SEGOU YELEN Ségou.ml: From Tunis To Ségou _ Working With Light As Artistic Material

_ SEGOU’ART is an international gathering of artists and curators, critics and collectors, art initiatives and gallerists to improve exchange, debate and dissemination of contemporary fine art across the African continent. Exhibition projects and concerts, workshops and lectures, roundtables and debates are choreographed to be a dense program. In February 2019, it took place for the second time, for the first time it includes a decentral exhibition project dedicated to light and media art. Aymen Gharbi and I were the curators of SEGOU YELEN.

In 2016, it was the first contemporary art fair to be held in Mali and it is part of a trend and a need. Art fairs, both in Africa and abroad, have sprung up to showcase works from across the continent, and they turn the spotlight on some of both, established and emerging artists. Mamou Daffé is the driving force behind SEGOU’ART as well as the well-known “Fêstival sur le Niger” (en: “Festival On The River”). Like the “Festival au desert” (en: “Festival In The Desert”) in the proximity of Timbuktu, the “Fêstival sur le Niger” in Ségou attracted thousands of visitors celebrating the music and gathering known and unknown talents from across the continent and from around the world.

Since Mali is facing a volatile crisis as political armed groups including ethnic-based movements, jihadist groups and transnational criminal networks, all fighting for the hegemony and the control of trafficking routes in the North, the gatherings of people and the presence of international visitors have become a subject of security. The 2015 peace agreement remains very difficult to implement and signatory groups still resort to violence to settle differences. Jihadist violence against security forces is increasing and militants have gone rural to capitalize on local conflicts and the absence of the state to secure safe havens and new recruits. Mali’s instability has regional consequences as violent extremism spills into neighboring countries. This makes the attempt to continue art and culture activities dedicated to large audiences questionable. Mamou Daffé states, that “we must not let the terrorists dictate our lives. Nothing is more valuable than our culture”. For him, dance, theater, concerts, exhibitions and traditional ceremonies in Ségou are an “act of resistance”.

When the SEGOU’ART team approached the INTERFERENCE collective (of which Aymen Gharbi and I are part) in Tunis, we agreed to start a co-operation due to our own framework and background. In the years after the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia faced terrorists’ attacks and travel warnings from around the world. “When we started, we didn’t want to be limited by the fear, we wanted to do what we can to promote peace, democratic culture and societal responsibility. We want to continue with what we were in the streets for”, said Aymen Gharbi. Both of us, we are part of an active collective under the roof of the non-profit organization COLLECTIF CREATIF and we started to work together in 2014.

By now, the International Light Art Project INTERFERENCE is an active community producing contemporary art, working on projects on enhancing sociocultural values, caring for new outlooks on cultural heritage and fostering the critical debate on digitization. The exhibition project INTERFERENCE had two editions and in 2019, the second iteration if SEE DJERBA, a second format developed in and for the Tunisian island of Djerba, will take place. “We are caring a lot for the safety of our participating artists and curator’ colleagues as well as for our audiences. But being public has become risky and in the very concrete situation, everybody must decide him-/herself if to join or not. In Tunis, we saw 20.000 visitors in 2018 and that is a big inspiration, too”, comments Aymen Gharbi.

It was Wadi Mhiri’s persistence that got the INTERFERENCE collective involved with the SEGOU YELEN (en: “Light Of Segou”) initiative. Aymen Gharbi and me, we met with Wadi Mhiri when we started to prepare for the first edition INTERFERENCE in the Medina of Tunis in 2016. Houda Ghorbel and he were among the few Tunisian artists that were already experienced in working with physical light, in their case with UV light. In 2014, they successfully realized the installation “immerse in the light of night” at the Sadika Art Space in Gammarth.tn. In 2016, when we contacted them to ask whether they want to become part of the new project, they not only agreed to contribute an artwork but involved themselves in the process and the community life of INTERFERENCE. Over the last years, Houda Ghorbel and Wadi Mhiri joined and promoted projects in Tunisia, and they forwarded the idea of community-based and audience-centered contemporary art projects in their African and beyond networks.

In December 2017, we went for a first explorative visit to Ségou and agreed on “doing something”. It took a year until the local team found a way to support a small project to introduce light as artistic material, innovative media technologies and international artistic approaches in the framework of SEGOU’ART. We agreed on light and media art workshop for art students and a small exhibition project. Within eight weeks we processed the idea, came up with a conceptual framework, found the artists and realized a program. It was a risky timeline. Although communication and organization, schedule and budget, technical equipment and site-preparation seem to be a random process, we managed to have a team onsite that at the end was able to present five context-specific artworks in public space and a series of workshop productions.

