Modern Lens

Sudanese Clothing Through the Modern Lens

Nubian Women at Korti, in Egypt and Nubia, by David Roberts. Moon, London, 1842-9. Original tinted, hand-colored lithograph.

Wearing clothes answers social imperatives, many more than bodily needs in fact. As humans, we of course need to protect our bodies from the environment and from view, but how we do it is what socially matters. This is why clothing is an ever-present subject in the political debate of every country, and why this apparently simple need sustains one of the biggest economic market worldwide. The way we present ourselves to others conveys our identity: our own conception of individuality but also our place in the community. 

Sudanese Woman, the Gordon Stationery and Bookstores, Khartoum, Copyright No. 142, n.d. [archives Elsa Yvanez]
Sudanese Woman, the Gordon Stationery and Bookstores, Khartoum, Copyright No. 142, n.d. [archives Elsa Yvanez]
This non-verbal mode of communication is, by essence, very direct and fast: one look should suffice to recognize the main components of our external appearance. Then, what happens when this immediate message passes through the lens of modern photographers? The camera and the person operating it become a third, silent, and invisible participant in the conversation. Once reproduced, the photograph immobilizes that very moment and creates a distance between the subject and the many new viewers. A social distance, a spatiotemporal distance…which can becomes so great that the meaning of the social interaction is lost.

In Sudan, many photographs have been produced by British citizens posted in Khartoum and elsewhere during the Anglo-Egyptian condominium (1899-1956). As thousands of other Europeans through the colonial empires, the British directed their cameras to the “typical scenes” of Sudanese life: open-air markets, views of the Nile, fishing scenes, wild and natural landscapes and, above all else, the Sudanese people themselves. Many of these photographs where then edited as postcards (notably by the Gordon Stationary and Bookstores in Khartoum). Circulating through the colonies, Europe, and American these pictures form an evocative, exotic and fascinating portrait of the Sudanese people. 

But they are just that: images. Images taken by people who had a very succinct (if any) knowledge of the local culture, its codes and its traditions. People who, for the most part, were looking down on the Sudanese from their powerful imperial pedestal. In effect, the British cameras became a deforming prism that produced images of Sudanese people, not as they were, but as the English saw them. Take this image for example: a young girl, standing upright in an open courtyard, one hand on the hip as in a motionless curtsy.  She is starting at the camera, revealing her body dressed in a fringed leather skirt (rahat). Does this picture reflect her true self? I would wager not. The look in her eyes shows much discomfort, her body is tense and rigid, posed in an attitude that looks completely unfamiliar to her. She has probably been waiting in this courtyard for a long time, with other unmarried girls, by a white man and his entourage, who later on printed tens of pictures of these girls’ portraits.  Does she even know why? Does she know that her likeness will be shown to hundreds of people as an example of the “Sudanese racial type”?

This “Modern lens” section of the blog will host many pictures of Sudanese people, some taken at the beginning of the 20th century, some much later, some only yesterday. But at no point do I wish to give credit to the racist views and classifications in vogue in the West during colonisation. I cannot give a voice to these long-gone people, but maybe their descendants can talk for themselves. This is why I am happy to relay the great work of so many young Sudanese avid to promote their cultural heritage, such as Sudanese Culture. They are a great resource for images of modern textile and clothing practices. 

A few months ago, a short video was posted on YouTube as part of Project Sudan’s 100 Years of Beauty. The main focus is fashion of course, but the video also says much about power, politics, gender, and the construction of cultural identities through one’s clothing…like the young girl’s picture. Except, this time, it is through a Sudanese lens.

Tags : clothingcolonialismcultural identitymodernsudan
Elsa Yvanez

The author Elsa Yvanez

I am an archaeologist, researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen University.