third day in Bamako

You are dressed like him
You look like him
You speak his tongue
You think like him
You’re just as clumsy in your foreign ways.

Wole Soyinka

I have been thinking about a question all these days: are we oriented or disoriented?
The most interesting part of the Orientation Trip has been precisely its ability to relocate us in areas that exceed their own reality. Istanbul, Lagos and Bamako are those kinds of cities where it is easy to get lost. The proportions and human complexity permits this. A trip includes, always, the experience of being lost. The best way to find yourself is to confront and bring sense to strangeness. So, and again, after this Orientation Trip, do you think that we will be able to say something important because this disoriented situation?

I’m sure others in the group have a better head to sort the ideas and images that we have unveiled this final trip days. For me it is always impossible to condense so much information. I’m slow. I’m not so structured because my heritage of fragile systems or the lack of them. Also I have this personal mania that blocks me when I’m in front of intense, rich and varied surfaces. They come out like visions that are enough to saturate the mind with information and meaning waiting to be decoded. Mali is one of these visions. Here the interweaving of images is immense. During our visit to the National Museum of Mali I could recognize the importance of textiles in a particular political moment. Trough two exhibitions, one of contemporary design and a permanent show of textiles and historic ways of dying, also took me back to my country, Guatemala, where cotton and textiles as well are important cultural and symbolic products. The same use of indigo, the weaving and meanings that come out of textiles are determined by different environments but with the same needs to recognize an identity.

For Mali activist, Aminata Traore, cotton and textiles acquired a central place in the discussion of self-recognition of people when the country is going through many economic and social difficulties. Tracing the importance of these elements in Mali’s history is the possibility to bring back a relation with certain values, specifically the ones that can build ethics. Contemporary times speed and quantity of information and experience is overwhelming us because the levels of mobility are higher than before. So those like us that are “best situated” impose our vision of the correctness. But sharing mental spaces and looking for connectivity opens a wider possibility to understand the meanings and particular developments of contemporary cultures in the peripheries.

After the visit to the museum, designer Cheik Diallo took us to an unimaginable and unconventional place. Trough dusty and muddy streets, in the middle of popular neighbourhoods, we found ourselves in a countless number of situations, persons and workshops of tinsmiths and scrap recyclers. The sound of hammers hitting metal draws a landscape by itself, a “fuerza literaria” opens doors for the most bizarre stories. Also you can speculate about reactions of musicians as John Cage or Tijuana’s electronic music group Nortec in this hypersound experience, the opposite of any kind of Zen evocation or the dignifying of horror vacui. Only after the measures of my own paranoia and familiarity issues, I am able to look more deeply and recognize an alternative structure of economic issues. Chaos is appearance. Like “ready made ready” pushing to be interpreted, the stacking order of objects, the distribution of tasks, the respect of areas for recycling, of melting metals and the distribution of specific areas for waste conform a map of ways of understanding and developing work processes and, of course, one of the universes of men in Mali. Again, Aminata Traore appears in my head with her highlighted discussion about recycling objects from the first world, by and for the consumption of third worlds. Being lost, in the middle of this no place, has a potential proposal for a Fernando Meirelle’s movie, maybe a second Cidade de Deus.

Lost in the aim of translation, trying to understand an experience with epic dimensions… I only have the strength to recognize one of the most urgent discussions for contemporary societies, related to environment and how the use and abuse of its resources is determining more and new boundaries of hostility and discrimination. The new industries of recycling objects in Latin-America, India, Bamako, Lagos and other points of the planet becomes a metaphor that emerges between the negotiations of waste, the one that comes from capitalism and ends in the hands of depressed societies. Trough the eyes of the workers of Mali I can see the ones of Guatemala. In this point the trip does not bring out the sense of otherness but the one of sameness.

– Rosina Cazali

Searching for words to share our impressions, the schedule of the trip demanded us to continue. In the afternoon, the group was welcomed by the vice president of the Conservatoire des arts et métiers multimedia. Brief introductions from our part were followed by an introduction of the history of the conservatory and the architecture of the building.

The conservatory opened its doors in 2005 with three departments; fine arts, music and dance. Today it welcomes 217 students, divided over 6 departments, as in the past years the departments of theatre, multi media and management were added. Admission into the school is selective: Every year a contest is organized through which 10 students per department are chosen. The school benefits from state funding.

In a brief tour of the campus, we witnessed a rehearsal of the music department, in full preparation of a spectacle. We visited the mediatèque, numerous multimedia classrooms, music and recording studios and met a number of instructors from France and Spain, who in two-week workshops, deepen the skills of the students in the different departments.

