Safia Elhillo on Art, Identity, and Belonging

Safia Elhillo on Art, Identity, and Belonging February 13, 2017

Author and poet, Safia Elhillo

Exploring faith, race, and Sudanese identities in Black History Month

Republished by Guest Author Isra El-Bashir, whose original interview can be found here.

A wanasa1 with Safia Elhillo on Art, Identity and Belonging

I often reflect on the ominous state of racial tensions in the U.S. and how it helped to solidify my identity and engagement with society. As a Sudanese American anthropologist and an educator, I began to reexamine my priorities and commitments because much of my research and personal struggles were ensnared in Arab and American racism. I began to address tropes of identity and citizenship at conferences, but I always felt limited with my ability to truly effectuate change. However, as time went on, and my experiences in the museum world evolved, I realized that art as a medium, as a force that gives meaning, was a platform I was neglecting. Thus, on May 1, 2015, I curated my first exhibition by Sudanese artist, political cartoonist and illustrator, Khalid Albaih—this was also his debut American exhibition. It was the first time I began to critically assess the future of Sudanese art and artists’ contributions, whilst tackling tropes of identity and belonging, which I am so deeply involved with academically.

My ontological voice is often conflicted and heavily nuanced and so I find myself wanting to look beyond the art and into the very soul of the artist; to understand his/her craft; to understand the depth of their identity and whether their sense of being crafts their art, and vice versa. Therefore, I am embarking on a journey that aims to highlight the existential crises many Sudanese American artists face, and to measure the depth of that in relation to their art.  I grapple with answering the questions I often contemplate: Do Sudanese American artists need their own space? Do they belong in the space that Arab Americans occupy? Should they continue navigating between black, Arab, and African diasporic spaces or simply just pick a side?

In talking with Safia Elhillo (SE), I was able to extract a deeper assessment of the intersections of art, identity, and belonging through the perspective of a writer and poet who is Sudanese American “by way of Washington, D.C.,” as her online bio states.  We sat down, for a very twenty-first century interview via Google Hangout and engaged in a wanasa, a casual conversation, on the Sudanese identity, contested belonging, and her work.

IE: How much of Sudan crafts your identity?

SE:  I think about this a lot, because I am very attached to my Sudanese-ness. It is one of the core things that helps me identify myself, but Sudan as a place, as a geographic reality, I don’t have…I go back plenty. There is no metaphysical sense of home going when I visit Sudan. Sudan does not quiet my existential situation happening here when I go back to visit.

There is this dissonance between what I believe my cultural identity to be, and what my geographic reality is and where my geographic home is.  There is a quote by Mahmoud Darwish that I live my life by, “Exile, is a misunderstanding between existence and the borders.”

IE: What is your relationship with Sudan?

SE: Purely as a guest.  Recently. I stopped straightening my hair but it was a ritual that had to go with visiting Sudan. I would exchange my nose hoop with a stud, a bunch of long skirts and scarfs, and would be on a ziyarah (visiting) circuit.  The last time I visited Sudan, I was able to bridge the gap with my two selves. I left my hair as it is, I left my hoop ring, I didn’t go to a single wedding, and I visited poetry events, art galleries, and spent a lot of time with people my age.

IE: How has the Sudanese American identity shaped you as an artist today?

SE: My training, tools and community are rooted in American poetics. The content is where my Sudanese-ness comes to play, but as far as format, literary education, and language itself, it comes more from my American life than my Sudanese cultural reality or cultural imagination.

A lot of what I think about in my work is sort of what it is to be at these intersections of identity and what it means to be in the middle of these hyphenated American identities. So is Sudanese American, Afro-Arab, whatever, whatever. It’s the in-between-ness that fuels much of my work. I am neither here nor there. I need to just set up shop where I am and make home of this liminal space. Otherwise, I am never going to belong.  I accept that I am never going to belong fully to one side or another. Do I even need to? What would happen if I were to just chill where I am, right here in the middle?

IE: The public doesn’t understand the intersections of the Sudanese, Arab and black American identities. So when you submit your work,  how do you navigate the space between an African identity and/or a black identity?

SE: I have found a lot of comfort and a lot of community in choosing to identify as a black artist, as an African artist. I found a lot of familial community within those communities. These communities have never been a source of strife for my existential-crisis-riddled life. There are some opportunities available for Arab Americans, and I have been thinking lately, if I even identify as an Arab American writer, and even the term Afro-Arab, I am starting to think about a little bit. I think when I take a close reading of Afro-Arab, it makes it seem like Arab is the default and African is the modifier and I think it the opposite case, but I will not speak for Sudanese as a whole. In my case, I like the term Arabophone African, but it’s clunky and not cute, maybe we need something else. I am an African person, who speaks Arabic and who as a result of speaking Arabic has Arab cultural tendencies. But I do not racially identify as an Arab. It’s still murky territory for me that I am trying to navigate. I am not into this pursuit of Arab-ness on a national identification level and I am trying to figure out what my politics look like if I act on that on a personal level. Then again, I am not completely throwing away my Arab-ness because it is my reality.  It’s part of my cultural reality and I am not going to throw it away to make a political statement. It’s another one of those in-between spaces. I have experienced and observed a lot of anti-black racism in the Arab world. What would it look like as a black-bodied person in the Arab world to be pursuing that identity? It’s very murky. I don’t have answers yet.

