Issue 3/2006 - Working Poor
»Is that counterfeit money?« Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, had come along in person to the presentation of the Afro. For the 2002 Dakar Biennale, Mansour Ciss constructed simple wooden kiosks, where the local currency could be exchanged for artist’s bank notes; a series from five to 500 Afro for 3,500 Franc CFA.1 The President’s suspicion was not entirely unfounded, for he was after all pursuing the project of a West African single currency by the name of Eco. However, there is a fine distinction, and furthermore a categorial difference, between the politics of the »New Partnership for Africa’s Development« (Nepad) und Ciss’ artistic vision.2
The artist’s bank note, Afro, which Ciss developed in conjunction with Canadian media artist Baruch Gottlieb forms part of a larger project, which he calls »Laboratoire Déberlinisation«.3 Whilst it does refer to the artist’s domicile, the term »deberlinisation« above all recalls the venue of the Congo Conference, at which the European colonial powers divided up the African continent amongst themselves in 1884. »Africa is not poor, Africa was made poor«, to cite globalisation critic Aminata Traoré from Mali, whom Ciss portrayed on an Afro bank note in the third, most recent series.4 »Deberlinisation – that is my life here on the other side of the ocean, where I try to bring together the threads that have been torn asunder«, says Ciss. »I have found the tools I need to do that: video und slides.«
In this year’s Biennale, Ciss showed three works in Dakar’s Goethe Institute that shed more light on the historical reasons for the continent’s poverty and exclusion.5 »Don’t tell me that you know nothing about it «, intones the double silhouette in the video »Les 100 papiers« and goes on to narrate, in Wolof and in images, a story of origins in West Africa, European capitals, travel documents, expired residence permits and the eye of the needle on the island La Gorée, through which hundreds of thousands of Africans were deported into slavery. Wearing the traditional bubu and a red fez, the artist sets off in search of venue where the Congo Conference was held in Berlin’s Wilhelmstraße; an eighties prefab now stands on the spot, with a memorial plaque in front of it. »You young Africans must be the authors of development«, state the closing titles, which recall the thousands who get stuck in Lampedusa and Melilla as they make their way to Europe.
Complementing this, Mansour Ciss depicts extreme poverty in a photo series: beggars by the edge of a road, not in Africa but in Berlin. »These photos set off a shockwave in Dakar«, says Ciss. »People think all they have to do is come to Europe, as it’s paradise here, but that’s wrong. « There are serious problems in Senegal: most families rely on remittances sent by their sons from Europe or America. The hard currency that arrives in the country through this channel far exceeds all development aid. However the humiliation conveyed by the images of the homeless provokes a sense of bewilderment.
In a second video, Mansour Ciss presents a rap using Léopold Sédar Senghor’s voice. »Ainsi meurent les masques« derives from Ciss’ current day job in the pedagogical department of the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem. »I simply owed it to Senghor«, the artist admits. In the late seventies when Ciss was one of seventy artists working on the Village des Arts Senghor had called into being, Senegal’s first president bought up all his works in one fell swoop. However, in 1983 Senghor’s successor, Abdou Diouf, ordered that the army clear the camp and at the same time transformed the Musée Dynamique, where Picasso and Hundertwasser had held exhibitions, into a court of appeal: the first symptoms of IMF-style neo-liberal policies, which Diouf was one of the first African politicians to implement consistently after his election in 1983, much to the detriment of his country’s economic development.
During his time at the Village des Arts Mansour Ciss made wooden sculptures echoing traditional works. Nowadays he works with video and photographs: »Artists are the memory of our age«, says Ciss, who has a collection of 6,000 slides and two hundred videos from the era of the artists’ village. The death of masks represents the death of a culture that is not nurtured. » A library dies every time an old person dies in Africa«, the great writer Amadou Hampaté Ba from Mali warned. Ciss seeks to counteract this: if he had his way, he would send out whole teams of school pupils to record the tales told by village elders and thus to preserve the memory of all that ineluctably vanishes in the course of continuing changes. For otherwise the continent runs the risk of losing its history. »We have a colonial trauma«, says Ciss, referring also to the »loss of one’s own language«.
Mansour Ciss has big plans. Parallel to the presentation of the Afro, in 2002 he opened the artists’ residence Villa Gottfried in N’Gaparou, seventy kilometres south of Dakar.6 »Gottfried« is the literal translation of the Wolof toponym »Djamalaye«. The idea is that in the long term the villa, built in a neo-Sudanese style evoking Malian adobe architecture, will counteract the trend for artists from all over the globe to meet only in rich countries in the »West«. Ciss financed the entire project out of his own pocket: »I don’t ask anyone for money, I don’t take a penny from Europe«. The artist was able to draw on revenue from his successful work as a textile designer to help fund this project. Textile designs also form the background for the third series of the Afro. Conversely Ciss also plans to further popularise the artist’s currency by printing it on textiles.
However, even before Villa Gottfried becomes fully operational, Ciss is already thinking about the next project. He has purchased several hectares immediately next to the villa, complete with farming land, which is set to become a testing ground for the future. »That artists’ village is always in my mind. « The project aims to give young people in outlying areas an introduction to the new media, for Senegal, unlike other African countries, does already have the relevant infrastructure. »Children have to learn properly«, asserts Ciss, and: »Europe’s power lies in the media. « But also: »Everything is about art. Art gives you more freedom. «
Although the Laboratoire Déberlinisation sees itself as a pilot project and seeks to provide new impetus, Mansour Ciss is already running the risk of getting in out of his depth with this project. »I am working for the future«, he states, but adds too: »I really need a manager. « Abdoulaye Wade tried to contact the artist again after the 2002 Biennale, but the Deutsche Post proved incapable of delivering the letter. Ciss keeps his distance. He is not interested in concrete results but in liberating people’s imaginations.
Translated by Helen Ferguson
1 http://www.deberlinisation.de; http://www.afrik.com/article7317.html
3 The term comes from: Nicolas Agbohou, Le Franc CFA et l’Euro contre l’Afrique, Paris 1999; Cheik Anta Diop has already developed the notion of a united Africa in detail: Cheik Anta Diop: Les fondements économiques et culturels d’un état fédéral d’Afrique noire, Paris 1960 (1972).
4 Together with Aoua Keïta, the first woman in the Malian government, c.f. www.deberlinisation.de, home page, 500 Afro.