Before leaving, director of the conservatory and artist Abdoulaye Konate showed us one of his works as a teaser to the studio visit of tomorrow.

After a brief intermezzo, we were invited into the home of the cultural and political attaché from the Netherlands: Astrid de Vries, where we contemplated our Mali-encounters with a number of familiar and new  faces.  Conversations continued later on in a little restaurant called Savana, where a singer brought out the classic song about comandante Che Guevera. As divine presences, the iconic Che Guevara from Korda, a recycled Bob Marley and Obama are stuck in the altar of irony and modernity.

– Karen Verschooren and Rosina Cazali


Images of the third day in Bamako

Meeting with Samuel Sidibe of the National Museum of Mali

So Masiri exhibition at the National Museum of Mali

Meeting with the Minister of Culture

At the Conservatoire des arts et métiers multimédia

Abdoulaye Konaté, director of the conservatoire, showing one of his works

Reception with the local art scene at the home of Astrid de Vries from the Dutch Embassy

L’agencement artistique et l’articulation de la responsabilité sociale

La journée de 9 mars a commencé par l’envoi d’une photo d’Aminata Dramane Traoré sur le réseau social Facebook. Je l’ai envoyée avec un commentaire en arménien dans lequelle je la qualifiais de Reine de l’Afrique. Par cet envoi sur le réseau je voudrais plutôt contribuer aux discours artistiques et intellectuels. Initiés depuis une quinzaine d’années, ces discours sont toujours vibrants, touchant des questions identitaires liées au genre, au corps et aux enjeux féminins qui se renforcent surtout à l’occasion du 8 mars, la journée des femmes. Là-bas aussi, dans les milieux intellectuels d’Arménie on voit le même enthousiasme élitiste et la même sincérité pénétrante de la parole révélée hier dans l’intervention de Mme Traoré.

On l’a rencontrée la veille et cette rencontre a produit une impression profonde sur les participants d’Orientation Trip. Son intervention  présentait une réflexion critique dont l’exactitude et la clarté de position  étaient remarquables. Le point principal de sa prise de parole portait sur la politique mondialisante de l’économie néolibérale qui ne faisait que construire des ponts sur le fleuve Niger, sans aucun investissement dans le secteur industriel ni responsabilité sociale, poussant ainsi à l’appauvrissement des pauvres et à l’enrichissement des riches, et produisant une inégalité croissante. Un autre point fut la critique des Fondations internationales dont l’inertie simule les enjeux féministes des décennies passées (les discours sur l’égalité politique des femmes dans une société où leurs pères, leurs époux, leurs frères mêmes souffraient du manque de travail et de l’impossibilité de gagner leur vie).

Le propos  de l’ancienne ministre de la Culture du Mali  m’a touché aussi par sa capacité à relier les territoires du discours, celui des réflexions critiques à celui des pratiques. Ces activités politiques, économiques, culturelles et artistiques sont entreprises pour répondre à plusieurs questions: Comment diminuer les valeurs consuméristes qui aliènent l’individu à son environnement local ? Comment le responsabiliser en lui donnant le goût de participer au changement social ?

La journée qui commençait aurait dû illustrer plutôt la possibilité d’une telle rencontre  initiée par l’activité artistique de la créatrice malienne Awa Meité (la fille d’Aminata). Elle aurait dû ressembler à une promenade hors de Bamako, dans la région appelée Koulikoro dans le petit village de Chô dont la prononciation correcte m’est inconnue (Hormis ce voyage, Dilara et Hacco n’ont rien programmé ce jour là). Au petit matin j’ai aperçu, de la fenêtre de ma chambre, Krishna nageant dans la piscine du Grand Hôtel (je lui ai promis de le rejoindre, mais ce ne fut pas le cas, trop pris par mes réflexions).

Donc tout va bien. On est prêt à y aller.  

Mais cela nous a pris un certain temps avant que le chauffeur de bus trouve le bon chemin pour sortir de Bamako. Et cela fut suffisant pour que les participants puissent être engourdis sous les rayons de soleil et de chaleur. Bas, comme toujours vigilent pour n’importe quel mouvement, n’a pas raté sa chance de documenter quelques-unes des participantes (Jantine, Ana) déjà bien assoupies.  

Quelques dizaines de kilomètres, le long du chemin bordant le Niger, suffisent pour qu’on puisse embrasser toute l’étendue de l’échelle physique ce pays. L’aridité de son sol ocre rouge aurait été étouffante sans les bords basaltiques du Niger dont les inondations annuelles auraient dû laver cette mince couverture de terre brulée. Mais elle incarnait aussi les côtés visibles et invisibles de la vie sociale et culturelle malienne, la pauvreté accablante et la misère désespérante auxquelles les maliens opposaient leur courage, leur inventivité et la force de leur imaginaire.  

