Tag Archives: art

The Complementarity of Culture

Hip-hop is blasting rhythmically out my neighbors windows – Jay-Z to be exact – and the slow, droning, melody of the 7 o’clock call to prayer emanates from the mosque about a block from my apartment. If only I could blog in sound. Reminds me of the scene from La Haine, a film by Matthieu Kassovitz, where Edith Piaf gets mashed up with KRS-One. Brilliance.

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sunugaal (our boat) or where it’s less hot than mali.

After four months in Mali and living through the apex of the hot season (read: 105 degrees or more every day), I could not have been happier to board a plane to Senegal. Five days of temperate, ocean weather, amazing food, old friends and colleagues, and my family! Perfection embodied.

Senegal, especially Dakar, is not exactly what might come to mind when you think of vacation destinations, but it is one of the more beautiful places I’ve been. It’s also still very much lacking on the development scale. So when you plunk a group of foreigners in the middle of the city, you create an instant target for anyone who has anything to sell (which, in Dakar, is everyone.)

artisan talent on Gorée

On our first full day we went to the island of Gorée, which is the old historic slave departure island, but also home to a small community of artisans. The artwork is beautiful – if a little bit overpriced – and the intensity of entrepreneurial sweet talk is impressive. At least three women made friends with us on the boat over, ending the conversation by making us promise to visit their boutiques, which we were more or less forced to do. S’ok, though, Mom and I got some really pretty earrings, and we bought a batik table cloth to serve as a beach blanket for the rest of the trip.

I had promised my brother giant mangoes – and actually lugged three of them with me because Mali is rather famous for the size of its mangoes – so we feasted on mangoes and avocados, delicious Lebanese food, and some of the best ceebu jën, mafé and yassa I’ve had in a long time.

i'm not mad, i promise.

The Marché Sandaga delivered on everything it is known for: guys who follow you and guide you around for no other reason than boredom and the vague hope you will buy something from their boutique (or their father’s/cousin’s/aunt’s boutique); music blaring from CD (and cassette) shops; people shouting left and right; buses running down the narrow streets constantly threatening to run you over; back alleys filled with beautiful artwork and anything else you could ever think of. As annoying as it can be, and as much as I know we paid too much for most things, there is a big part of me that was so nostalgic for it, that it was nice. The little bit of Wolof I know got put to good use, much to the amusement of anyone within earshot, and joking around with the Dakarois about the differences between Senegal and Mali was hilarious – mostly because the insults are the same from both sides of the border. A few small paintings, six yards of cloth, a t-shirt and a few statues later, we were all so exhausted, we went back to the hotel and didn’t reemerge until dinner.

We visited the Renaissance Africaine monument (absolutely ridiculous), ate dinner with my Senegalese family (absolutely delicious), went to a few different beaches, and admired the sheer beauty and color of Dakar and the people that live there. Not to generalize, but Senegalese – and especially Dakarois – are some of the best and most colorfully dressed people I’ve ever seen.

35% of the ticket sales go directly to President Wade

Although I hadn’t been there since 2008, it was like I had never left. Dakar has changed a lot over the past few years, and parts of it weren’t even recognizable, but walking around felt sort of like going back home, and seeing old friends and family was wonderful. I think it was a bit overwhelming for my family, but hopefully the delicious food and beautiful beaches made up for it a little. My mom is already talking about our next vacation somewhere in Africa; I am dreaming up something involving gorillas, the Eastern Congo, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

karl and khadija eating binta's best!

On Monday morning I got back to my apartment in Bamako after only 4 hours of sleep, losing my favorite ring down the drain at the hotel, and being ripped off by the cabbie on the way back from the airport. I was greeted by 100 degree weather coupled with the humidity from the previous week’s rains, and a hamper full of dirty laundry. Awesome.

So today I skipped work, went to the market, talked to a jeweler about making me a new ring, bought some avocados and mangoes, and tried to ignore the sweat running down my back…

Hotter, sweatier, dirtier, prettier.

Getting to Ségou was, in a word, insanity. Even thinking back on the bus ride there, it’s sort of hard to believe. Squeezed in amongst about 75 other people next to a woman with her baby on her lap and another woman sitting on the floor with a small girl sitting on her knees, the trip started out ok. En route out of Bamako, we made at least 10 stops to pick people up, let people off, pay tolls, and purchase provisions for the trip.

nothing cannot be bought roadside

Provisions, in this case, included everything from water, mangoes, and cakes, to live chickens, cassava root, and 50 kilo sacks of onions. The baby next to me shat his pants, the woman behind me couldn’t stop jabbing my back with her knees, the woman on my other side couldn’t keep her cassava root from flying all over the place, and the sweat was just dripping.

