« There’s no point in being just another artist without something to fight for »

Interview with Papa Kouyaté, by Virginie Andiramirado

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A theatre and film set designer, director of a cultural centre, and a politically committed visual artist, Papa Kouyaté, who lives in Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, goes about all of these occupations with the same quiet passion. Son of the actor Sotigui Kouyaté – he will design the sets for his father’s theatre creation due to open in Paris next January – and brother of the filmmaker Dani, for whom he designed the sets of the film Sia, le rêve du python (cf. Africultures n°49), he admits that he is influenced by his father and his brother’s paths, both of whom  » manage to uphold the memory of Africa’s history and to promote the values of African societies through their work ».
Thanks to the « Root’arts » exchange programme with artists from the Bordeaux region of France, Papa exhibited for the first time as a visual artist last May in Bordeaux. The exhibition, part of which was shown in Paris last July at Aude Minart’s (who regularly exhibits contemporary artists from the African continent) and at the « La Folie en Tête » café, revealed a singular artist whose initially disconcerting artistic approach convinces by the force of its commitment. An interview with a polyvalent and committed artist who shares his combats and projects with Africultures.

How do you manage to reconcile your different activities, each of which requires your full time?
First of all, up until the Bordeaux exhibition, I never described myself as a visual artist, even though I do train other artists in my Bobo studio. But all these activities echo one another and some overlap, particularly my work at the Bobo Cultural and Social Centre, which, at the end of each year, organises a music and traditional story-telling festival that ends with a carnival for the children. Since we started out three years ago, we have about a hundred Europeans who come to the festival, as well as other nationalities, whose subscriptions help the festival to survive and make it possible to make the events free for the local population. Running the centre has never stopped me from working on other projects, including a personal project that I am particularly keen to realise.
Which is what?
To create an artists village 50 km from Bobo, the aim being to set up a visual arts residency that will lead to the creation of a contemporary art museum. It will initially be somewhere where human and artistic encounters can take place, enabling artists of different origins to share their techniques.
Later, the aim will be to turn it into a training centre for all craftsmen and women, whatever the materials they work with (pottery, basketry, bronze, etc.). The aim is to introduce them to the concept of design so that they can develop their creative potentiality to help them go beyond the strictly traditional dimension.
How do you intend to get the necessary funding for such a project?
It will take however long it takes. I need 5 hectares and it took me six years to get 1.5 hectares. I obviously need partners, but I prefer to be cautious. I have received propositions from people who want to help me, but you have to know who these people and what their motives are. It’s not easy to find sincere partners who really believe in the project and who are willing to make a commitment despite the funding difficulties.
What kind of propositions have you had so far?
They have above all been Western. The French association Léo Lagrange offered to quickly set up the centre on the condition that one of their people was put in charge of running it. We know where we are going. We don’t need an outsider to run the centre.
We haven’t had any proposals in Burkina so far. I tend to be a bit suspicious of propositions from the institutions which, in Burkina, like elsewhere, try to co-opt the project once it is in place. The Head of Culture initially showed an interest, but finally pulled out because they didn’t think we were involving them enough. Whether we’re looking at this project to build an arts village or our Centre’s activities in Bobo, we have a really hard time trying to do things for the local population. We were refused a grant that backs private cultural initiatives because are activities are not lucrative, which is absurd!
Isn’t there a risk of occupying the same niche as the Olorun Foundation in Ouagadougou (cf. Africultures n°38)?
Olorun has above all managed to boost new « contemporary » artists, which is in itself quite an achievement. But Olorun tends to meet an immediate demand with a seductive and thus profitable output that doesn’t encourage personal artistic development.
This was indeed one of the phenomena that encouraged me to develop my arts village project. The artists sell their works to passing tourists, to the embassies, to the expatriate community who are the only buyers. The average Burkinabè does not have sufficient purchasing power to be able to buy these works, so they are taken away and we have no trace of them. It reminds me of our traditional art scattered all over the West. I decided that I had to something at my level to keep the works and, better still, to get foreign artists to leave a trace here too. Hence the project to equip the arts village with a permanent exhibition space.
My project is more of a complement to the Olorun Foundation. I know all the artists of the first generation, who have nearly all left the foundation. They have spread their wings and don’t ever get together to work. I think that’s a shame, as we need to unite our creative energy to be heard, especially in this world where the artist is also someone who leads struggles within society. We have to work together to win these battles. Burkinabè artists each tend to stay in their own little corner, each just doing what they know how to do without evolving much. They lack commitment somehow.
Do you think that an artist’s commitment is the fundamental driving force behind his/her work?
In my case, if there’s no commitment, if I have nothing to assert or to defend in my paintings, I see no point in being just another artist. Some might say that you have to defend your own livelihood first of all, but I am lucky enough to be able to make a living from other things, from my film and theatre sets and my work at the cultural centre.
In your paintings, you examine the memory of the African continent’s history, but you also question today’s societies and the consequences of the continent’s History on these societies’ future development. Are these two poles the basis of your own commitment?
When I tackle the themes of colonisation and slavery in my paintings, I also examine the History that is easily forgotten in the West, whether intentionally or not. This represents a conscious effort on my part to inform people of my generation who know very little about their past.