C’est ainsi qu’on arrive à Chô.

L’investissement d’Awa dans ce village consiste en une manufacture organisée sur un morceau de terre délimité par une barrière de paille. Un pavillon est construit au centre de cet enclos, abritant sous son ombre quelques dizaines de femmes. Quelques une sont en train de filer, les autres tissent. On voit parfois des enfants sur les dos des jeunes femmes.

On est donc tout au début du chemin. Comme nous l’a expliqué l’un des rares hommes dans cet endroit de travail : il n’existe que la phase de filage et de tissage réunis sous le toit de paille de cette cabane. La teinture, la couture et la broderie vont suivre, mais ceci déjà fut suffisant pour la mise en œuvre d’un festival nommé « Rencontre »autour du coton. Il a eu lieu deux jours avant de notre visite.  

Le coton est donc une part importante de la fierté de l’agriculture malienne. Il est aussi par excellence une matière première qui structure les arts appliqués de ce pays. Plusieurs artistes l’investissent en réarticulant, dans différents accessoires de meubles (rideaux, nappes, tapis, couvertures), sa qualité naturelle d’absorbtion de la lumière et de révélation de zones de tranquillité esthétique dans les intérieurs d’un habitat contemporain. Et on voit une habilité dont les techniques anciennes se réactualisent pour créer des formes pures de design contemporain.

 Dans sa création personnelle, Awa a voulu dépasser ces limites pour créer toute une chaîne de travail avec le coton. En ce sens, son geste s’accompli sur différents axes et modalités. En tant qu’artiste elle contribue à la maintenance et transmission des savoir-faires traditionnels dans l’élaboration du coton (filage, tissage, teinture). Mais créant des possibilités de travail pour quelques dizaines de femmes du village, elle dépasse le but de la pratique artistique ciblée sur la production d’un objet. La pratique, dans son déroulement même, crée un tissu de discours critiques (féministes, alter mondialistes) dans lesquels sont  bien lisibles les figures de l’activité sociale, de l’économie alternative et du plaisir esthétique de vivre.

Comment se conjugue l’art contemporain en Afrique ? Est-il possible de le définir ? Cette question dominante semble moins problématique quand elle s’encadre dans une question plus générale :   Qu’est-ce que l’art contemporain ?. Quelque part  en Europe,  plusieurs initiatives ont cherché à produire un art qui n’a ni objet, ni auteur, ni spectateur non plus.

 Une des femmes proposa de s’essayer au travail de fileuse. Il était curieux de regarder comment une européenne (Dilara) pouvait se débrouiller et se réaffirmer dans cet effort élémentaire, créant une longueur de fil à partir d’une boule de coton.

Nazareth Karoyan

9 march: Cotton weaving & texile industry in Mali

Awa Meite is a fashion designer. She draws her inspiration from African and Malian craft traditions, and has a strong preference for working with locally produced materials, which she uses as a basis for her contemporary designs. She has been described as a designer who ‘loves to dress women and make them feel bold, free and beautiful’, which seems like an accurate – if somewhat cheesy – description of the effect her designs can have on you. She has designed clothes for, amongst others, Salif Keita and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Mali is the leading cotton producer in sub-saharan Africa. Awa Maite developed a strong love for it and is using it for instance to make cotton jewelry. At the same time, she is bent on improving the position of women in Mali and on working in an environmentally responsible way. These intentions combined resulted in her establishing a foundation called l’Association Routes du Sud. It aims to encourage production and processing of organic cotton, to empower women, and to promote high-quality local products. For a little over a year now, the foundation has been running a pilot project in the village of Chô, where they have set up a weavery which is operated by the women living near it. In addition to that, once a year the festival “Rencontres autour de coton” takes place in Chô. The festival is to be an annual meeting point in Mali for designers, producers, craftsmen, and buyers.

While in Bamako we have seen a lot of contemporary design being made using local products and production methods in inventive ways: Playfully stylish inventive furniture by Cheik Diallo, or fabrics made by Aida Duplessis which smell really good because fragrant weeds are woven into the fabric. l’Association Routes du Sud however seems to be the only producer who visibly makes the wellbeing of the individuals who help them produce their work not just a concern but one of the reasons for their existence. Making a good product and improving life on a socio-economical level in a small way really do seem to be interwoven here.

