Developing a common political effort

Interview with Cheikh Oumar Sissoko, the Malian Minister of Culture.

Bamako, 9 February 2003
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Appointed Minister of Culture in October 2002, filmmaker Cheikh Oumar Sissoko speaks to Africultures

Given Mali’s extraordinary artistic vitality and the scale of the problems that need resolving, what choices need to be made and what do you propose to those who have decided to place their trust in you?
I propose to look at the situation culture is in. There are three essential problems, which resume the general problem of culture in Africa, namely a very limited market, the difficulty of establishing a cultural economy, and the poor circulation of cultural products. We need to create infrastructures to give people the means to be creative. We are fortunate enough in Mali to have a Palais de la Culture, which has all it needs to become a wonderful forum for dialogue, creation, and activities for all ages. My first concern is to turn it into a professional, open venue, making the most of the fact that it is by the river to turn it into a flourishing centre. It is perfectly possible to turn the 3000-seat auditorium into a major cultural venue and Salif Keïta has a professional recording studio here where it is possible to make top-quality recordings. We are currently renovating the floating podium on the river, which can host 6000 to 8000 people. This can be used for organising workshops for children, and as rehearsal space for the National Theatre, which is already based there, and for private companies too. Most importantly, we are also currently setting up a department of specialists to help artist get their projects off the ground, prepare cultural events, find out where the sources of funding are, and how to go about contacting them. A cyber café will help artists keep in touch with the rest of the world. This kind of venue in the Malian capital will serve as a relay for other similar venues in Mali’s eight regional capitals. There are thousands of artists there. I have visited these places. They already exist, but need to be fitted with sound and lighting equipment. Decentralisation should help the communes and regional assemblies to take an interest.
The National Arts Institute, which was where Mali’s greatest actors once trained – one of them even became a member of the Comédie Française – also needs to be restructured to get this training up and running again.
These two venues will thereby help stimulate culture, hosting events such as ‘Etonnants Voyageurs’ and the ‘Rencontres de la Photographie’, two key events organised in partnership with France, and other cultural events too.
Such as?
We are going to organise a cultural event in each major town, as was announced by the opening of a new cultural season in honour of artists and creators on 27 December 2002. This will also be the case in our border towns, as culture needs to be a factor of development and peace and stability in an Africa prone to violence and social upheaval. We are going to reinforce Malian peace and stability by organising major artistic events on our borders so that the different ethnic and cultural groups living on both sides of the border can meet, discuss, evolve together and see that even though they are separated by a border, they have the same lifestyles, the same ways of getting on, of struggling even. We are going to hold the « balafon triangle » in Sikasso – an instrument that is found in Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. We three Ministers of Culture are organising a touring festival together (in Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso and Korhogo). I want to get Guinea involved too, making it the « balafon square ». As for the northern countries, the Essakan festival has brought the Mauritanians and Nigeriens together, and should include the Algerians next year too. The Nigeriens came to the Adraboukan festival on the Niger border, and we would like to get the Mauritanians and Algerians to come too. In Noro, near to Mauritania, we held an event based around the horse given the very strong cavalry tradition there. Young people from Senegal, Mauritania and Mali get together every year in Kayes for a weeklong event. I go to all of these events with a team to help improve and correct any errors. One last element is the artistic and cultural biennale that Mali first started holding after independence and which we are going to start up again from 6 to 16 September so that young people from the different regions of Mali can meet. The aim is to show them that they belong to an ensemble and to help them understand the importance of contributing to it. It will also be an occasion for the professionals invited to take advantage of this event to discover new talents.
Isn’t there a tension between Mali’s very deeply rooted cultural heritage and contemporary creation, which the average man in the street has less access to? What choices need to be made?
This tension is normal and is a part of creativity. Musicians contributed to world music and are in turn enriched by it! The market is both domestic and international. The biggest danger for artistic creation would be to cling onto old traditions and to refuse to evolve and to keep up with the times. That would signal art’s certain death. We have understood this danger and want to get the private bodies that are involved in contemporary creation to help others take the first step. We will continue to appreciate the folklore, but History is not static. Africa is modernising and artistic creation is evolving.
Do you detect a real desire for regional co-operation amongst the neighbouring countries’ Ministers for Culture?
