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Sudanese Designer Malaz Elgemiabby on Ohio City Projects, Conflict in Sudan

Malaz Elgemiabby [Dave DeOreo/ideastream]

Malaz Elgemiabby is designing a new welcome center in Ohio City.

But her heart is with her family living in Sudan, where military forces reportedly killed dozens of pro-democracy protestors this week.

Elgemiabby struggled to reach her family afterwards, but she heard of others reeling from the violence.

“We've had people who have some members of families missing and we can't locate them,” she said. “Some have also lost members of the families, young members as young as the age of 3 years old.”

Elgemiabby left Sudan in 2006 knowing she wouldn’t be able to pursue her dreams there.

“I decided to actually pursue my education outside of Sudan. And then I became more involved in activism,” she said.

Trained in architecture, Elegmiabby has been working in Northeast Ohio for the last three years.

Before moving here, Elgemiabby returned to Sudan in 2015 when her mother was sick. While there, she did a performance-art piece to raise awareness about the issue of mothers abandoning babies born out of wedlock for fear of their own lives.

“By law they are facing two charges, either hundred [lashes] in public, where you have a huge stigmatization. So that means that if she actually escapes the death, death under her own family, you get a societal suicide by doing that. Then it’s stoning to death,” Elgemiabby said.

She made a statement about the issue by inviting government officials to a performance where people in the audience threw eggs at a woman.

“That was sort of like a very provocative work of art that led to… informal arrest warrant under my name, so I had to leave.”

Elgemiabby’s latest project is transforming a former Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority building into an Ohio City community center with LAND studio at West 25 th St. and Franklin Boulevard. The project is part of the Cleveland Foundation's Creative Fusion: Waterways to Waterways grants.  

“I consider myself an accidental artist. But I’m also very versed into community service, and I can't separate the art from the community.”

To get to know the community in Ohio City, she’s attended events ranging from AA meetings to family parties. She even began driving people around via Uber and Lyft.

“I found that method, unusual way for research, very effective, because it allowed for that sort of intimacy and at the same time it helped me learn more about the value of trust,” she said.

From two hundred interviews, she said she learned people value community, diversity, inclusivity and dignity. The latter is the focus of a photography-art project taking place this month.

“We’re taking portraits of the community and displaying them on the exterior of the existing building that's going to be the new welcome center,” she said.

Participants will also have a chance to contribute by taking their own photos using disposable cameras.

Rendering of the outside of the welcome center. [Malaz Elgemiabby]

“They can explore the meaning of dignity through their own lens,” she said.

Reflecting on her experiences living in Northeast Ohio, Elgemiabby said she feels embraced.

As she aches for her native county, she’s hoping people here will take note of what’s happening in Sudan.

“At the end of the day we're all really one community. I don't feel I'm an alien in this place… I’ve felt so welcome. And I would like them to extend that gratitude also to my people and my country,” she said.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.