Long bullet-shaped earrings dangled from her ears. On her right index finger rested a ring creatively made from a spoon. Yes; a spoon.
Erica Jong, American novelist and poet once said that everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places it leads.
Well, Abul Oyai is not any exception. She has talent and her talent is painting.
The ornaments she adorned herself with for this interview spoke volumes of her artistic prowess. They show that Abul, without having to see her artworks, is an artist. Many would argue that she violated the ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ rule.
The portrait of independence
A few months leading to the declaration of the independence from the Sudan in 2011, an idea hit her. By then, she was in the United Kingdom, London to be specific, pursuing her studies.
The idea that crossed her mind was all about a gift – what she would present South Sudanese on 9 July for having overwhelmingly voted for separation.
“As an artist, what’s it that I can do to South Sudan to celebrate the independence,” she said to herself.
Well, she bought herself acrylic paints and other drawing materials and started painting a piece that would take her the next 30 days to complete it. “Ideas kept coming. I kept changing the colors,” Ms Oyai said.
As pictured above, the portrait symbolizes birth of a child and that would be South Sudan. This painting is one of the almost identical works. There is another one in which the baby is naked.
“The baby wasn’t dressed up in the first one (painting) that I did. People were asking why the baby wasn’t dressed up and all of that,” she continued.
Even though nobody is born dressed, she heeded their advice and painted another piece (the one in the picture).
Upon completion, she flew all the way from London to Juba where she presented it to President Salva Kiir Mayardit. It’s now one of the mural paintings at the State House.
The other painting, ‘the naked newborn’, was taken to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
Who is Ms Oyai?
Ms Oyai was born to a South Sudanese father and Ethiopian mother in Gambella, Ethiopia, in the late 80s.
When she was about 4 years old, violence erupted in the region, an incident which greatly impacted on her life.
The devastating attack staged by the anti-government elements also targeted refugees from the then southern Sudan region, the present day South Sudan. The rebels opened fire indiscriminately. This forced the refugees to flee back to South Sudan.
As the whole region was thrown into turmoil and refugees running helter-skelter, Ms Oyai’s paternal grandmother grabbed her by the arm and fled back to Malakal.
This means she lost contact with both her mother and father, who was by the time of the attack was in the frontline somewhere in the Equatoria region, commanding SPLA forces against the Sudan Armed Forces.
Anyway, she moved on. She was sent to Renk to stay with her aunt and later enrolled in primary school.
“I was always in-between. During the holiday, I would go back to the village. Like every child, we would go swimming in the river or go to the forest. My life was good,” she remembered.
In 1997, her father finally located them. He organized a flight for them. By then, the only place where humanitarian aircrafts would occasionally land and take off was the Pigi area of the then Jonglei.
So Ms Oyai and her accompanying relatives trekked for days to an area in Pigi she only remembers as “Ngok”. However, it took them months before a plane landed in the area.
“We waited for 3 months to get a flight to Lokichogio, Kenya,” she recalled.
In Loki, a car was already waiting for them, courtesy of her father. They traveled by road to Mbarara, Uganda, where her father Gen Oyai Deng Ajak was renting a house.
Green Hill Academy, Kampala
This is where it all began – the artist in her. Upon arrival in Uganda, she enrolled in Green Hill Academy, an international school which had a very ‘nice art section’. Here, she began to hone her skills.
Armed with overweening ambition, she started drawing.
“But when you do it in school, you do it to pass exams, to get good grades,” Ms Oyai continued.
But serious painting started when she moved to London to pursue a degree course in International Business Administration.
“I started serious painting in 2010. I went to the art store and bought all the materials I needed and I painted a piece and then sent it to dad…and he liked it,” she added.
Her father encouraged her to go and ahead and paint more often.
“He called and said ‘this is really good’. Since then, I paint whenever I have the time.”
Some of Ms Oyai’s works
Ms Oyai’s mental image of a South Sudanese woman in lau (kinda nationalized Chollo traditional style).
Ms Oyai calls this image ‘Patience’. This is a dedication to the expectant mums. And as the name suggests, patience is all a pregnant mother needs for her to finally hold the baby with her hands. “Or it might be one of the women who got raped and she does not know the father of the child.”
Postcards by Ms Oyai
via Eye Radio