Absolutely. The « balafon triangle » was initiated together. Although the problems in Côte d’Ivoire risk jeopardising the Korhogo event, they won’t stop the Ivoirian artists from coming here. People continue to circulate and this is vital. Everybody feels this need today. Culture has what it takes to bring people together and to encourage dialogue. This puts latent conflicts into perspective. When monkeys live together, their tails necessarily touch. This shouldn’t be a source of conflict.
Doesn’t being Minister of Culture also mean trying to impose choices on other ministers, like the suppression of the taxes on the price of paper, which handicaps Mali’s publishers?
Paper ought to be affordable, otherwise we will always be condemned to find partnerships to develop books. It’s a question of paper and ink, but also energy and communications costs, and specific printing problems. A commission is working in my department in order to approach the Ministry of Education. Reducing paper costs would be of benefit for schoolbooks. This also concerns the Minister of Energy and the Minister of Finances and Trade, but ultimately it all depends on the highest level of State’s political will. It’s at this level that the decisions concerning the country’s real cultural policy should be taken, leading to decisions about levies and taxes.
Talking of education, Malian schools are in a very worrying state. There aren’t many schoolchildren present at « Etonnants voyageurs ». What is the likelihood of culture being brought into the schools?
Indeed, how can we include schoolchildren, high-school kids and university students in this crucial debate with the artists? We immediately need to set about prolonging the festival as soon as it’s over. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, a literary circle is due to be set up here, starting with a meeting with the young author Aïda Marie Diallo. Ismaël Samba Traoré will chair the event. The literary critic, Mamadou Bani Diallo, is the technical consultant. Each month, there will be a public meeting with an author and his or her book. I have made this commitment so that we start preparing « Etonnants Voyageurs 2004 » now. We will do the same thing throughout Mali.
On a ministerial level, the pupils and students did not wait for me to be Minister of Culture to start organising cultural events. We receive invitations of all kinds. We are planning to organise cultural events with competitions between the different high schools and schools, and to include them in the artistic and cultural biennale. I have appointed a renowned journalist as my private secretary, who is a good communicator, and who will take charge of things. We have to bring culture into the schools. The Minister for Education wants to incorporate it via the national languages. We have to work on people’s behaviour. Young people look to the West, and especially to the United States. We need to launch a debate. I am preparing a monthly cultural programme on Malian television to reach a wider audience.
You are thus adopting a policy of cultural affirmation and re-centring in the context of runaway globalisation.
Absolutely. That’s what motivates all of these actions. All these events reinforce our cultural diversity in a Mali that is a great melting pot, where the notion of ethnicity is above all something imported by avaricious politicians, a source of conflict.
A filmmaker who in the past greatly insisted on the solutions that needed adopting in terms of film is now Minister. What are your priorities going to be?
To organise a meeting with all my fellow Ministers of Culture, because I can’t do anything on my own. We need to see how all the sources of funding we dispose of can be wisely used to form a film industry, but on a continental level, rather than in each country, with an economic, technical and commercial infrastructure. We can achieve financial autonomy if we manage to awaken the sense of solidarity that has always been lacking. There are already laboratories in South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, and even Nigeria. We need to create or improve the post-production infrastructures in Africa’s five zones. Burkina Faso’s Cinafric could be developed in this sense. I did all the post-production work on Finzan at Cinafric, and pre-edited Guimba in Burkina Faso. Cinafric has unfortunately closed down, but could be started up again. We need to list the material and technicians, to guarantee the upkeep of the post-production structures in order to apply a preferential tariff that can help us reduce production costs.
We also need to adapt to the new technologies, which can help us multiply our production. But we need this solidarity between ministers and to stop saying, « I want my own film school, laboratory, sound studio, etc. » They have to be maintained 24 hours a day. No single Minister of Culture has the budget to do this, but we could do it together. The same goes for the schools. There is a good school in Ghana, so why set one up in Senegal, Burkina or Cameroon? We also have to look into dubbing, and into increasing the number of digital screenings…
You are thus working towards what you set out right from the start as a balanced, inter-state partnership.
It’s got to be done! I asked Brussels for a meeting between the different ACP [African, Caribbean and Pacific States] Ministers of Culture. That’s underway. I’m already going to try to get the Ministers of Culture together at the Fespaco to move beyond the informal lunches stage. The money is there, but it’s badly distributed. There are extraordinary capacities. We’ve got to stop always going back to square one, and to develop a real common political effort!

///Article N° : 5667


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