This is a short selection of portraits from my ongoing series called Flashbacks from the Future. It is a work-in-progress of underwater photography that has been transferred on organic surfaces in the later stages of the process. I hope to show a full series in summer 2019.
Recently I decided to keep my mind a little more actively on photography (oh how is that even possible I wonder…) and keep a photographic diary and take one photo every day. To mark this day and in lack of interesting street photos, I took a photo of a CD album I’ve been playing all morning, surprised by the vividness of memories that it provoked. If you ever wondered what it is that makes an entrepreneur start his or her venture and actually do it, you might be surprised by their answers. As it happened, I became a coffee roaster while I was still preparing my research degree, and always while roasting, I would listen to music. The fact is that I am more than to anything else attached to African music and that particular sound from many West-African countries, and over the years I have developed a personal archive of songs that throw me back in time to a very precise moment when I first heard any particular song. It’s a kind of a combination of spatial and rhythmic memory of sorts. For example: whenever I hear Salif Keita’s Mandjou, I am immediately teleported to another time where I am swallowing dust in car on my way to Gorom Gorom, with that fantastic feeling of being in the right place at the right time, and all of the time. Similarly, every time I hear Sima Edy by Dub Colossus’s from the album A Town Called Addis, I remember the actual very first days of my home based coffee roasting project when I was frying beans in a pan and then packing them in bags and gluing labels on them with a glue stick! It was around that same time when I heard the album Bambara Mystic Soul for the first time and I just knew in my back bone I should open a place where I could play this album to other people, I just had to! And so I did. I would then create playlists with music that mattered to me and instead of just having some background music to spice the day with it would be yet another way of actively sharing something important.
If I am on travels and out of town, it is the sounds that I start to miss first. I’m not talking about the constant ambulance and police sirens of Brussels, but the human sounds of Saint-Louis, including the sabar and the tannebeer and other frequent gatherings accompanied by intensive drumming. The connection between sound and memory is immensely interesting! A classic question: What are the songs that you would have with you at all times? My list would be quite long..
“One of the characteristics that I like the most among the Guetndariens is that they are in solidarity with each other. If you have a fight with someone from Guet Ndar, it’s like fighting against the whole village!
During the regatta, fishermen often fight each other by slapping their opponents with oars.But when the regatta is over, they make reconciliation just like nothing happened.The fishermen of Guet Ndar are a great bunch!”*
*Text from Waxande Dex Gi – Stories from the Senegal River, one of my upcoming publications on Saint-Louis and its oral heritage.
This is a series of four short entries in which I talk about my personal relationship, both imagined and concrete, to four African megalopolis: Lagos, Kinshasa, Addis Ababa and Dakar. The first one out: Lagos.
What are your touching grounds to a city? What images circle at the back of your retinas when you hear the word Lagos? To me, it’s all very vague and my mind wanders immediately to just about anything I happen know about Nigeria that is based on a real experience. Such things include the music of Fela Kuti, and a fairly recent and somewhat surprising visit of a group of Nigerian musicians playing Yoruba music in Saint-Louis. Or the British candid camera and street comedy by Three Non-Blondes. When I was still running a popular café in Brussels, I would create play lists with Fela’s groovy music and when played, both workers and customers would almost subconsciously start to make dance moves in between lattes! Even today, if you play Upside Down, you won’t see me sitting around for too long!
And more: Nigerian writers of course. The most obvious classics aside, Ben Okri and his famous spirit child Azaro are the dearest, with the ever re-occurring pepper soup playing an important role in Azaro’s adventures in this and the other world. And a little more recent reference: Noo Saro Wiwa’s fantastic travel book Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria.* She is the daughter of the murdered activist Ken Saro Wiwa, and was brought up in the UK and at some point in her adult life she decided to get a grasp of Nigeria and rediscover what it really is all about in all its controversies.
