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Station Gare Mali, an example of a changing art practice

A collaboratory project of twenty international artists in Bamako

Hama Goro and Harald Schole

Artists represent a soft power in the political and social field, that’s my conviction. Art rises questions, visualises problems, is critical. It exceeds social borders and can touch all groups of the society. A power that cannot be tamed, but stimulates other points of view. All this makes Global Imaginations in De Meelfabriek fascinating and so worth visiting. Viewpoints that my colleagues in Africa and I also showed in the project Station Gare Mali.

banners

The inhabitants of district ACI 2000 in Bamako were surprised when they saw 18 long banners hanging from the façade of two floors of a building still under construction. They bore texts in French, Bambara and Dutch in a lively confusion of symbols and colours. The artists had depicted in their very own way the Mali proverb Ce que la barbe dit le jour, le pagne l’ a décidé la nuit, and therewith the social and cultural relationship between men and women, the unending universal discussion, also in Mali. The passing comments were multitude. ’But of course, women have the final word’, ’No issue is that we live in harmony’, ’We, women indeed end up having to do everything’.
The banners made by artists from Mali, Benin, Togo and the Netherlands were the result of a cultural exchange programme entitled Station Gare Mali, which took place in the Centre Soleil d’Afrique in Bamako, Mali. Station Gare Mali was an international art project with a focus on cooperation between artists from different countries and with diverse cultural backgrounds. In Bamako, those involved in Station Gare Mali wanted to go beyond the walls of the Centre Soleil d’Afrique. We wanted to hit the streets and look for possibilities with art in relation to architecture. By showing Soleil d’Afrique’s indoor activities to the neighbourhood, we also tried to create public awareness about art. Station Gare Mali also wanted to offer a podium and working space to the artists that reached beyond the usual boundaries: l ‘art sans frontières.
The artists Hama Goro and Harald Schole were searching for common points of departure, while being open for creativity and recognising their diverse cultural backgrounds. This way of working was not necessarily a guarantee for harmonious results, but that was part of the game. We were therefore happy that Arts Collaboratory put their trust in the project, in spite of an uncertain outcome, more so since we had recognised, that the subsidizers mostly prefer predicted results. The Station Gare Mali concept however, was definitely not a wild adventure. It was intensively prepared over a period of two years.

cultural investments

In 1999, Hama Goro initiated the Centre Soleil d’Afrique. With his Centre, Goro wants to stimulate and support Malian artists and offer them an international framework. The Centre originated from the practice of Bogolan, the traditional Malian textile painting technique. In the years following it became an important cultural platform of exchange for Bamako, Mali and the surrounding countries. Over the past 15 years international workshops have been organised on painting, photography, sculpture, multi-media training, etc. Curators, artists and other disciplines from all continents have since then visited the Centre Soleil d’Afrique. Its programs and potential justify the subtitle: International Centre for Contemporary Art.

proverbs

With our project Station Gare Mali we wanted to work together with African artists and to try to operate beyond common cultural frameworks. Mutual exchange was our main goal. Station Gare Mali implies a meeting point and point of departure. Malian proverbs were our common vehicle, our train of thought. And the motor was our curiosity to meet different points and common grounds.
The strong oral tradition in West Africa and Mali produces new wise sayings everyday making Malian proverbs a good start for cooperation. There were three basic principles for the different workshops in the Centre Soleil d’Afrique: ‘Malian proverbs’, ‘art in relation to architecture’ and ‘public interaction’.
During the first workshop day, we all sat around the table with artists from Benin, Mali, Togo and the Netherlands. Discussing the collected Malian proverbs and sayings was a way to learn to know more about each others background and culture. Dozens of Malian sayings and proverbs were collected in the previous months by Malian and Dutch efforts. Using these proverbs was a hit in the bull’s eye.

