitly sets itself against the idea of liberal individualism in a way that completely reframes commonly held beliefs on activism. 

Judith Butler’s new book, The Force of Nonviolence deals with the links between collectivism, and what she dubs “radical equality”. Butler is a prominent voice in third wave feminist theory, queer theory, and is best known for her book Gender Trouble published thirty years ago. In her new publication she discusses our relationship between violence and nonviolence, terms that we are used to thinking about in a strategic way, or even a historic way, but rarely in a personal way.1

Rather than violence against a faceless “other” she frames that the most powerful argument against violence is grounded in the notion that, when one does violence to another human being, we also do violence to ourselves, because our lives are bound up in other lives. Most people who are formed within an individualist tradition tend to understand themselves as people who are radically separate from other lives. The gap between people with privilege and people without privilege upholds the individual over the collective and only leads to further oppression. 

In Soudan’s later work, he starts to engage with these concepts. In his protest wire sculptures, there’s this chaos of sharp, black lines. The closer you look, any recognisable form is lost in a tangle of unrelenting lines, loops, and scribbles. But when you take a step back, the shapes start to come together, and suddenly it seems so obvious. The space between the microcosm and the macrocosm is explored through these wire sculptures, and his fascination with the visual markers of what “makes sense” versus what looks like chaos is in fact a careful meditation on how we conceptualise ourselves. Rather than taking a step back and seeing the full picture of his sculptures, he reverses viewership to urge people to step closer and get lost in the connectedness of the wires. Close up everything loops back into each other, forever.

Gor Soudan. Eastings I.2013 Protest wire. 100 x 60 x 22cm. Source: Eatings I | artlabafrica. Accessed 26/08/21.

He provides a visual platform from which we can ponder this idea: If we were to rethink ourselves as social creatures who are fundamentally dependent upon one another, we would treat each other differently, because our very conception of self would not be defined by self-interest.

Footnotes
  1. Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence : An Ethico-Political Bind (London ; New York Verso, 2020).