Or: more than just one city. These are random picks from places and things I’ve seen recently. The first five photos are details from my recent exhibition African Urban Spaces.
Right next to Diama on the Mauritanian border there is a small and picturesque village called Maka-Diama. We had a ride to the village today and visited a project that makes paper out of a weed called typha that grows by the Senegal river. This plant can be used for thatched roofs or cooking fuel, or even paper. In order to create better working conditions for the women who make paper out of typha, the NGO behind the initiative has build a house out of local materials. The building project started in April 2019 and the house is now proudly standing and almost ready to be used. Before operating fully as a work space and a show room, some finishing touches and interior decoration is now all it takes. In the future this beautiful house will serve also as a meeting point for people interested in local crafts, ecological architecture and design.
The reddish earth that has been used for the bricks has been brought here from near Dakar and we witnessed how the construction technique with silt provides an amazing cooling effect inside the house: when we entered the building we could immediately feel it. Next to the main building there is a separate lavatory in which the waste water is collected and processed to irrigate a garden of aromatic plants. So the workshops will not produce just paper but also soaps and aromatic oils. If you are on your way to or coming from Diama and crossing the Mauretanian border, do drop by in this beautiful small village. The village women can make you a delicious yassa poulet for lunch in no time at all and while waiting for your meal, you can visit the workshop and cool down in this beautiful house and perhaps buy some handmade paper and fragrant oils and soaps.
There is only so much in a small Mauritanian boutique. Looks like a very healthy way of creating order in life with just a few cardboard boxes.
This is a short travelogue to begin this brand new year. I just took a Trarza minibus from Nouakchott to Saint-Louis and spent those three hours listening to old women babble in Hassanya and at times in a very animated accent in Wolof. They all laughed a lot and their tiny mobile phones kept ringing and since the mobile coverage was bad, they shouted into their phones and the calls would just drop and after each call there was this sudden silence for about thirty seconds. And it all started again. Half way on our route we had a stop for breakfast with a rather predictable menu: grilled meat, baguette and mint tea. No coffee in sight.
I had a small artist’s crisis lately with a thorough feeling that nobody is interested in what I do, at least not in this town anyway. Everybody seems to be more interested in just telling what they do.
When you cross borders here between countries, you are asked about your profession and I would answer: “artist,” or “artist photographer.” The border control then checks what they can find in their system based on what you had told them previously, or they write it up for future record. I always feel like I have committed a small crime having changed my profession from “commerçant” – that’s what stands on my residence card – to “artist.” Now, crossing the border I again found this question a little intimidating and while the officer scrutinized my data with a very confused look on his face I thought it would have been so much easier to say “fisherman” or “pirogue owner.” Although I probably don’t look like neither. What if I said that I’m an “art residency coordinator?” They would probably choke in their mint tea, or just kick me out.
Back in Saint-Louis, after the usual hundred or so handshakes, the desert still lingers in my mind and I predict that this year I will go quieter about my art practice and will concentrate more on the actual work. Perhaps I will show some of that work in the summer, somewhere.
Did you ever think of Sahara as nothing but a vast empty space filled with sand? Or as we were to understand at school: a space in which trans-Saharan trade routes crossed the space, leaving traces of camel caravans in sand and mirage-like images in your brain?
I have always been intrigued by the desert and fascinated by its impact on me. Living very close to the desert – and having spent time in the Saharan desert many times, I have often wondered: what is Saharanness? Who adheres to such identity and what does it mean? Does it override any national sentiments? What happens when you live on the border of two countries in this region? Suddenly even the idea of cosmopolitanism is put in practice in a new context in the lives of those people who inhabit border regions in these parts of Africa. Meaning: new to me, and meaning: cosmopolitanism outside the West. Back to the question of camel caravans: based on my recent readings, it is only logical to realize that most trade in this region was always Saharan, not trans-Saharan.
To this day, there is a relative absence of Saharans themselves from historical, economic and even ecological studies of the region. Thinking of the viewpoint from which research on Sahara has usually been done one may ask: how many Africanists think it necessary to study Arabic, for instance, and how many Arabists would seriously concentrate on any West African language? Should you be interested in questions like this, I recommend you read Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa.* It’s a book about “that other Sahara, not the empty waste of romantic imagination but the vast and highly differentiated space (…) in which Saharan peoples, and, increasingly, incomers from other parts of Africa, live, work, and move.”
Saharan cities are growing fast. I recently read an interesting article on the Guardian about cities that have been built from scratch and how they have developed more or less successfully. Every time I have been to Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, I have sensed strange unfamiliarity with how the urban space has developed there. You may know that the city used to be a village that was decided to become the capital of the country in 1958. It was never designed to host what today is approximately one million inhabitants; when you move around the city, especially in the commercial centre, you soon realize that it is rather hostile to pedestrians. In a country of former / current / temporary nomads you have a city in which walking is made nearly impossible: the pavements are either occupied by 4×4 cars, or trees have been planted in the middle of them and as they are not tall enough, at least not yet, you can’t walk under them.
Being pedestrian and not understanding how, when and in what parts of the town the informal public transport works, is the first impression that strikes the odd visitor. And there’s more once you pass this first threshold. There is interesting literature about the different developments of Nouakchott, its housing, neighborhoods and ethnic diversity so I am not done with Nouakchott just yet, quite the contrary! Every time I’ve been to Mauritania, I always documented sandy landscapes, but I am now more and more curious about the challenges of this city and so Nouakchott, with its nearness of the desert, falls very naturally to being part of Afropolis, my next photography project on urban space.
* McDougall & Judith Scheele: Saharan Frontiers: Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa, Indiana University Press, 2012.
This is a short series of b&w memories from our last Analogue Extreme programme in early 2019, a desert trek in Mauritania organized for artists and creatives by Waaw Centre for Art and Design. It was a week full of laughter, beautiful scenery between Chinquetti and Tergit, camels, haikus, even a sand storm and some blisters… all in all a magnificent week feeling fully connected to your environment, away from digital life.
To my surprise I realize now that my Olympus OM10 may have had its better days: it apparently leaves scratches on film that you can see in all photos. I may still have to test this and see if it’s really time to find a new solution to shooting film.