Saharanness

Mauritania 2018_1
© jarmo pikkujämsä

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.

Mauritania 2018_5_© Jarmo Pikkujamsa
© jarmo pikkujämsä

Analogue extreme

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.

Hotel Paradise

Who slept in these round rooms? What shape were their dreams? Did they stay awake, listening to the repeating noise of ocean waves and too early calls for prayers? Or were they soothed by them so much so that they woke up late with heavy limbs?

How many breakfasts, lunches, dinners were made here? How many times did people ask for a bottle of Kirène? How many chickens ended up on porcelain plates, drowned in onion sauce and mustard? Who asked: “Medium or rare?”

Who washed the white napkins over and over again? Where are they now?

How many books were carried in luggage to these round rooms? How many of them were read?

How many children were conceived in these round rooms? Did any of them come here later after they had been born, and swallow pool water while their mothers would burn their skin in the hot afternoon sun?

Did the local teenagers come here in secret to eat snacks during the holy month of Ramadan?

Why was everything so round here?

Is Paradise round?

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The full series has 30 photographs. Hahnemühle archival pigment prints, 16:9 ratio (2019).

 

Ahmed Ela

ahmed ela 2_4jan2019
© Jarmo Pikkujämsä

Some photographs stay with you always. I am not talking about actual prints in a shoe box but photos that you stored in some laptop, external memory or cloud and you forgot all about it up until it starts to pop back into your memory and you need to dig it up again and have a look. I took this photo in Ahmed Ela in Northern Ethiopia many years ago while sitting in a moving car and coming from or going to Dallol, I don’t even remember. But there are two things I do remember when I look at it. I remember what it felt like to be in that open space where there is nothing but distant horizon opening in all directions. It’s that fantastic feeling that takes over every time I am in a desert when you realize what a tiny little ant-like your life actually is on this planet. You may be going to places back and forth, you’re being dragged into social whatever drama, you climb some ladder you think you must climb, you want things that you have been taught to want… and so on and then you come to a place like this and everything starts to make sense again. I just love open wide space and the fact that you can look and see far away.

The other thing is that mysterious “highway” in the photo. It looks like a mirage, inviting you to take that road to.. where? Nowhere? Most likely somewhere north towards Eritrea. We left that chance to some other trip though. Oh and there’s also a third memory: it’s that sound when you walk in the heat of the day on that crispy salt, as this soil is nothing but salt that the Afar collect and bring back to urban environment on the backs of camels. If you have seen the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara’s song Nterini you get the idea of what this place looks like. If you ever wanted to shoot a science fiction film, this is the place! A side note: this clip, quite typically to music videos, has a wee bit too many fancy juggles and fast paced cuts in it, this location would do the trick in a few long shots alone since it’s such a stunning scenery.

Ethiopia has been on my mind lately since we are in the planning mode for a future art residency in Ethiopia. The Dallol desert and the Danakil Depression might prove to be rather challenging environments so we’ll stick to the opposite and run the programme in buzzing Addis Ababa and in the magical town of Harar. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

Lagos on my mind

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.

dey your lane

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_img_9422
Courtesy of Logo Oluwamuyiwa Adeyemi: Monochrome Lagos. All Rights Reserved

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'”

9-bas-losekoot-ff-naarden-lagos-a-selectie
Courtesy of Bas Losekoot from the series Familiar Strangers. All Rights Reserved

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.