These subjects are barely taught in schools, especially in France.
I similarly revisit the legacy of Thomas Sankara, who was assassinated in 1987 after four years of intense power, so that he does not sink into oblivion. Some people say that he was a tyrant, a dictator. But beyond all of that, he was the person who awoke a force in the Burkinabè and African youth. He showed us that poverty is not an African norm and that we can succeed by banking on our own strengths. That is the legacy we have to share, to make exist everywhere.
Has your work on Sankara ever caused you any problems in Burkina?
The work I have done on Sankara, which is based on his speeches, remains a process of remembrance. Many people are still fighting for this man’s memory. We must not forget what he taught us about ourselves. He made us realise and become aware of our own happiness which we can achieve out of nothing at all. It suffices to define it, to accept being ourselves and to live according to our means. I am within the truth of the memory of my country. I speak about myself when I speak about Sankara, not about politics. Having said that, this work also serves to teach people who haven’t heard of him about Sankara, especially in the West. It doesn’t claim to do anymore than that.
Does that mean that certain paintings are destined specifically for a given public?
This is a historical work that invites people to reconsider their History, like, for example, the painting where you see the number of slaves the different colonies exported in one year. It creates something tangible, even if these figures only take the declared number of slaves into account, overlooking those who died en route.
Confronting people with figures can help raise their awareness by offering them a certain reality of what things might have been like. The exhibition was destined for Europe and I have no particular intention of taking it to Burkina Faso where I would need to formulate other discourses and take other positions on some of the themes in my exhibition, such as slavery, colonisation, Sankara, and development.
Do you consider your approach to be purely artistic?
The painting is ultimately just a pretext for introducing the text. I did these paintings without focusing too much on the aesthetics of the painting. The text and the discourse were more important to me. I was sure of one thing when I was working on these paintings – that barely 2% of people would read the texts that feature on them. At least a few colours were thus needed to get the eye to fix on the canvas and to be drawn to the text which couldn’t be completely un-aesthetic. I didn’t sign any of the paintings. For me, the exhibition itself is the work. My intention was not to consider my paintings aesthetically in order to sell them. I instead hoped to make a book out of the exhibition to bring out the texts even more because it isn’t easy to read a painting.
Each painting seems to constitute a piece of the same puzzle. How was this work constructed?
I already had the documents. I didn’t need to decide what was tormenting me. When I hear people of my age in the West speaking about Africa, I am surprised at their lack of knowledge. That’s what also encouraged me to present certain texts in my paintings. That was ultimately the meaning of my approach.
« Root’arts » imposed the theme of the Mask and Writing. I thus worked on this theme by questioning the idea of the mask which is viewed differently by different cultures. For a Westerner, the mask is an inanimate, aesthetic object. For an African, it is life, movement, dance, music, and song.
In the West, the mask is a cultural element with a market value. In Africa, it’s a cultural element too, but has no market value. It didn’t used to be sculpted by artists, for that matter, but by blacksmiths. Once the dancer takes off his mask at the end of the ceremony, nobody pays it any attention anymore.
Once these two parameters of the culture of the mask were established, I examined the type of mask that the artist can produce, what his/her mask means and what its purpose is. We are all made up of several masks. That’s why each painting represents a face and my aim was to unveil what hides behind each of these masks. The texts stuck on the paintings also help to decrypt them.
Certain words, such as « Elf » or « Sida » (« Aids ») appear in bold letters on the paintings. Are they meant to provoke people, to grab them by the scruff of the neck to make them look at the painting?
A striking word such as « Elf » is above all a way of inviting the public to go beyond the painting’s aesthetic by reading the text that is stuck there and, for some, to go deeper by looking at the different books on show at the exhibition. It is possible to help people so see a bit more clearly; you only have to show them the way.
Similarly, the painting with the penis, which represents the sexual act, and the testicles, which represent the Aids virus, testify to the forgotten women who know that their husbands are unfaithful, but who are unable to insist on using condoms for fear of being divorced. They are subjected to what I call murder.
I come from a renowned family of griots and this way of apprehending people also comes from the griot’s culture. The tale is futile, useful, and revelatory. It is a delectable pastime for the women spinning cotton, an imaginary story for children, and for adults – whom the griots call the « bearded chins » – it is also a real revelation that can be read on several levels.
Do you intend to continue in this vein?
I didn’t intend to when I was working on these paintings. But the repercussions of the Bordeaux exhibition have forced me to reconsider whether or not to continue. It will compromise a lot of things in my work at the Social and Cultural Centre, which takes up a lot of my time. I am in contact with two women artists in Paris (amongst others) who want me to exhibit with them at the Museum of Eroticism in April 2003. I have contacts for exhibitions in France. I also met artists who are willing to come on the residencies that are part of my project. The ball is rolling and I am wondering whether I ought to make it go faster or to slow it down.
If I manage to sow seeds and to raise even just one or two people’s awareness in a year with my paintings, that’s already an achievement.
That’s the driving force of my exhibition: « Here’s what I do, what I have learnt, and I am sharing it with you. If you want to know more, go and look for yourself ». It’s ultimately an invitation to go and discover oneself, as the discovery of the deeper meaning of things necessarily sets up echoes within people. They necessarily take a stance, whether or not they agree.

Papa Kouyaté is due to exhibit in France in December. See the diary pages on www.africultures.com///Article N° : 5628

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