After five hours of stop and go, and we stepped off the bus into the chaos of the gare routière of Ségou. I quickly escaped to the shade of a tree to eat the mango I had been holding onto (after watching the woman sitting next to me eat five of them over the course of the trip.)

Once we arrived at our hotel, L’Auberge, I knew that the bus ride was worth it. Less than 200m from the Niger river, it was situated right in front of an (admittedly pretty touristy) artisan market, a few shady trees, and all the peace and quiet that Bamako is not. And everything was pretty. It contrasted so wonderfully with the place I call home these days.

le fleuve niger

We only had 24 hours in Ségou – two friends who are visiting are now heading out for a 5-day trek across Dogon country, and yours truly is back in the office tomorrow. Nevertheless, 24 hours in this sleepy little haven spent lazing about next to the river, walking along sandy paths amidst riverside gardens, visiting pottery and fabric artisan markets, and listening to excellent djembe music at a bar in town was exactly the recharge I needed.

working in the river

pottery and leaves

the hottest peppers you'll ever eat

 

hot, sweaty and dirty. (but ségou is pretty!)

Until the bus ride home. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I asked Fouad, our hospitable Lebanese host at L’Auberge, which bus company he would recommend for my return trip. Confident that Somatra would be worlds better than Coulibaly Travel, I got myself to the bus station in town, said adieu to my friends headed north, bought a ticket, and sat down to wait for the bus that would be leaving “in just a minute”. Two hours later, I sit down in the hottest sauna of a vehicle I have ever experienced, and with a slightly panicky feeling, realized that the windows only cracked open about three inches at the top.

When the bus was moving, the breeze was a godsend. When it wasn’t, the temperature soared, the sweat flowed. Perhaps it’s testament to my relief at being seated next to only one person this time, and someone not likely to soil his diaper, but the chickens didn’t bother me, and the cassava root flying around was just amusing. I stepped off the bus at the gare routière in Bamako and got into a four-wheeled engine block masquerading as a taxi to head home to a long, cold, shower. Hotter, sweatier, and dirtier than ever.

retrospective no. 5: banks, art, fashion.

There is something very powerful about the ability to express oneself through aesthetic means. Everywhere I’ve been in Congo, there have been statues, paintings, sculptures; stone, metal, wood, oil, acrylic, colored sand, cloth, any medium you could imagine.

mask, Goma, Congo

It doesn’t matter how poor or rich a place is, there will always be art, music, culture.  The cultural outputs of a place or a people that is most often seen as destitute are some of the most vibrant and beautiful that I’ve come across.

One of the biggest banks in Congo, TMB, has more art on the walls of its Kinshasa office than any other bank I’ve seen. Beautiful murals and paintings from several different Congolese artists. One of them (whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) has sworn to sign his name upside-down on any ‘oeuvre’ he produces, until the situation in the Congo rights itself up. Apparently there was a period of about a year when he was signing his name right-side-up in the mid-2000s. This is no longer the case.

The bank also has an art gallery that hosts some of the most beautiful Congolese art I’ve ever seen. And c’est pas donné non plus.  Paintings go for thousands of US dollars; the artists are known for their particular style and genre, having really made a name for themselves. One of my favorite artists has this amazingly vibrant style using some of the brightest colors in a sort of abstract way, and then also incorporating metal or wooden statues into his works. I’m trying to find a picture of one of his paintings that I can post. The originals go for about $10K, so when the kitchen counter change jar is full, I’ll be right on my way to buying one of those…

Across the street from this branch of the bank is one of the biggest houses of haute-couture in Kinshasa: Vlisco. Incidentally, a Dutch brand, but the super-wax they sell and their clothing design is unmatched by any other.

I said I wouldn’t roll down the streets of Kinshasa in Jean-Paul Gaulthier, but if someone were to offer me a Vlisco gown, you’d have a hard time getting me out of it.

The défilées must be positively blinding; a super-saturation of color and shapes the likes of which Bryant Park has probably never seen.

Mind you, the super wax in this store goes for about $100 for a bolt of fabric (six yards) and the dresses they have on display are not priced.  That’s probably for good reason.  The wealth in Kinshasa can be just as blinding as the colors of the fashion, so I am sure there is no lack of clientele.  But the difference in price between a Vlisco gown and a tailored dress made by a street tailor has got to be about as striking as the contrast between apartments lining the Grand Boulevard and those in the outlying communes.

I leave you with a sunset.  Just because.

éblouissant