I also have a fond memory of one Lagosian artist friend who traveled overland all the way from Lagos to Saint-Louis on a trail of ceebu jën, the national dish of Senegal. It has its varied Nigerian interpretations expressed in jollof rice and my friend would turn that into succulent artistic experimentation and memorable rooftop dinners.
Thinking about all this, it appears that the most powerful export from a country is its art and artists. I’m often wondering how that is taken into account in the decision making in whichever city we talk about. As far as Lagos is concerned, and judged by one book that I read recently, art really does matter in the minds of the policy makers. Hopefully this is true and not just beautiful words in a book! While I was browsing my library shelves, a book popped into my hand, it was the exhibition catalogue Dey Your Lane – Lagos Variations.** Exhibition catalogues are a wonderful invention, and this particular catalogue is a treat. So was the exhibition, with 24 photographers telling each their own stories of Lagos. The opening words to the publication, addressed by the governor of Lagos State Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, make room for optimism in regard to my question. He stresses the fact that it is important to nurture homegrown talent and believe in the arts, and he talks about how artistic innovation and creativity are the ways to address important global issues. Mayors and governors the world over, listen to this man!
A couple of mentions from the book:
Logo Oluwamuyiwa Adeyemi: Monochrome Lagos (2013-ongoing) is my favorite series in this exhibition. He documents “the theatrical arrangement of almost everything in this great human carnival” and creates an amazing archival reference to Lagos. Have a look at his Homepage: and a blog entry where he asks: “If I stripped Lagos of the colour, what would I find?”
Samuel James’s series Lagos underground (2010) has also very powerful images on the ‘Area Boys’. The photographer talks about Lagos where “people flow like water” and continues: “Such is Lagos, with its twenty million converging souls, meeting, parting, flowing into and away from each other and back again. Such are these tales of passage into the Lagos dark waters – guided by its keepers, the ‘Area Boys'”
Bas Losekoot started to explore the role of the individual in some of the world’s most crowded cities and his subjects in Familiar Strangers (2016) are people in transit in Lagos. He talks about while commuting to the city, we wear masks of self protection in order to “detach from space and reality.” It’s about “being alone together and granting each other a certain space and freedom.” When I think of my own experience of Dakar, I could add that it seems to have an amazing base of “human interface” that provides a fast lane to engage with other city dwellers. Some might call this even frustratingly fast! It becomes ever more crucial to recognize to what degree you actually do need to wear a mask of self protection, it’s an ongoing game of private and public and how you share your time between the two.
Ever heard of rugball, the game that the Lagosians play on the beach? Adolphus Opara’s Rugball (2006-2009) documents this popular activity as a means to find a sense of belonging and keeping out of trouble, and how this game “comes with neither the cliché-ridden rules of football nor the unruly and confusing conventions of rugby.”
I am thankful to all these 24 photographers and many other artists, who by documenting Lagos bring this megalopolis a little closer in all its human richness and flux. At the very end of this catalogue there is also an interesting timeline about certain milestones in the history of the city, ending in predictions that Lagos, which by the independence in 1960 had about half a million inhabitants, will have grown to 36 million souls by year 2050. In case you’re wondering what dey your lane means: it’s yet another survival strategy in a city as big as Lagos: stay on your own lane, i.e. mind your own business! That in mind, I have put Lagos on my list of travel destinations, and that list is very short.
* Noo Saro-Wiwa: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, Granta Books, 2012.
** Dey Your Lane – Lagos Variations, BOZAR BOOKS and Snoeck Publishers, Ghent, 2016.
One photograph for each day of this brand new year. I am not very good at this kind of projects but let’s give it a try! My plan is to have my film camera not only on my mind but close at hand daily. It’s nice to see how this immediately affects the way you look at things and how you react to the surrounding light, or to the lack of it as I am starting the whole thing in Brussels in January when its really dark even in the middle of the day. Street photography is also fun because it makes you look slightly weird when you’re considering whether to shoot or not. And it makes you stop while the rest of the world keeps busy.
For the record: I am publishing here smartphone “duplicates” of my photos. Otherwise you would get updates only every few months or so. Just follow my trail in the album!
