Used by women to make Sudanese mulah, a stew of meat, okra, or mulukhiyah leaves (Jew’s mallow), the mufraka is twirled rapidly between the palms to blend ingredients using the spatula base. It is exhausting work.
“An expert connoisseur would taste your mulah and say with distaste that you’ve been using the electric blender and totally taken away the flavor.” Sudan Traditional Food Festival
El-Housh restaurant, photo keepitfeisty
Reworked as form, space and texture, Frédérique Cifuentes’s photograph redefines a domestic object found in every northern Sudanese kitchen. Her suite of photographs below were all taken in El Housh Restaurant, Omdurman and reflect the creative flair of its decor.
Piet Mondrian, Compositor in Red, Blue and Yellow, 1937.42 (MoMA)
Above, rustically anatomical, Sudanese wooden long pestles (madagg) and mortars (funduk). Giant versions are used to pound grain.
See our latest post; Coronavirus – Our Prevention Work
Above, children from Jebel Aulia sharing in our women’s literacy graduation celebrations. With no running water or electricity, their community is highly vulnerable to covid-19.
See Coronavirus Sudan Stepping Back from the Abyss 4 for the impact of lockdown measures on Sudanese women.
Frédérique was kind enough to talk to me about her latest group of photographs from Sudan. Read our conversation below.
All photographs copyright Frédérique Cifuentes.
Intimate Geometry – Photographs by Frédérique Cifuentes
A Little Background – Clear-Eyed Empathy; Frédérique’s Work and In Conversation
Clear-Eyed Empathy; Frédérique’s Work
Frédérique Cifuentes is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and photojournalist who has dedicated much of her artistic focus over the past fifteen years to Arab and Afro-Arab cultural dialogue. She has curated numerous multimedia events on the Sudanese and South Sudanese artistic and cultural scene. Post-conflict recovery and cultural heritage are also central themes in her work. See, for example, her Disappearing Heritage of Sudan, 1820-1956. Sudan’s peoples and their cultural life call her back time and time again.
Watch her documentary here: Disappearing Heritage of Sudan – Vimeo
Below, just some of Frédérique’s photographic documents. Access them in fredcifuentes.com/photography
Frédérique has made documentaries on Sudanese cultural icons such as the filmmaker Gadallah Gubara, the writer Leila Abuleila, the artists Ibrahim el-Salahi and Kamala Ishaq, as well as numerous short films on young Sudanese intellectuals, entrepreneurs and creatives such as the interior designer, Akram Fathi.
From Ibrahim El-Salahi’s series Pain Relief, Saatchi Gallery, London. Photograph by permission. See Birds of the Soul.
She has specialist knowledge of Sudanese Sufism – see Sufi Sheikhs, Sheikhas, and Saints of Sudan, African Arts 41/2:50-59 and among her recent films is The Jews and the longest kiss in history, exploring the personal testimonies of Sudan’s exiled Jewish community.
Photograph above, Sudanese Sufi tomb and pilgrimage site, copyright Frédérique Cifuentes, from Sufi Sheikhs, Sheikhas, and Saints of Sudan, African Arts 41/2:50-59.
Her female hero or “shero” is Fatima Babiker Mahmoud, author of The Sudanese Bourgeoisie, and leading advocate of African womanism. See SHEROES – Frédérique Cifuentes and Fatima Mahmoud Babiker and womanism See Frédérique’s documentaires on Frederique Cifuentes Morgan on Vimeo.
Above, screenshot from Frédérique’s award-winning documentary, Cinema in Sudan: Conversations with Gadalla Gubara. Watch the film here: Cultureunplugged – Cinema in Sudan
Frédérique is also a dedicated educationalist, advising NGOs and volunteer bodies on how to promote and publicize their work. In 2010, she made Sudan Kids Vision, a moving short film collecting the firsthand stories of some of the poorest children attending Sudanese basic schools as they are given cameras and asked to take photos of things that mattered to them. Below, screenshots from Sudan Kids Vision,
Frédérique is currently working on submitting materials to The Sudan Memory project (more on this below), and although very busy, she kindly found the time to talk about her El-Housh series of photographs to this blog
Thank you so much for talking to me today. Could I start by asking you how and when this project germinated.