IE: Are you afraid of confusing your audience with your politics of identity? Is it something your audience can reconcile with because identity is fluid?

SE: I don’t think of an audience as I move through the world just because I am introverted and kind of a hermit. And this idea of an abstract mass of people watching me is terrifying. So in order to function and work, I cannot think about what an audience will think about this life choice that I am making.

IE: How do your Sudanese American artistic peers identify?

SE: I found a Sudanese community in my last few years living in New York.  Most identify as black. In the U.S. you don’t get the luxury of choice. If a cop is pointing his gun at you, you aren’t going to say actually I am Afro-Arab! Khalas2! It’s a decision that is made for you most of the time. I haven’t gotten the sense from my Sudanese artistic peers that racial identity has been a source of questioning. I feel that you come to the U.S. with an understanding that there is a limited vocabulary for race and it’s a lot more nuanced than the rest of the world. In the U.S. it is, are you closer to black or white on the spectrum of blackness or whiteness, with an offshoot if your are East Asian. If you do not fit in that spectrum, people don’t know what to make of you or assume that you are mixed.

I stopped torturing myself in trying to fit my whole self into this basic American set of words for race. Khalas! I am black. I am not troubled by that. I don’t think it is an issue to identify with that at all. I am ready to move on to other things that trouble me.

IE: Do you think there is a need to create our own space, or are you comfortable navigating other spaces?

SE: There is a huge lack in my community of Sudanese poets. My Sudanese artists in community are all in other fields, musicians, visual artists, etc. As far as poets, there is Emtithal “Emi” Mahmoud and myself. That’s it. I am sure there are other Sudanese, but this is all who I know. As much as a I would love for there to be a billion Sudanese poets in my black and Arab artistic community, I feel that I don’t have the resources to create that space.

Our wanasa left me wondering about the privilege that Sudanese artists may have, but one that is not easily recognized as a privilege. We are able to circumvent some institutional discriminations based on the community we align ourselves with, and unlike other ethno-specific groups, we straddle a multitude of identities.  Safia may have found refuge with the black poetic community, and may hesitate to align with the highly politicized and sometimes, unwelcoming Arab American community, however, she has a choice. This is a choice that is afforded to us based on our heterogeneity. We can exist in black spaces, Arab spaces (arguably, white spaces), and African diasporic spaces.  When you live in the in-between, can that option of navigating spaces be viewed as a privilege?  Will that bring into question the authenticity of the black self? I leave you with a poem by Safia that beautifully weaves the intersections of identity, belonging, and the internalized struggle of being that many Sudanese in the diaspora struggle with.

1Wanasa means a casual conversation in Arabic.
2Khalas is the Arabic word for “enough.” It is applied in many contexts and in this context, it takes on a casual approach of “enough! What can you do about it?”
3 Abdelhalim Hafez, an Egyptian singer, is considered to be one of the greatest singers out of the Arab world.

Safia Elhillo received a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in poetry at the New School.  Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.  Safia has performed at venues such as TEDxNewYork, the South African State Theatre, the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, and TV1’s Verses & Flow. She is currently a teaching artist with Split This Rock. Safia’s first full-length collection, The January Children, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in 2017.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. For a collection of her work, visit


(Published by One Throne Magazine, Issue 5, April 2015)
i speak the language                 but to learn the words
i learn an accent          that is not mine    i learn
halim could be singing                          of a brown
that is not mine          i am reminded by thick lute music
not halim’s melancholy glamour            here the voices crack
the men squat around drums    in their white cotton جلاليب
the percussion urgent               their accent just like mine

i open my mouth         a man in a cairo shop
tells me i look      too clean to be from sudan
waits for me to thank him         lebanese singer ragheb alama
is my least favorite judge          on arab idol
i watch every week as the brownest
are the first to leave    including my favorite
a dark-lipped nubian    from the egyptian side
who parts his hair to the left       & sings
halim songs                in halim’s voice

when ragheb alama says           sudanese women
are the ugliest in the world                   i am afraid
that i believe him        when i see halim       in a suit
in a ballroom               with an orchestra
i think of glamour       then look at my own brown hands
at my own grandmother           hiking a printed توب
up around her knees                 to wash her feet for prayer

her hair parted in the middle
in two fat braids     coiled around her ears

israIsra El-beshir is a cultural anthropologist, adjunct faculty, avid traveler and Curator of Education and Public Programming at the Arab American National Museum. Follow her on Twitter at @Insignifmortal
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