cherchez la femme

In a philosophical way, the proverbs reflect and respond to everyday situations. When we discussed the proverb Ce que la barbe dit le jour, le pagne l ’a décidé la nuit (a gender variation on “Man proposes, God disposes”) a long and tempestuous debate was the result. The position and the role of women in society appeared to be an important subject among the artists. Some artists stood up gesticulating emotionally about the importance of the power of women. The female artists, in their turn, responded in a more modest but no less determined way. They agreed, but as a proverb is subject to many nuances, it was spontaneously and extensively discussed by the whole group. And finally, the discussion changed into a debate on, to what extent, the women in Malian society have the power. Many daily tasks rest on their shoulders, also in these modern times and in 21st century Bamako. The men agree that women take care of everything both in and outside the house. One of the participating female artists said: “With a stone, a woman can create an oven”. Often, women advise their husbands when decisions are taken. But, as the proverb says, they do this imperceptibly and between the lines. Finally, when it came to choosing a proverb to depict visually, this proverb was democratically chosen by the artists to create their individual work.
Within one week, eighteen very diverse works, all responding to the proverb, were produced. Several Malian artists used the Bambara version (the local language) of the proverb, in which it is translated as Tulu ka la b3se bonbosi la. Together, we hung the works on the outer wall of the two-storey building still under construction, opposite the Centre Soleil d’Afrique. Passers-by stopped, looked and gave their spontaneous response.

transformation of the Centre Soleil d’Afrique into a Station Gare Mali

Together with Hama Goro and the other artists we discussed how we could transform the Centre Soleil d’Afrique and its surroundings into a splendid Station Gare Mali by making use of the three ingredients we had been working with up till then: the proverbs, art and architecture and the idea of interaction with the public. The challenge of a transformation into a Station Gare Mali encouraged and excited the participants. The ideas flowed. And with the idea to turn the Centre Soleil d’Afrique into a gare, with the hubbub and liveliness of a train station everyone set to work. With the few means available, all artists got stuck in hammer and tongs. Finally, the artistic content and the physical surroundings matched perfectly.
The metaphor of a busy railway station where goods and people come together, where people meet, talk, discuss the merchandise, the family situation and politics, became reality. All artists found their way to deal with the topic.
Temporary installations, assemblages, paintings, photographs, video, sculptures, wall objects, a reflection of the urban landscape on the roof and a great marionette show and on the walls of the building across the street, still under construction, the 18 large banners about the proverb Ce que la barbe dit le jour, le pagne l’a décidé la nuit were put into place.
New perspectives and another view on artistic possibilities were presented and embedded in the process of this transformation and an apparently effortless Station Gare Mali was realised with the efforts and organisational support of the Centre Soleil d’Afrique. All the support was great, and of course that of all the participants involved, in total over twenty artists from Benin, Mali, Togo and the Netherlands.

to conclude

In 2015, Hama Goro runs his centre for more than fifteen years, a milestone, especially if you consider the often complicated African conditions. The unpretentious building of the Centre Soleil d’Afrique, since its start in 1999, is still on a dirt road in the now booming district ACI 2000 in the western part of Bamako. And in 2009, after a decade, it deserved some fresh paint; it’s worth it. However, it is understandable that there are other – the artistic – priorities. While working together with the African artists and also while travelling through Mali, we realised that contemporary European terms such as `cradle to cradle' and ’inventive design'; the innovative use of sparse materials, are in Mali daily wisdoms.
The workshops and the exhibition are examples of how one can enrich artistic thinking. Besides this, the exhibition shows how the artists, inventively and with common efforts, have transformed the premises of the Centre Soleil d’Afrique into an exiting and diverse Station Gare Mali. With the current disturbances to the Malian border Hama Goro is even more aware of the cultural position of his - fresh painted - Centre Soleil. He focuses on peaceful collaborations, social change and of course the role of the artists.

2009-2015 Harald Schole
Harald Schole is visual artist, independent curator and art consultant for art and public space; free-lance writer for a.o. the Dutch art magazine kM, lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. www.haraldschole.nl / info@haraldschole.nl

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