Ala Kheir was born in Nyala (Darfur, Sudan) and currently lives and works in Khartoum, Sudan. A qualified engineer, he has been deeply interested in photography since secondary school, but started studying the medium in-depth in 2005 when he purchased his first SLR. “I try to use photography with the aim of self-reflection, while enjoying the process and the difficulty to make a simple photograph that delivers a message,” Kheir writes. Working across a diverse range of styles, he does not limit himself to a specific subject, instead photographing that which critically satisfies his vision of photography. A major theme in Ala Kheir’s work is to explore Khartoum, the city where he grew up. His image making employs a subtle approach to address the complexity of the city, as well as the social/economic issues that are shaping the country now as it goes through changes and political shifts.
His work has been exhibited internationally, including Green April at the Kigali Photo festival (2019); The Periphery at the Lagos Photo Festival (2018); Collectivism, with Invisible Borders, FOAM, Amsterdam (2017); solo exhibitions of Revisiting Khartoum at African Capitals, Paris (2017) and Dak’Art Contemporary African Art Biennale, Dakar (2016); From Khartoum to Addis, Venice Biennale (2015); Africa Big Change Big Chance, Milan (2014); Invisible Borders, Addis Photo Festival (2012); a solo exhibition of Khartoum, Addis Photo Festival (2012); and The Un-governables, New York (2012).
Kheir is founder of the Other Vision photography platform, active in photography education, archiving and development in Sudan. Kheir’s work is a symbol for a country that has undergone huge crises and through his eyes we get to understand the country better and its history in these uncertain times of change and transition.
There is a complex relationship here in Khartoum between it’s inhabitants and the river. A relationship that is hard to describe, but in short, I think we can say that the river banks is Khartoum’s public space as it devides the city into three and any one can have access to the riverbanks at anytime. However, there are different spots and different socials groups have their own spots. But overall, these “beaches” by the riverbanks in Khartoum has its own culture, its own mood very different from the city vibes. And that’s why it is the ultimate public space.
I consider myself a regular to many of these spots. When I am there, I have my own ideas and mind set and feelings and the intention to photograph. However, I often find myself also enjoying the experience of just being there witnessing moments, interactions, and the complex river-city relationship. These series of images are an attempt to record moments of interactions between myself, the space, and people.
Khartoum is a very strange city, even for someone who spent most of his life here. Through photography I have been using Khartoum like a playground, wondering around trying to discover and re-discover feelings that are continuously changing as the city. In 2014, I have started my first photo narrative about Khartoum called “Revisiting khartoum” , where I visit familiar spaces in downtown Khartoum that I used to visit with my parents when I was a young boy. I photographed these spaces linking what I see now to how it felt 30 years ago. documenting the mixed emotions between then and now.
This was just the beginning as I am a wonderer, always in different places. I grew up in low class neighborhood which back then was the edge of the city and through out the years I changed homes moved into a different neighborhoods and different communities which I think gave me a very solid understanding of the complex rapidly expanding city.
Khartoum now is a mixture of different worlds, a low-built, sprawling city, with strange sprit depending on where you go, culturally divide but we people of Khartoum do not acknowledge that. And a lot more.
I was born in Neyal, a big city in South Darfur. My mother was from the city and my father grew up in one of the villages not far from Neyala. I lived in Neyala until I was five years old then my family moved to Khartoum. However, we return back to spend the three-month school holiday every year.
Moving to Khartoum as a child, I always felt Khartoum is where I belong. On the other hand, these annual trips to Darfur re-link to the roots, people, and places. And it is the only place where I don’t feel that sense of being a “Second class citizen”. Even as a child, it was easy and quick to feel the identity crises that are very dominant in Sudan. Arabs or Africans. This is a very important question in Sudan. The pro-Arab governance since the independence of Sudan made people who are from the South and West feel inferior. South Sudan war has always been portrayed as it is a war between Christians of the South and Muslims of the north. However, when I listen to Dr John Garang’s speech “The previous leader of the liberation army of Sudan”, he always talks about “Sudanism”. His political/cultural ideology was, “for the people of Sudan to live in cohesion, they must not separate themselves into the many existing ethnic factions present within the nation but, rather, to collectively renounce the belief that Arabness, Black African-ness, Islam or Christianity were to be the ultimate defining characteristics of Sudan. Rather, he willed that citizens should embrace all cultures of Sudan, and to unify under the one commonality they all share, being Sudanese. A proper unity of Sudan.”
After years of civil war, referendum results separated South Sudan. After 1997, and due to difficult economic conditions in Sudan, the annual family trip to Neyala stopped. And in 2003 the war in Darfur started for a similar cause to South Sudan. The government is being accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. In this period the war quickly escalated, rebel groups were formed, and the national government used the existing “nomads/farmers” conflict and supported the Arab nomads with firepower and that was the birth of Janjaweed who were an Arab militia that terrorized Darfur, and is now in charge of the whole country.
During this time, I kept on visiting Darfur for various reasons. Sometimes family weddings, relatives passed away, work, and so on. Slowly most of my relatives in Darfur moved out as it was difficult to live in Neyala. And my relationship with the city started to fade.
This project sparked my relationship to my roots. I wanted to re-visit Darfur, Neyala, and many other places in Darfur that I am attached to. So I decided to start with the place I am fascinated about the most – Jabel Marra “Marra Mountain”.