One week into a 10 week journey through East and West Africa, initially attending an artist Cooperative in Dar es Salaam, travelling Tanzania and returning to Dar to put up a small show of drawings. I’ll be in Nigeria by invitation for the month of November to participate in the Iwaya Contemporary Art Festival.
Of the 7 kilograms in my backpack, over a quarter of the weight is in a book, Phantom Africa – a 600 + page diary by the writer Michel Leiris, the first English translation (this year) of an 18 month French anthropology expedition begun in 1932 from Dakar to Djibouti. I’ll read and progressively draw through its pages as an ongoing project.
Beginning Leiris’ diary I find a correspondence in the expression of his journey, intertwining an imaginary ‘phantom’ Africa with the real, hectic movement of people and the identities that bind.
I’ve planned this trip a long time , perhaps as long as I have been planning anything. Memories of an early childhood in West Africa in time became unreliable. Stories and images began to replace experience; memories of rememberings are all I had of my early world, fragmented sound and vision, surface rhythms and hyper colour enveloped by ever colonizing stereotypes.
The Africa that Leiris expected with his European imagination was beyond the frontier of reason where the imaginary existed pre-enlightenment. He glimpses it in indigenous custom through the tattered curtain of colonial bureaucracy, and his strength is in holding these apart enabling the reader to feel the space between an imposed framing order and a vernacular expression of ancient African society.
In the week I’ve been at the Nafasi Art SpaceI’ve spent most of my time drawing different people doing what they do – Loom weaver, dancer, musician, painter, video editor, journalist. This array of activities highlights the inclusiveness of the space running from traditional craft and peformance to contemporary technology.
More than 120 ethnic groups are included within the territory of Tanzania. In the 70s the government instilled a sense of nationhood by encouraging members of each group to move to different parts of the country. Equal representation of ethnicity accounts for the relative harmony in Tanzania in contrast to the ethnic battles seen in neighbouring states. It’s also why traditional performance and craft which are central to ethnic identity are politically alive and keenly supported in contemporary culture.
If you walk out of the Nafasi gates at night onto a dark dirt road there’s a gradual transformation to the glow and clang of approaching industrial factories. Near the traffic of Soldering Road is a massing of people whose silhouettes dart quickly and pack densely in the unlit intersection. Off-shift from the steelworks, the candle-making and tissue factories, cleaned and dressed before the relief and excitement of social play, some hours caught before sleep opens its doors to a dreamworld in the confines of the on-site dormitory.