A few years back I prepared a mixed media exhibition called Sabaru Demb – A Rhythmic Experience. It consisted of sounds and texts on Senegalese rhythms of sabar and stories related to them and their origins, and on their transmission. It proved to be a very popular show among visitors at the time and I remember having thought that I would like to show the work elsewhere too. Now is the time that I want to return to the material and add something new to it in the form of photography and perhaps video too. Sabar is, after all, also very visual!
The way sabar permeates the Senegalese society is wonderfully complex. If you have ever visited the country, you understand how sabar belongs to everybody and can be found, heard and participated in practically everywhere and any time of the day – or night. The beat that carves itself into your auditory memory – or dance moves – can be inspired by a number of things, for instance by the national fish and rice dish ceebu jën:
“You have to spice your Ceebu Jën. Otherwise, your husband will divorce you!”
Or rhythms can describe the area in which you live, such as the fertile land of Waalo in the north:
“Waalo-Waalo! Waalo-Waalo! The Sugar is in Waalo. The water is in Waalo. The rice is in Waalo. Waalo-Waalo! Go up to Dagana. Go up to Richard-Toll. Go up to Ndar-Geej. Waalo-Waalo! Say whatever you want. Do whatever you want. You don’t dislike. You don’t like. All happens! Come on Ndaanan, man or woman. Woman! Woman! Woman! A woman herself needs to have nice teeth. Nice teeth! Man! Man! A man himself needs to have money. Money! Money!”
The apprenticeship* in sabar is much about learning by mimicking and soon enough it becomes, as one artist in our residence recently put it, “a way of being.” Children are allowed and encouraged to take part in playing with drums already when the drums are still taller than them. When you are in a griot‘s house and dance sabar, you are being watched and encouraged to show that you have got the move, and there are no measures of what is right or what is wrong even if the choreography for each rhythm can be very complex. If you think of your steps too much, you’re already a little behind with the rhythm! When you dance sabar you “expand” and show your real height, and that’s what I really love to watch.
Sabar is also present in almost all the Senegalese films that I have seen. Watch Djibril Diop Mambety’s short La Petite Vendeuse du Soleil and you’ll see a bunch of girls with polio dance sabar on the streets of Dakar; or meet the enigmatic dancer in Hyènes by the same director; Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera in Karmen Gëi has an opening scene in which two female protagonist challenge each other into a sabar duel; and similarly there is a fantastic opening scene of a wrestling match in Moussa Tourés’s La Pirogue. Every time I see sabar in any form, I take this indescribable pride in being connected to it. On a wider level, my interest in the sabar culture relates to my interest in movement. It may well be that I’ll have the chance to go back to Ethiopia later in the year. If this happens, I would really love to document the language of movement there too. But more of that later.
* A highly recommended book reference for anyone interested in the apprenticeship of sabar drumming: Patricia Tang’s Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal is based on her own experience among some notorious drummers. A good read.
This is one of my most recent image transfers on wood. I have given this series the title Flashbacks From the Future and I won’t even try to explain all the connotations that went through my head while thinking of a suitable title. I somehow imagine myself as a viewer in the far future looking at these photos as something that once was. I get into that same mood for example every time I am in Dakar where I see the city in year 2118, imagining what kind of an overcrowded boiling hell it will be by that time, in its current lack of proper urban planning.
I realize now that this series is allowing my unconscious to play a more important role in the process of making each photograph. I usually work with a topic that I have defined in advance – although it might change in the process – but in this case it was the work that came first and the title afterwords, so in every sense this project appears less limiting in the ways I am creating it. This particular photo was in my selection of work-in-progress that I wanted to show on the occasion of the open house event that we organized at Waaw Artists’ Residency earlier in the week, and the feedback was interesting, as it always is. Some visitors would judge it “bizarre” while others loved it. I myself am thrilled with how this project remains open and I’ll keep working on it in the coming days and weeks. Wishing you all a Very Joyous Christmas & New Year!