FOROBA YELEN (en: “Collective Light”) was the title of the team works. Upon arrival, we started with a 10-days-workshop program directed by Aymen Gharbi and supported by The Tunisian artists Houda Ghorbel and Aziz Aissaoui. They introduced the idea to work with daily materials and to explore the properties in interaction with light. Within a short time, the participants understood visual potentials and started to build and to create. Dramane Diarra, Ibrahim Kebe, Habibatou Yaye Keita, Alhassane Konté, Narè Famakan Magassa, Mariam Niaré and Moussa Samaké developed collective works based on light and shadow, light and transparency, given light and light brought by visitors. They worked with natural and artificial light, analogue and digital projectors, fluorescent and LED sources. “It was amazing to see how fast the students translated their artistic knowledge from drawing and painting to light-based installations”, Houda Ghorbel said, “It was very touching to see how rapidly they gained confidence. Talent and creativity took over and maybe that is the most important part of our work here. That we can share with young people the opportunity to learn, to foster confidence in creative processes and to assist them in taking responsibility for the future of their country.”

For the exhibition, four of the workshop productions and five of the professional works were on display along the art trail. It stretched from the City Hall to the riverside of the Niger with the buildings of the “Fondation Fêstival sur le Niger” hosting a cluster of works. What seemed to be a small project compared to INTERFERENCE which hosted more than fifty works in 2018, was nevertheless an important step. It was the first time that a light or media artworks were part of SEGOU’ART, and it was the first time that this kind of artistic interventions and architecture projections were on display in Mali.

The collective of artists and curators offered guided tours to foster debate and understanding of what we have been doing. Art mediation and audience care are key elements of the success of INTERFERENCE and SEE DJERBA granting access to audiences that are not experienced with contemporary light and media art. We found themselves almost without an audience, only on the premises of the “Fondation” where concerts and conferences were hosted visitors gathered and found themselves in awe.

Robert Sochacki worked on a collage that drew inspiration of his work and travel experiences on the continent. He is fascinated by a broad variety of color concepts in arts and crafts that are different across the continent and even more, compared to those in Europe. Resulting from the interplay of color pigments and sunlight, high contrast and color intensity are present in almost all applications. His large-scale architecture projection was based on a choice of objects of daily life as well as of flora and fauna that incorporate esthetic parameters and cultural preferences. For his composition, he altered the scale and the context and designed an interplay of light and color, photos and drawings, projected visuals and local surfaces. His compilations function liked a microscopic view into the artist’s mindset. His video painting merged into the uneven mud surface of the building that hosted the projection.

Ghiju Díaz de Léon joined from Mexico-City and her work was built for the Ségou Municipality Building. It is an example of French Colonial architecture, jointly with other civic structures in the popular style of the 1930s when the French colonial administration established an office in the city. The mix of Sudanese-style adobe architecture and French Colonial style is a signature part of the cityscape of Ségou. Ghiju Díaz de Léon developed an animated drawing inspiration from the world of patterns which can be found everywhere in Africa and Latin-America. Organic and geometric structures, repetitions of shapes and colors, textures and lines laid out in all sorts of arrangements. In their color concepts and compositions, they are part of local sociocultural and sociohistorical developments and are closely linked to the expression of identity. For her large-scale architecture projection, Ghiju Díaz de Léon developed a series of portraits set in an abstract landscape. In her animation, she created a narrative based on the change and exchange of patterns and color sets. Her work was dedicated to the history of exchange between the two continents.

For Houda Ghorbel, the video footage of several journeys between her home town Tunis and Ségou became her material pool. She edited a sequence of recordings that revealed what caught the artist’s interest while moving from one place to another, from one cultural context into another one, from North-Africa to West-Africa. Because she has been filming while moving and mainly with a mobile phone, the imagery shifts from clear and concrete parts to blurry and distorted ones. Projected onto an architectural façade, they engender an esthetic interplay of the image taken and the projection ground that leads to a rather abstract composition that cannot easily be read or decoded. In her work, Houda Ghorbel shared the artistic search for orientation in the moment of encounter and disorientation.


Aziz Aissaoui. SEGOU YELEN Ségou 2019. Photos: Sam

Aziz Aissaoui spent some time onsite to find the perfect spot for his installation. He chose an unoccupied a parcel of land on the riverside to set up an installation based on used plastic straws. They acted in place of all the plastic waste that endangers the Niger river as well as the world oceans. Aziz Aissaoui’s work was a reminder and a request to find new solutions to reduce the use of plastics, to solve the garbage problem and to care for a sustainable forthcoming. Where the neighbors grow vegetables and fruits, he installed a work that reused single-use plastic straws. With the support of fishing line, he built a cloud-like sculpture that was moved by the wind. After sunset, a projection of black and white lines onto the sculpture rendered visible changing parts of it, but not the overall of the sculpture. Aziz Aissaoui’s artworks commented on the texture of facts with artistic expression. he was caring for an audience experience and looking for resonance for further collective care for a better future.