We went to visit the weavery, which is about two hours driving away from Bamako – our first glances of non-urban life on this trip so far. I was amazed at the size of the mosques on the way, which are the smallest ones I’ve ever seen – shed size, really. When we arrived at the weavery, all the women who work there were present to show us what they were doing and how. Personally, I get a bit awkward when a visit turns into a demonstration. It’s not a dominating feeling, just something you feel glide by from a corner of your head. I think it is because the demonstration setting makes one of our least-favourite group identities stand out: that of a white, wealthy group of visitors who point their lenses at a bunch of things, try to figure out a little bit how this thing we are visiting works but fail, and then jump in their bus again to disappear amidst a cloud of totally undeserved gratitude.

My perception of our group identity shifts depending on the kind of visit we undertake: We can go from eager students to critical colleagues to curators or sociologists and back all within one day easily. The visits we do often involve quite some preparation for the institutions who receive us, and all of us I think are eager not just to find the information we are looking for but also to engage as much as we can with the places we visit, to get the most and also to return the most, to find entry points in each others occupations. And because when we are mainly watching a demonstration we remain relatively passive, we are also less able to give something back in a direct, personal manner by interacting. (Not all of us respond in the same way of course; Bas for instance will often just wander away). Visits which revolve around or wind up as conversations are different: Conversation goes both ways, and throwing yourself into a conversation and genuinely exchanging questions and ideas is an excellent way to give all kinds of stuff to each other in exactly a direct, personal manner.

Having said that, it was great to watch all the bustling energy in the weavery. Most women work here one day a week, yet now they were here all at the same time so it was crammed with ladies and babies.

the weavery in Cho

The hand-made machines were intricate. Most women work here one day a week, and it must be a good meeting point for them. Some of them have families, others don’t: The weavery isn’t geared toward a specific group.

While it is set up in order to empower women, the supervisor was male. I wonder if he feels like a chef or if he merely spends his days being slightly intimidated.

At this point the process is mastered from the cleaning of the raw cotton to the weaving of the fabrics. The idea is that the same group of women will also learn to die the fabrics and to sew clothes. That does mean it will take several years for production to really take off; I wonder if the women involved would have the stamina to continue for so long without clear results. Maybe there are small projects in between, it was hard to find out how this works exactly.

A little bit more about the cotton itself: The foundation is also producing its own cotton, and is doing so in an environmentally correct way. For instance by using natural pesticides (goats pee! Powdered Neem!) and by making sure they rotate the patches of ground they use for growing it so that the ground doesn’t get exhausted.

After the visit we drove back slowly, making a long pitstop for extraordinary chicken and generally taking it easy. In these surroundings, it was impossible to do otherwise.

driving alongside the Niger river

– Jantine Wijnja

Trip to Chô, in the Koulikoro region where they organise the annual festival Rencontres autour du coton

Ready to leave for Chô

On the road

On the road

The cotton

Weaving the cotton

Preparing the cotton

Preparing the cotton

Preparing the cotton

Lunch on the way back to Bamako

To have information is a fundamental right

On the way in the plane from Lagos to Bamako I read a short interview with the well known Nigerian writer Wole Soyinkna (1934). He was asked whether anything had changed in Nigeria the past ten years and gave a very pessimistic answer: no, not terms of health care, not in terms of the wide spread corruption and not in terms of the economical democratisation. He only gave one spark of hope for Nigeria: the development of art & culture in his country.  Soyinka didn’t say it in so many words; I soon came to realise that culture and art are regarded as an important tool for the development of society (economical, cultural, societal) in Africa. It can be used as a means to educate the people, to give them self esteem, to develop their creative potential and so on. And this makes me wonder: what is  actually the position of art in this entanglement of culture-development-economy? Or to put it in other words: seen from an European perspective of the so-called ‘autonomous and critical art practice’ it is kind of politically incorrect to make art into an instrument of education or social and economic development. I agree with that, but being here forces me to at least rethink this position. And there’s also this other problematic aspect that I’m very familiar with as an art critic because its pervades the discussion already for many years: the gap between local and global economies and communities. It’s mostly a discursive subject, we TALK about it a lot, but visiting Africa has turned this up side down: the theory-part is far away, but the effects of it on daily life are all the more pressing.