A couple of years ago I was filming and photographing Omdurman’s historical sites such as the Abdul Kayoum Gate Fort. Just next to the defence sites you can find the restaurant Al Housh overlooking the Nile. So I went in and I was amazed by the wide space, the interior design and settings, the furniture and of course by the large display of traditional culinary pots, tools and kitchen utensils. The food is also very good. It is a great place to eat Sudanese cuisine. I really like the way the restaurant recreated a Sudanese courtyard of a village or a souk layout. So I photographed the culinary objects which are used in the decor.
You have made several films on Sudanese interior designers, jewelers and young creatives. What was particularly appealing to you about the decor and design of El-Housh and the objects you chose to photograph?
I have a passion for craftsmanship and creativity. Craftsmanship is all about telling stories. As you mention, I have tried to capture something of the work of Sudanese artists and designers. I love discovering the story behind a piece, how it was made, the thought of the artist or craftsman that went into it and what did and didn’t make it to the final piece. The decor and design of El-Housh is full of stories. I think the culinary pots and utensils are an important expression of Sudan’s culture. When you see the tangled mufraka or the pile of madagg and funk, you want to know about the hidden workshop that produced them. They are just objects of use but they also represent a living craft and centuries of tradition.
This collection of objects and tools represents many things; from the heritage of craft to the routines of our delay lives as well as the processes and techniques passed through the generations to produce such beautiful tools. This display of everyday household tools is a reminder of the skills and the techniques used in their creation
Sudanese and non-Sudanese viewers might dismiss the objects you photographed as humble or utilitarian. Are you challenging their perceptions in any way?
I can definitely see a real beauty in the economy of these objects that perhaps might be missed and a beauty as they become decor and ornamental kitchen display. Their intrinsic beauty is that they are both practical and aesthetically pleasing.
Gidra pots for slow heating ful beans
All these objects are pristine and unused, rather than dust and charcoal stained. This that significant?
Though the idea is steeped in the past and traditional Sudanese cuisine, both on the domestic and grand scale, the concept is very much one of today and the future, as these objects became the core elements of an interior design model. The message behind this collection of objects could be formulated as “Cooking from the past, made for the future!”
What would you like Sudanese and non -Sudanese viewers to take away from these photographs?
Knowing that many people in Sudan don’t have the time to cook traditional food, I don’t know if these vernacular objects are made for everyday kitchen tasks and busy life. These utensils might not have a modern utility anymore but we should always value the traditions behind them.
Tabaga, or dish coverings.
All of these objects are intimately associated with domestic life and especially Sudanese women’s life. Did that inform your choice of subject at all? Or was it their geometrical and spacial potential? Your Port Sudan Collage also plays with domestic forms in a similar way.
I was attracted by both the symmetry of the design and the approach to everyday living through household tools. The pictures of Port Sudan are very special to me – I was on an assignment with Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger) documenting their nutrition and health programme. My work there was incredibly meaningful for me. After finishing the mission, I stayed on and worked on some personal projects, like the one you mentioned. This was exactly what went on in my mind; what are tools t cook with, what are the materials used to build dwellings, how can I show how people Iive?
From Frédérique’s Port Sudan collection.
There is both humor and affection in your photos, Do they reflect any personal experiences of Sudanese life you have had?
My trips to Sudan always turn into a continuous feast of Sudanese recipes and gastronomy. I like to spend as much time as possible in the kitchen with my friends. The relaxed atmosphere of the kitchen is the best environment for a chat, tasting new gastronomic delights and sometimes challenging my cooking skills. I like being in the kitchen with friends – so much is happening there. What a better way to feel at home.
Jaunty angles of Sudanese teapots.
Finally, could you tell us a little about your current project?
For this, I’ve been revisiting my archive. Reflecting on the past 15 years of my work in Sudan has been quite cathartic! I am very pleased to participate in what is a really interesting project. The Sudan Memory project is a partnership for conserving and promoting Sudanese cultural and documentary heritage. The aim is to digitalize important collections of Sudanese cultural materials for the Sudanese people. These materials are in collections all over the country, in both private and public institutions. Of course the Covid-19 pandemic has seriously affected what I can do but I’m still researching and writing proposals for more photographic and multimedia projects too.
Thank you so much, Frédérique, for talking to the blog about these beautiful photos. We look forward to seeing your work in the Sudan Memory Project and hope the all your other future ventures flourish.
Below, some of our literacy participants.
See Forests and Spirits for more on the groundbreaking Sudanese artist Kamal Ishaq, pictured below.