film production + social action

The Sudan Canvas Project – Where Art and Action Mingle

By Evan Pfeiffer

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with seasoned artist Cynthia Davis, on how she made the transition into doing art for a particular purpose. Her story is not only unique but should be an inspiration to all of us on how we can take the skills we have and apply them to a cause in need.

Back in early 2008, Cynthia Davis became interested in why her high school son was lobbying to create awareness for Darfur in Washington.  Davis, a seasoned artist best known for her work in decorative arts, began researching the situation in Darfur. Before long she encountered Gabriel Bol Deng, a lost boy of Sudan, and a man whose life had been scarred by war and exile and yet still shared a remarkably similar sensibility to hers. Soon thereafter, she began collaborating with his organization, Hope for Ariang, vowing to help his efforts to educate and empower women in the native village from which he was chased as a boy in 1987.

In the months and years following her encounter with Gabriel, Cynthia fought tirelessly to raise funds and public awareness for Hope for Ariang – becoming a Board Member in 2009 and playing a major role in raising funds to build the village’s first school. Through her efforts with Hope for Ariang, they raised $300,000 to construct an edifice housing 500 students. But there was more she knew she could do.

When Cynthia was nominated to become a Carl Wilken’s Fellow, a program to raise genocide awareness and build relationships with government representatives, she jumped at the chance and immediately went to DC where she met Rebecca Davis, who had already established a dance company for Darfur and Naomi Natale, an accomplished installation artist, photographer and social activist. They encouraged Cynthia to use her artistic gifts to further her efforts with Hope for Ariang. Through collaboration and with inspiration from these women, Cynthia created a grassroots art collective whose paintings create awareness for the plight of the South Sudanese and whose proceeds go to educate and empower the women of Ariang. She called the collective The Sudan Canvas Project.

In less than a year, forty-two artists have contributed to the The Sudan Canvas Project, many of whom, before their involvement, had barely been familiar with the humanitarian situation in Sudan. To contribute to the project, the artists involved must first gain an understanding of the conflict and engage the suffering and humanity of their subjects. The purpose of this is to inspire the artists to take action, because after delving into the lives and predicaments of the Darfuris, the artists become complicit in the efforts not just to raise awareness but also to actually do something about it – symbiosis between art and politics.

More than just paintings, the exhibit contains a number of photographs and interviews with women from the village – offering a detailed account of their lives and struggles. Such, Cynthia says, is the threefold purpose of the event: to create awareness, to educate and to empower the women of Ariang. Taken together, she hopes the exhibit will be a powerful call to action. Among the works will be one of her own – a painting in which three women lift their weathered arms in jubilation to welcome the return of a distant son. They were celebrating the return of Gabriel Bol Deng, the lost boy who had returned after twenty years in the wilderness to rekindle the flame of hope for Ariang.

You can visit the exhibit on November 27th in Connecticut. Click here for more information.

A native of Saint Louis, Missouri, Evan has studied in Washington, New York, London and Paris, worked in Buenos Aires and Calcutta and lived in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, Latin American, the Indian Continent and the Middle East. A historian by trade, he hopes to write, travel, talk and take pictures for a living.