I appreciate the way the author describes the artist’s spiritual practice in the article below. I’d love to see what Fofana’s work looks like – and to witness his process…
Born in Mali in 1967, Aboubakar Fofana left the African continent at an early age for Paris. Fofana’s founding discipline was calligraphy. Fascinated by the sign and the trace, he drew on Western and Eastern traditions to help him master his medium. He wondered if Africa had something similar, and then a series of chance happenings revealed a trove of scripts from across the continent. His first major installation was based around these many written forms, ancient and modern, countering the romantic belief that all African societies belong to oral traditions, and reflecting Fofana’s own spiritual revolution toward Africa as a source of inspiration. And then he remembered a plant he had seen in a forest as a young boy, before his dislocation; a plant that had ordinary-looking green leaves that, when crushed, stained the fingers blue.
Returning to West Africa, he traveled extensively throughout the region, looking for anybody who could teach him to put together a working fermented indigo vat. But the skills had disappeared before he was born, replaced by chemical dyestuffs, leaving only fragments of knowledge. He found much of the information he had been seeking in a library in Paris, pinned into the dry leaves of pre-independence accounts of daily life in West Africa. For many years he went back and forth between his two worlds, taking the pieces of knowledge he found in both places and trying to put them into practice.
Fofana’s tangible output is the result of a spiritual practice based on his fundamental belief that nature is divine, and this is how he shares his practice with an audience. His skill comes from decades of learning to work in harmony with the forces of nature, and his materials and their limitations and innate qualities utterly inform every aspect of his work. His indigo vats are alive. They contain few ingredients and no chemicals—the color comes from the indigo leaves themselves, pounded and dried. Bacteria, carefully nurtured inside the vat, make the indigotin pigment in the leaves accessible and help to reduce it to a form whereby it will oxidize directly onto the fabric.
Fofana’s work embodies a conscious attempt to hold and defend his techniques and materials, and the environment and human philosophies that gave rise to them. For Fofana, the natural world along with our own human ability is where we began, and it is how we will finish.
This project seems to resemble my Sin Paredes project in some ways… audio, drawing, personal stories about immigration… It sounds really great – I’d love to see it!
I often wonder what people mean when they say Kassel has changed over these past two years, during what has been called the “refugee crisis.” Has the city become more diverse? Are social and cultural borders shifting? Such as the border demarcated by Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, between Mitte and Nordstadt, the home of Turkish, Ethiopian, Bulgarian, and other immigrant communities that arrived in Kassel in the 1960s and ’70s. Or is the change marked by fear, those appeals to the populist imagination that produce profound anxiety around the arrival of new communities, represented through the extreme right-wing sentiments of movements such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)?
The Lebanese-Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh, born in Beirut in 1978, presents a series of portraits at documenta 14 under the title “I Strongly Believe in Our Right to Be Frivolous.” The portraits are made through encounters in Kassel and Athens (as well as other cities) with Middle Eastern and North African migrants, who have made—or are making—the transition from the status of refugees into citizens.
Including text, drawings, embroideries, and a sound installation, the project began in 2012 as “time documents” of the Syrian and Middle Eastern revolutions and subsequent crises. “I Strongly Believe …” approaches the topic of (forced) migration on the level of oral history: an ambiguous historiographic category that escapes more formal archival processes, yet an undeniably tenacious one because knowledge is conveyed through people themselves. The project and the production of these portraits follows the artist and vice versa as she connects to local communities in the cities she visits.
The oral history of displaced individuals that Al Solh bears witness to is as much a legal account as a personal one. Many of the portraits are drawn on yellow legal paper, which serve as material indexes of the painstaking bureaucratic processes through which immigrants must go in order to obtain citizenship. The portraits map the geographies of arrival through storytelling, but also through the experience of immigration policies that deeply affect Europe’s political landscape.
The sonic elements of the work are translations of the Arabic texts in the portraits. It is hard to discern which voice belongs to which text, or even to which person the voice belongs. The ever-expanding oral history situates the stories of migrants within the informal social economies in which trauma, relief, fear, anxiety, joy, and hospitality unfold.