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UNESCO prize winner promotes peace through performance

Article - October 20, 2015

Sudanese performer and UNESCO Artist for Peace recipient uses theatre as an effective tool for conflict resolution


Like many African countries, arts, crafts, music, and dance are central to Sudanese culture. Such traditional forms of art and expression are deeply representative of its tribal heritage and serve different purposes, both religious and recreational.

However, as an area of the world that has been deeply affected by conflict, one Sudanese actor and theater director has been working to put art to even greater use – to bring peace. Through his work as Director of the SOS Children’s Villages Sudan Project, Ali Mahdi has indeed proved that theater can be an effective tool for conflict resolution and a place for rebuilding and renewal.

Over the past decade, Mr. Mahdi’s project has toured conflict-affected areas of Sudan, showing that exposure to theater, as well as to culture in general, is a powerful ally in reconstructing the dreams and restoring the confidence of children affected by tragic situations.

Thanks to this inspiring work, in October 2012 Mr. Mahdi was officially designated the UNESCO Artist for Peace for a two-year period during an official ceremony held in Paris, following in the footsteps of world-famous stars such as Canadian singer Celine Dion,  a previous recipient of the award.

“The UNESCO Artist for Peace award gave me the opportunity to help not only in Sudan, not only in Africa, but to help internationally,” says Mr. Mahdi.

The star of various Arabic television, radio, theater and movie productions in his 30-year career as an actor, Mr. Mahdi set up his own theater company, The Mahdi Arts Center, in the late 1980s and has been producing independent productions ever since.

It is down to such positive work in his home country that Mr. Mahdi and his theater group have seen a wide gain in international recognition. Aside from participating in different performances across Europe, the idea of using theater as a peace-building device also saw the group appear in La Mama Theater, off-Broadway, New York.

“In New York there was a big international symposium on the role of theater in peace. And my performance was considered a good example of this idea,” says Mr. Mahdi.

It was these performances that first brought Mr. Mahdi to the attention of UNESCO. Back in 2010, two years before he received the Artist for Peace award, the actor was also honored with the UNESCO Freedom to Create main prize, as well as becoming the UNESCO Arab Culture Prize winner for bringing drama performances to the front line and for the promotion of dialogue between Arabic culture and the cultures of the world.

Thanks to his work in Sudan and the Arab world, Mr. Mahdi has additionally become the International Theater Institute’s Vice-President. The International Theater Institute (ITI) is the world’s largest performing arts organization, founded in 1948 by theater and dance experts, as well as UNESCO, and strives for a society in which performing arts and their artists thrive and flourish.