Meet a woman spreading passion for South Sudan’s fine arts

Wafa’a with some of her students at the European Union exhibition

By Viola Matela

Professor Wafa’a Housseini Onyalla, a Lebanese by birth and South Sudanese by marriage is a woman who has dedicated herself all to see the fine arts industry prosper. She has been married to Mr. Youssef  Fulgensio Onyalla, the Director of the National Archive for the past 20 years. The couple moved to Juba in 2006 after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.

Since her arrival, she had a burning passion for the arts that drove her to become a lecturer at the University of Juba, School of Fine Art and Industrial Design where she is now Dean of the school.

“I was part of the staff for Drama, Music at the University of Juba. In 2015, a school was created for Industrial Design and I submitted a complete curriculum but the college will be officially launched soon,” she said.

Two weeks ago, her school in conjunction with the Sudan Programme, a UK registered charity which aims to promote dialogue and understanding between all Sudanese, through conferences, workshops and seminars organized the first Arts conference in Juba.

The unique conference was filled with artistic pieces on display and speeches on how art has been used and can still be used to challenge bad cultural practices as well as promote social cohesion.

Through this seminar, they sought to change perceptions that arts can actually be used as a communication tool to address important issues in societies.

“In this conference, we want to enlighten people about the importance of Art and drama,” Wafa’a revealed.

Having attended many exhibitions around the region as well as in foreign embassies within the country, she and her students have gone as far as being recognized as a rare group of artists.

“Through all these art seminars, we have managed to put our name as Artists of South Sudan in the British Council Institute of East Africa,” Wafa’a said.

“I managed to be recognized with my students as senior artists. These people didn’t know that there was fine art in South Sudan or anything good could come out of here but now every time I go to Dubai, they call me the artist from South Sudan,” she said.

She insists that it is not only external issues they have to contend with but also local ones which they are hopeful they will overcome.

“We don’t have materials. Sometimes when I go abroad, I bring materials or our international friends who bring us colours and brushes like the former Ambassador of the European Union,” the professor said.

Another hindrance to the artists according to Wafa’a is space since they do not have studios or art rooms where they work yet fine arts lectures cannot be properly conducted in the normal classroom setting.

For space challenges, Wafa’a has resorted to using her home gardens for carrying out practical sessions.

“I have a big garden at home so I often send messages on our website that there will be a workshop in my home which they joyfully turn up for,” she added.

“It hurts me to see very talented artists who do not have space to work or art shops to sell their masterpieces,” she confided.

The artist reveals that they have come up with ways to create their own painting canvas to supplement papers and paint given to them by well wishers.

“We now have masterpieces of art and I am very proud of my team,” she cheerfully boasts. They have a lot of potential and talents but have no materials to work.

She said much as they did not have any allocated budget from the university to run most of their plans for expansion and structures, the students often dig into their individual pockets.

“Now we are hoping that the government will support us again at least with very simple materials for us to work,” Wafa’a said.

She relates a case of the former dean of the school who used to bring supplies of colours and papers from Khartoum that could last a whole year.

“We pay from our pockets to do our art. I am very frank with them when we don’t have resources and sometimes I go into my own pocket to see to it that they can work something out,” she related.

Nurturing talent for Wafa’a has meant attending to girls as well as boys over the years.

“We have many talented female artists whom I have worked with since 2006-2009. Some are now based in Nairobi and Kampala. When we open fine art and design school, we shall have them participate in our exhibitions,” said Wafa’a.

She reveals that she has also been approached by some young women who want to enroll in the school and soon their prayer will be answered.

“As peace is coming, we shall teach photography, graphic design, jewelry which were earlier not included in the syllabus,” she explained further.

“I am hoping that we shall be a unique college in East Africa to teach industrial design. That way, I will be fulfilling my dream of coming to South Sudan,” she added.

The Sudan Programme with which she collaborated is a neutral forum that holds events in South Sudan and Sudan, as well as Oxford or elsewhere, where possible bringing together speakers from the two countries. In the 16 years since then, the programme has organized many conferences and seminars in Oxford on political, economic, social and cultural subjects about Sudan and South Sudan for the past 16 years.

Examples of subjects of their past conferences included national dialogue, women writers, borders, conflict resolution, and higher education, to name a few.

Professor Wafa’a during the interview with Juba Monitor

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