The Art of Sin
Stripping and denying identities is an unbearable form of violence artist Ahmed Umar knows intimately well. As an openly gay Sudanese man, his homecoming, as portrayed in the documentary The Art of Sin (2020), is one of sorrow, while his aspiration—to see his mother again—is heartfelt. “People should be fair and treat you as a human being,” he proclaims, channeling a hope which resonates through the film.
The Art of Sin, directed by Ibrahim Mursal, centers on understanding Umar’s public Facebook announcement of his sexual identity and the personal and cultural ramifications of this decision. Mursal, a Somali-Norwegian-Sudanese filmmaker, is intrigued by Umar’s outward-facing persona. Mursal directly grappled with the significance of Sudanese social taboos as he embarked on this project. Umar’s identity feels entirely “alien” to Mursal, who grew up as a religious man. Facing him on camera, Mursal tells Umar, “As a Muslim, I don’t understand you.” Mursal told me that he had to prepare his family for the film’s release, “It felt to me like a necessary challenge and journey I had to take, to grow as a person and filmmaker.”
The Art of Sin moves from vignettes of Umar’s life in Norway to his emotionally-charged visit to Sudan after a decade of absence, followed by his eventual return to Norway. At every step, Mursal follows him. The two men are similar ages. Their relationship evolves from Mursal’s initial prejudices and curiosity towards mutual respect and empathy. Their interaction is a testament to the possibility of overcoming intolerance and hate, even in deeply entrenched patriarchal societies and in spite of upbringings that consider masculinity as singular, not plural.
Umar sought refuge in Norway in 2008, where he settled to pursue his cross-disciplinary artistic practice. Triggered by a cousin who posted homophobic content on social media, he “came out” in 2015—a term he chooses to convey to Mursal in English rather than his native Arabic. This action, the culmination of years of rumination, has profoundly altered Umar’s creative process and life.
Umar’s live performance called If you no longer have a family, make your own in clay (2013) arose from the desire to find a world that wouldn’t reject him for who he is. In the aftermath of his announcement, many of Umar’s friendships and family relations fell apart. In this isolation, far from home, he created a new community of clay statuettes and shared a longing for acceptance with his audience. In response to a family member who told him he was as good as dead to her, Umar created a life-sized sarcophagus in What Lasts! (Sarcophagus) (2017). He converts pain into art.
At the time of his announcement, sodomy was a punishable offense in Sudan and, if repeated, subject to the death penalty. His Facebook post echoed far and wide in the Sudanese community and amounted to a social deflagration. An openly, unapologetically gay Sudanese man was unheard of until then. Furthermore, Umar comes from an influential religious family from the Sufi branch of Islam. His post shocked. And though messages of support reached him, it is the insults and messages of hate which abounded most.
In the first half of the film set in Norway, Umar stages his own representation of gender-fluidity by borrowing male and female codes. Umar aestheticizes his body in the manner of an adjustable canvas. His hair is a symbol of literal growth and confidence while his dandy attention to detail betrays perfectionism, thus culminating in a recherché appearance. His jewelry, headgear, kohl-smeared eyes and accessories always carry a nod to Sudanese culture and channel playful seduction. We wonder to what extent these efforts overcompensate for trauma, attempting to reassert his Sudanese-ness as if it needed external persuasion and continuous validation. Through the expression of his personal identity, we recognize a visceral need for freedom, light, and contact with others—especially family.
And it does take a lot of character and strength to “be” Ahmed Umar. Even a fleeting moment of joy during the Oslo Pride Parade—which Mursal watches from a distance—ends tragically. A group of men beat Umar after the march. He ends up in the hospital and looks at Mursal and the camera with the tired glance of someone who has been in this situation many times before. We are reminded (as if one needs a reminder) that hate invites itself to every party.
In the second half of the movie, we travel to Sudan—to the origins and continued source of Umar’s love and hurt. Umar undergoes a difficult physical transformation prior to his long-awaited return. He shaves his head. He is visibly nervous and struggles to hide his emotions. He misses family members whom he may not see again for several years. “This is my country,” he simply says, as people answer when asked why they love the person they love. They just do.
Mursal doesn’t share how it feels for him to accompany Umar, the risks and inner ramblings that he faces. But we see that he is weary of his surroundings. Umar’s appearance is problematic. Beyond the tight sweater he wears, we quickly understand that Umar himself is problematic—in the way he moves and behaves. His difference stands out and becomes a concern for those around him in a place where social norms seldomly allow deviation or originality.
We long to see his family reunion. Umar’s father passed away before his announcement, and while his mother eventually came to terms with his sexual identity, guilt, shame, and maintaining public standing weigh heavily upon her. We see Umar entering his house. The door is left ajar and behind it, he meets a silhouette, which we guess is his mother. Their intimate moment of reunion remains outside the gaze of the camera—as it should be.
While in Sudan, Umar initiates a new photography project to document the underground LGBTQIA+ community. Men and women agree to be photographed in a way that preserves their anonymity. Umar stands in front of them and symbolically offers his body as a shield so that they emerge as his shadow. Subjects interviewed as part of Umar’s photography project share tales of violence. For them, to exist is often a burden. Mursal told me that specific security precautions were taken.
Moments when Umar and Mursal reflect on history, tradition, and mythology are illuminating and connect past with present––exploring reconstructed narratives and the possibility to inscribe oneself beyond limits. Umar takes Mursal to Al-Bajrawiya, an archaeological site with Nubian pyramids north of Sudan’s capital city.
The remains of ancient Nubian sites are part of Sudan’s heritage. In front of this spectacular backdrop, Umar basks in the cinematic solar embrace of a golden hour hue. Wearing a traditional robe, Umar looks free and child-like in the desert. We forget for a moment the hospital scene, the pain and rejection he endures. Umar recalls to Mursal how ancient, traditional societies, including the Nubians, tolerated homosexuality and even ritually cross-dressed, suggesting that this forgotten history does run deep in the Sudanese culture in which he is so immersed. We imagine for him a life where he didn’t have to leave his beloved country to stay alive and exist. “Let’s be honest, Sudan doesn’t want you, or someone like you,” Mursal tells him matter-of-factly. When the documentary touches upon Sudan and belonging, and the tension between his queer and Sudanese identities, we feel Umar’s vulnerability peeking through the artifices of performance and theatricality.
Since Umar’s homecoming visit, Sudan has witnessed tremendous transformation, most especially with the removal of the nearly-30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Although Mursal focuses on Umar’s journey, his camera also acknowledges the collective cry of Sudan’s youth yearning for radical change. Included in the documentary is a moment when Umar watches video footage of the 2019 popular protests on a small screen. Next, Umar pays tribute to Alaa Salah, who was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. Umar’s art is not only intimate but also part of a political conversation.
In July 2020, the new transitional government of Sudan abolished the death penalty for offenders convicted of repeated sodomy. But it’s not decriminalized. More recently still, in October 2021, a military-led coup d’état abolished the fragile power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian-led administration, and threatens to see a return to a rigorous interpretation of Islam. According to a 2019 survey across North Africa and West Asia, only 17% of Sudanese respondents considered homosexuality acceptable.
Umar is now a Norwegian citizen. In his naturalization ceremony, he belongs and he is accepted. Mursal was surprised at the positive reactions to the trailer in Sudan, which suggests that society may be slowly opening up to diversity and plural, co-existing identities. The Art of Sin premiered at the Bergen International Film Festival in 2020. C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn offered space to view the documentary in October 2021. Upcoming screenings will be posted on the film’s Facebook page.