Having spend one day in Bamako now, Lagos seems far away. Whereas Lagos is an extreme busy and nervous city, were you tend to put on your survival mode at once, Bamako is much more aloof. We got a very warm welcome at  Soleil d’Afrique (, who put up a complete performance for us. Soleil d’Afrique was established about ten years ago as an artist association with financial support of amongst others the Prince Claus Foundation. This was also an outcome of the so-called RAIN network, established at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. The RAIN Artists’ Initiatives Network started out from the Rijksakademie at the end of the nineties. It was set up as a worldwide platform interconnecting artists’ initiatives that have been set up by alumni in Africa, Asia and Latin America. RAIN as such doesn’t exist anymore, but has become part of the program Arts Collaboratory ( a programme for the support of visual artist-led initiatives in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and for the exchange between these and visual arts organisations in the Netherlands. The main focus of Soleil d’Afrique is to promote the exchange between artists in Mali and between Malawian artists and other countries. Although they have an exhibition space, they are not so much focused on providing an exhibition program, but on organising regular workshops and discussions, preferably with international guests and teachers. An example of this is FAIVA, Festival Africain d’ Images Virtuelles Artistiques, which apart from a professional exchange, wants to create an awareness among Malian artists of the use of new media.

Although these kind of programs are very important, the questions remains however whether artists will really change their habit of using mainly traditional techniques. As Nelson Oliver (artist of Soleil d’ Afrique) stated, the real problem is the conservative art market. apart from a small market for the famous African photographers, African collectors only want to buy paintings and sculptures, so going for the experimental stuff means not being able to sell anything in a climate where there is no funding for the arts whatsoever. Nevertheless a thriving scene of contemporary photography is developing in Lagos now and also in Mali there are some interesting contemporary photographers. This i think has everything to do with the democratizing power of the medium itself. Photography is a medium that lacks a fixed position in the arts in terms of high or low: it can be both. Artists can make use of it in a commercial and autonomous way so they can surpass the conservative collectors in their own country and try to find a more international platform.

There are also other interesting developments going on in Bamako. We visited the Centre de la Bande Dessinee in Bamako, a non-profit organisation set up in 2002 by the artists Massine Tounkara and Julien Batandeo, later joined by  Georges Foli and Papa Diawara. Their main focus is to promote cartoons and find a way to get the cartoon album acknowledged as an artistic expression. In Mali newspapers make use of cartoons a lot. It is a good way of telling stories to people who can’t, or don’t like to read the whole newspaper. But whereas the cartoon finds an easy distribution in the newspaper, selling or distributing albums is far more difficult. Printing is no problem, the public is also there somewhere, but getting it distributed is almost impossible. The artists therefore decided to concentrate on organising a yearly festival, and try to work on creating some kind of demand for the cartoon albums. They also do more commercial assignments for NGO’s who use the cartoons for educational purposes and health care issues. Their autonomous albums are also focussed on telling stories, but of course in much more expressive and personally engaged manner. In that sense ‘story-telling’ is a very important aspect for artists in Nigeria and Mali. Photographers as well as cartoonists are focussed on ‘telling the stories of everyday life’, societal issues go along with that in a very natural way. And so you could say that they are a part of the so-called ‘documentary turn’ without even knowing it, or perhaps maybe even having instigated it in some way or the other.

Centre de la Bande Dessinee

After having visited the textile designer Aida Duplessis ( the most impressive part of the day – and I think I can speak here for the whole group – was definitely the talk of and the discussion we had with ‘powerwomen’ Aminata Traore. Aminata Dramane Traoré (born 1942) is a Malian author, politician, and political activist. She served as the Minister of Culture and Tourism of Mali from 1997 to 2000. She is a prominent critic of globalization and the economic policies of the most developed nations. Specifically, she has voiced opposition to the Western countries’ subsidization of their own cotton farmers, which leaves West African countries at a disadvantage in competing for space in Western markets. Her latest book is ‘L’Afrique humiliée’ (Éditions Fayard, 2008), in which she criticises the neo-colonialist – and according to her – racist policy of Nicolas Sarkozy towards Africa. It almost impossible to summarize her talk and the discussion we had with her as a group, within the context of this blog. So I have filmed 15 minutes of our meeting with her, to give an impression of this incredible inspiring meeting. Have a look at:

Going back to what i first wrote in this blog: the gap between local population and global economic developments, what most struck me of Aminata Dramane’s talk is the need to inform local people what is going on in terms of the economic power structures and relations between the North and the South. ‘If Europe wants to be solidary with Africa, they should acknowledge that we are ready to develop our own economy. Now the people just consume, by consuming they think they are  taking part in the global prosperity. But they don’t, they are just consumers. Everything starts with knowledge, and being able to see the link between consumerism and the global economy. But this discussion hasn’t even been raised. To have information is a fundamental right.’

– Ingrid Commandeur

Our first day in Bamako

Hama Goro at Soleil d'Afrique

Centre de la Bande Dessinée de Bamako

Textile designer Aida Duplessis

Meeting with Aminata Traore

More images will be on Flickr tonight! And a written account will be online soon.