Wadi Mhiri selected the former generator house of a cotton factory to work a site-specific intervention. He illuminated the space with UV light and used white cotton thread for 3-dimensional drawings. The main structure is a radiating system modelled after sun-rays. In its center, he positioned a white globe covered with white flowers. He was playing with the analogies of the metaphors of the sun and the generator, the center of the installation and the globe as representations for the world and the white flowers as a symbol for nature and for cotton. His artwork was designed to link local and global from a universal perspective.

All artists were fascinated by the darkness that settles when night falls. The absence of a consistent public lighting scheme offered the most perfect backdrop for light-based works. It allows working with small equipment of single led-sources, simple fluorescent tubes or data projectors not larger than 3.800 AINSI lumen. Contrasting the opaque darkness, they allowed works to appear that under European or Tunisian conditions would need twice or three times the amount of energy and light intensity. We were able to work with material and technics that are locally available.

The synchronization of given sites and available technologies, curatorial motifs and artistic interests led to a small group exhibition covering a variety of art forms that make use of light as artistic material, among them drawing, painting and video, sculpture, installation and intervention. With a mix of artists from Africa, Europe and Latin-America, we allied different approaches to context- and light-specific works. Despite their diversity, the exhibition profited it from the transdisciplinary approaches that all share. All the artists work in more than one discipline, either in art and design, graphic communication and theater stages, music clubs and fashion performances. In their minds and daily practice, they are trained to respond to sites and situations, to adapt to given frames and to proceed with focus. Notwithstanding the short time, we found the time to discuss approaches and concepts.

One more time, we observed a difference in communication on concepts and works. While in Europe, light-based artistic positions are rather concrete than symbolic, our discussions on the continent are often opened with comparison and analogies. Light-related terms, proverbs and poems are present in language and philosophy and almost all of them come with a positive connotation. When explaining plans or practice, African artists almost always refer to the metaphorical and symbolic meaning of light rather than to its physical properties, technology aspects or perception characteristics. Maybe it can be traced to the tradition of artists as storytellers, onlookers and social commenters in service of their networks, their communities and societies?

There is a great interest in networking and co-operation and contemporary visual art plays a significant role in the development of African nations and their cultural and economic prosperity. As individual countries make their presence increasingly felt on the international scene, we are likely to see the falling away of the continental category and art from the African continent will increasingly be looked at by country or by region. In the selection of artists, we not only checked on artistic qualities but as well on the their interest working in a West-African country.

In Mali, the most common cultural activities involve music and dance. Malian musicians like Oumou Sangaré, Sali Sidibi, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam, and Salif Keita are internationally known. The Tuareg group Tinariwen attracted a large following in the West with a unique electric-guitar-driven sound that fans dubbed “desert blues”. As well the traditional music from women of southern Mali known as “Wassoulou” is very popular and known internationally. When it comes to fine art, very likely, the references for fine art would be wood carvings of masks, statues, stools, and objects used in traditional religion. Dogon dancers and Bambara masks, jewellery making by the Malinke people and leatherworking are identity-coining parts in art and crafts. There are only a few positions like Abdoulaye Konaté who are internationally present. His works are a striking combination of paintings and installations. Most of Konaté’s large-scale works involve textiles. His work is backed with a long-standing art and crafts tradition working on fabrics. Internationally known is “Bògòlanfini”. This is made of handmade cotton. Its colors and patterns result from a process of dying with fermented mud and plants that dates to the 12th century. The patterns reference to animals, historical events, religion, and mythologies of the tribe. The cloth is majorly dyed by females who are fluent in the iconographic language. In traditional Malian culture, Bògòlanfini is worn by hunters, as ritual protection and as a badge of status, as well as camouflage. Girls are wrapped in Bògòlanfini after their initiation into adulthood which still includes genital mutilation, and women are swathed in Bògòlanfini immediately after childbirth. It is believed that the Bògòlanfini are imbued with “Nyama”, referred to as vital life force, energy or strength. Bògòlanfini is on display in museums around the world. Recently, it found international interest among fashion and interior designers.

Known as UNESCO World Heritage are the Sudanese-style monuments and buildings are made from mudbricks, adobe plaster and wooden logs as seen in the city of Djenné and Timbuktu, and in the Ségou area, too. The close link between art, architecture and crafts mirrors in the outline of the National Museum of Mali is in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, and was opened in 1953 as the Sudanese Museum. With the independence of the Republic of Mali in 1960, it became the national museum of Mali with the new mission of promoting national unity while honoring traditional Malian culture. It presents permanent and temporary archaeological and ethnographic exhibitions, along with exhibitions of contemporary art. In music and dance, art and crafts, traditions and cultural heritage are very present. They are minting sociocultural reality by bringing them to life. There is only a small amount of contemporary art activities that interfere with public space and democratic culture or address societal questions.

