A first milestone in my Afropolis photo project: a work-in-progress exhibition. I framed twelve prints last night to show what I am working on. This small show is combining some sleek-looking photos and rough handmade and “unfinished” frames made out of old windows that are very easy to come by here in Saint-Louis. Doing this show has helped me a lot in both choosing the photos that I want to include in later exhibitions and defining the theme or themes that this project will bring forward. These twelve photos were taken in Addis Ababa and once I will have more material from the other cities – Dakar, Nouakchott and Bamako – these themes will certainly develop more in the process. For now I can say that visually I hope to capture some of the contrasts of neighborhoods that are human in size and “organic” against the modern construction boom with glass and steel buildings reaching up in the skies, and human activity characterized by informality that takes place in between these two dynamics. More of that later with more photos!
Ndar Ndar Music & Café, Saint-Louis: A work-in-progress photo exhibition “Afropolis 2020” with a focus on African urban space: Addis Ababa. The final exhibition material will be made in platinum prints in summer 2020.
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 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!
How many of you still go to the movies? Saint-Louis of Senegal has a fantastic annual documentary film festival with numerous screenings both indoors and in the open air, then there are some screenings also at the French Institute, but where can you actually go and watch films that are projected on a big screen? The answer is: nowhere.
There was a time when there were even two cinemas in town: Cinema Rex and Cinema Vox. The former has now entirely disappeared. Step in to the Cinema Vox building and you’ll be entering a world of old asbestos, falling coconut tree branches, wild cats, fruit bats, old records and an array of abandoned things and pieces of a world that once was. When you are inside, you can still sense that there once was a time regularly filled with that pleasant anticipation just before the film starts, unexpected power cuts, shushes to keep noisy children quiet, the sounds of swirling fans in the ceiling… and you wonder who came here? What kind of films did they see? How much did it cost? When did all this stop?
The tickets cost 100 cefa and 200 cefa, depending on the seating area. The Mamas watched Endo* films and when people asked: “What’s your plan for the evening?” they would answer: “Endo!” That was so particularly on Friday nights. There were also crime films. The screenings started at 9 pm and 11 pm. (A.D)
There were porn films, I saw many of them, and then there were those Indian films and Chinese shaolin films. That was karate! These three types of films were shown so that shaolin films and Indian films were shown in the daytime, and the porn films in the night. They were real porn films! The old would sit at the back and the young in front so that when the film was over, the old would walk out fast so that the young would not see them. Porn films attracted a lot of customers, usually the cinema would be full. (I.D)
Already before and ever since Youssou N’Dour bought this building, it has been sadly falling apart, as do so many buildings in Saint-Louis. At the time of writing this, I don’t even know whether this building still belongs to him or whether he has sold it, or simply abandoned the idea of whatever project he had in mind. The rumor has it, that if he ever were going to reopen the cinema in some form, the imam of the neighboring big mosque would not accept it because of the venue being too close to the mosque.
There are and there will always be rumors, but the truth is that this building can still be saved and put into good use. The telephone number of Mr. Youssou N’Dour, anyone?
This is what it looks like when the heavenly taps open… This year the rainy season has been mild except for this last rain which poured down yesterday during about an our. It took a couple more hours before all this water had disappeared from the streets.
After rain it’s necessary to sweep ponds of water from the rooftop as some parts of the flat roof tilt the wrong way in regard to the evacuation pipes and the water that stagnates there finds its way very fast to even the smallest of cracks and into the building. When it rains heavily, the water starts to flood into the house also from the balconies because it cannot get out fast enough. So you need is rags, and more rags, and never leave the house for too long these days.
Guet Ndaru Mool is one of my continuous photography projects. Now after summer break I thought I would focus particularly on portraits and make a series that would have a retro feel and reflect the organic nature of the local fishing business. Here’s for starters:
The local fishing community feels the effects of climate change first hand and many families have already lost their homes to the sea. Their lifestyle is vulnerable and alarmingly threatened because of coastal erosion and rising sea levels. A few years back we hosted documentary photographer Greta Rhybus at Waaw and she made a fantastic photo series on climate change in Senegal.
In Saint-Louis life really spins around fishing. There are anglers on the edges of the river; men in water up to the waist – or sometimes neck – throwing in their nets both in the river and in the sea; there are small boys in giant wooden fishing boats called pirogue on the shores just waiting to grow and follow in the footsteps of their fathers; there are boat builders, engine repairers, horse carriages, fish dryers, men sleeping on giant mountains of blue nets, waiting for departure or resting after a night out in the sea, net repairers, refrigerators, ice vans, ice factories… and the big fish market where women handle and sell fish and where the other-worldly scenes of busy crowds, melting ice and crazy chaos with some hidden order to it make it one of my favorite spots in the entire town… That other-worldliness is what I am hoping to catch into my portraits.