Out of Adversity, Visions of Life

Out of Adversity, Visions of Life

SALIF DIABAGATÉ, an artist here in this nation’s financial capital, stands by a pile of sodden debris outside his bungalow studio. He reaches for a bit of sticking-out cloth, gives it a tug, then pulls until he frees some canvas painted with symbols and words. He spreads it out, creased and dirty, on the ground.

“I made this to look like a traditional hunter’s shirt with amulets and talismans,” he says, pointing to small pouches sewn on the painting’s surface. “The soldiers must have thought it was dangerous. Bad magic.”

The soldiers were government troops who, a year earlier, had broken into the studio and bivouacked there when violence gripped Abidjan during the climax of a decade of civil war. Mr. Diabagaté, now in his early 40s, was in Berlin for a show when “the crisis,” as it is called, erupted. He couldn’t get back until it was over. By then the damage was done. The soldiers had burned his sculptures and dumped his paintings in the rain.

Could this one be salvaged? Probably not. He’d have to focus on making new work, though no one was buying. “Art is what you give up,” he says, “if you’re trying to hold on to cash.”

Even in stable times life can be hard for artists in West Africa. Not that art ever stops being made. Cities like Abidjan, Dakar in Senegal, and Bamako in Mali are saturated in it. Murals cover public walls and the sides of trucks and buses. Pottery, metalwork and weaving, in styles new and old, fill open-air markets. Portraits of jazzy beauties, Sufi saints and culture heroes (Che, Mandela, Obama, Madonna) are for sale everywhere.

But the elements that in the West make a healthy contemporary scene — galleries, museums, collectors, journals, critics and a steady, responsive audience — are in short supply. And the degree of isolation of individual artists from others across the continent and from art developments worldwide is almost inconceivable to an urban Westerner who takes instant global communication for granted.

Both despite and because of such isolation, local artist networks coalesce occasionally into tight and efficient collectives like Huit Facettes in Dakar, more often as loose affinity groups of fellow art students and friends. For a visitor, like this art critic on a monthlong trip in Africa, such groups can be difficult to find in cities that have nothing resembling art neighborhoods. But they’re there.

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