Beyond Ségou’ Art, one of the exceptions is the “Bamako Encounters”, a biannual photography activity. The exhibition, featuring exhibits by contemporary African photographers, is spread over several Bamako cultural centers, including the National Museum, the National Library, the Modibo Keïta memorial, and the District Museum. The exhibition also features colloquia and film showings. It is jointly run by the government of Mali and the “Institutes Français”, the cultural exchange agency of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The focus is on photography, film and video and it gained international reputation.

In the recent years, a mainly young generation of artists and curators build up numerous initiatives for projects and festivals as well as centers of art, photography, dance, performance and film, all across the continent from Tunisia to the Republic of Congo to South Africa, from Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal to Kenya and Tanzania. Many of these new initiatives and institutions address the forms and demands of contemporary art or the sociocultural relevance of artistic endeavors. The last decade witnessed the emergence of a variety of independent art spaces using a wide range of formats to promote art, socio-cultural development and critical debate. These projects address new phenomena and challenges including societal cohesion and socio-cultural issues, the role of women and the attitudes towards homosexuality, education qualities and professional assets, ecological and economic needs, socio-urban development and the social dimension of megacities, experiences of travel and migration, the culture of “Afropolitanism” and of cosmopolitanism. As organizations, they are more communities than institutions and most of them work with an audience-centered approach to path the way for contemporary art being part of public life and democratic culture. They often join forces transdisciplinary, they generate options to provide access to innovative technologies and to design the process of digitization. These initiatives draw a new map of artistic practice in Africa.

This trend has resulted in a wide range of artistic collaborations between Africa and Europe. In their joint projects, cultural producers are intensively discussing the framework for transcontinental exchange which continues to be tainted by colonialism. This is true for SEGOU YELEN and INTERFRENCE in Tunis, too. The new form of initiatives profits from the exchange with Europe and beyond, but it comes with the responsibility to find new ways of how to deal with the colonial past and its traces in the present. In 2019, that has become a shared concern of all partners, it is a constant part of the discussion and it will lead to new forms and formats.

When we started to work in Tunisia, there was no framework and no space in North-Africa dedicated to research and production of light-based works and not one dedicated to digital media in contemporary art, but there were artists, architects and designers, well educated and highly interested. This resonance paved the way for a series of community-based and audience-centered contemporary art activities in Tunisia. The most successful is the international light art project INTERFERENCE in Tunis with around 20.000 visitors in 4 days of display. It is free of charge.

The biennial takes places in the Medina of Tunis and is dedicated to the interplay of contemporary art and cultural heritage. Formation in art production and curatorship, project management and art mediation led to collective of around 300, mainly young Tunisians, that care for production, display and communication of contemporary art in their neighborhoods and networks. Our goal to create an international community of artists and curators, producers and mediators, community care-takers and audience hosts worked out. Since 2016, we produced three international exhibition projects in public space, two in Tunis and one on the island of Djerba. The next one will take place in Summer 2019 in Djerba again.

Around that, we build initiatives to work with young locals on guided tours and apps, on media technologies and digitization, on fundraising and international networking. We became a community for contemporary art and sociocultural development, a school for art and culture production, a platform for digital media and a learning environment for cultural heritage. We create exhibitions, we offer residencies for artists and curators, we do art education and mediation, we discuss political developments and find time for theoretical reflection. We work for the growth and appreciation of artistic and intellectual creativity in Africa. Genuinely, we work transdisciplinary, as a network and in our program. Arts and crafts, technologies and sciences, society and world view are intertwined.

And we experience in Tunisia and in Mali that art in public space has a real chance in both countries where there are almost no art associations, no galleries and no museums that care for production, display and dissemination of contemporary art. We believe that visitors need to have opportunities to experience art to learn about it, to ask questions and to become part of critical debate. Art experience and understanding, art mediating and reviewing, curating and artistic production are an organic part of one intellectual tissue that aims at poly-logic frameworks and transversal settings that are part of the humus of a democratic and peaceful society.

We understood in the last years, that there is a genuine public interest in everything that stretches the tissue of past and present towards new opportunities and potentials. SEGOU YELEN proved that working with light is a great choice. The interplay of the given context and the artist’s composition, the presence of light and the multitude of viewing points is a kind of complexity that inspires. This focus on interdependencies can shape new mindsets and attitudes for future undertakings. We left Mail with many requests to come back and we go home to Tunis knowing that there is a large audience waiting for the next edition of INTERFERENCE. We believe that if we continue to work on light, that our idea that contemporary art will become as important as cultural heritage for the identity of our societies, will take place.

Text: Bettina Pelz