I wrote a column in Tableau Fine Art Magazine, in Dutch. Read PDF of the article ‘The African Dream’ here.
The African Dream
In recent years I have spent many hours in taxis in Senegal and Mali. After the standard greetings to the driver with a chat about how my day had gone so far, I was always asked if I am married and have children. After having answered all questions professionally with yes, even if it is no, the driver sighs that God is good for me. After some chitchat the key question often arises whether I can arrange an invitation for a visa to Europe.
That’s how I met Boubacar, a young enthusiastic driver in Dakar who showed me photos of friends who made it to Europe. Men in neat shiny suits leaning against an expensive Mercedes with a big smile with a fancy mobile phone in their hand. When asked what kind of work they do and what their life looks like, my driver shrugs and sighs: “I don’t know, but it’s going well, you can see that”. And when I asked what he would like to do once he is in Europe, he says: “I don’t know, there is enough work and money, right? I don’t have a plan, I just go and it will be fine ”.
I brutally take him out of his dream when I say that I know fellow Senegalese men who have no work at all or who work 24/7 to pay for the expensive life in Europe and also support their family in their home country. Boubacar looks at me with wide eyes: “But, don’t those photos show that they have achieved success?”
I tell him about a West African friend who borrows an expensive suit and car to make a nice photo shoot for the home front. I explain that I understand that he does that. The whole family capital has been invested in him to realize the dangerous trip to Europe. So what should that poor migrant do? Exactly, keep up the good appearances, otherwise the mega investment would be in vain. My driver almost forgets to continue at the traffic light when he replies, “No, are you serious? Wow, I didn’t know…”
The taxi stops, more customers are getting into his shared taxi and Boubacar immediately shares his acquired knowledge with the new passengers. Everyone nods in agreement that such a life is sad after all. Of course Boubacar and the other passengers also know the stories and images of the migrants at sea in the boats and overcrowded migrant reception camps, but if you have succeeded, you will make it and the world is at your feet, he concludes with a dreamy look in his eyes.
It is not surprising that migration is often reflected in the visual arts in West Africa. Dramane Diarra from Mali tells me that he also wanted to migrate and that his family was saving money for him: “My life was on hold, everything was about my dream and my future in Europe. I didn’t feel any need to develop in Mali and look for opportunities ”. He was lucky, his talent for drawing earned him a job as a cartoonist at the newspaper and he was encouraged to enroll in the art academy in Bamako. Diarra:“ That changed everything. I seized the opportunity and soon understood that I want to build my future in Mali and now use my work to convey my message about the madness of migration”.
He paints people like machines on huge canvases. Their heads are made of cogwheels and gears, and their bodies are cut off as if they were dolls. The figures are in indefinable spaces and all wear a helmet and work gloves. They are surrounded by alienating surreal objects. Diarra: “I depict humans as machines. Most migrants leave with the idea that they will become managers, but most end up in jobs where they are used for their physical abilities, such as in construction or cleaning. Migrants become numbers and lose their human characteristics when they are talked about in the media. ” Diarra’s figures are sometimes flanked by a wise owl, a dead bird attached to a clock, or a white dove or a plate with brains with keys in it.
Symbols that refer to wisdom and reflection. He hopes to reflect before embarking on a journey in which the time and lives of a person are on hold. Diarra: “Now I want to reach as many young people as possible and make them think about the consequences of such a daring venture. Our culture is so beautiful and so rich. And what do you find when you leave? If you survive at all? ”
The Malian Daouda Traore also devotes his thoughts to migration. He shows scenes from the life of a migrant in the form of collages of paint, canvas, sand and printing techniques. Migrants with their luggage seem to walk out of the picture; they sit in an overcrowded pickup truck or climb over fences. A few come face to face with the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of the triumph of the migrant’s dream. He calls the letters that dance through the image “illegible poetry” and symbolize stepping into the dark. Troare: “My conscience requires me to talk about immigration because I have many friends and acquaintances who have become victims of it. My paintings reflect the experiences of our society, the great challenges facing the world, such as multiple crises, immigration, conflicts and also the daily life of African societies. ”
Senegalese artist Piniang does not ignore migration either. He works in various media and techniques: sculpture, paintings, installations, video and animation. His collages depict buildings, animals, chairs, words and electrical wires. These elements symbolize the city of Dakar in all its disorder and the lack of social responsibility of the Senegalese government. For example, the word “power” has many intertwined meanings: “Chairs symbolize political power with which people are manipulated. Cables and plugs represent electricity that we always miss in Dakar and it is ironic; all these young people migrate to have the power to exist ”.
Piniang: “When people come back from Europe, they wear new clothes and act like Kings; they want to show that they are doing well because they have been abroad. For me it is not a good message because patriotism is also important, you have to feel and know where you come from and be connected. Abroad is not always better than here! “
Other symbols he uses are hands and arms sticking up. They look like hands asking for help. Piniang explains: “A lot of people complain that they don’t have a job and say they do all kinds of things about it, but if you look closely they don’t do anything. They don’t want to bother to get it, that’s what I’m trying to show with these hands in my paintings and with the cats, they represent the laziness of such people.” Together that symbolizes the contrast between what people want and what they do to achieve it.
Piniang’s dream lies in Africa: “Recognition starts here. Life is not all about success, life is made up of many things coming together. Today’s African artists need to show the younger generation that it’s okay to stay in Africa, because this continent has its richness, and we need to appreciate what we have.” By initiating projects, such as a art project in the psychiatric hospital and the development of an African animation studio, he shows young people that there are also possibilities for the future in Africa, people just have to make an effort to find it …
I would like to take my taxi driver Boubacar to visit these artists, to wake him up from his African dream.
This article is published in Dutch: https://www.urbanafricans.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Column-Tableau-March-2021-De-Afrikaanse-Droom.pdf