Aug 12 2016 …
What follows is an excerpt from the companion book for the Drawing on Culture series.
Drawing on Culture: West Africa
”If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” — John F. Kennedy
An African Adventure
This past winter of 2016, I returned to West Africa for three months. It was my eighth trip to the region, marking nearly three years of cumulative travel in and around the Niger River valley.
The adventure really started back in 2001 though, when I first ventured onto the African continent as a wide-eyed white kid from New Hampshire who had, by a series of strange twists of fate, become involved in the music and culture of sub-Saharan Africa.
Gifts and Sacrifices
Now fifteen years later, specific reasons brought me to the African continent once again: back in 2012, I wrote and illustrated a book called Djoliba Crossing, which chronicled my experiences traveling to small villages along the Niger River to study the music and culture of the Mandé peoples.
In 2013, before the book’s release was scheduled, I returned to Guinea with the goal of trekking back to those villages to seek the blessings of the people who appeared in the book. My travel plans to the interior of the country were thwarted, however, and I never made it to the region — which lay far inland on roads that are grueling at best, impassable at worst.
Two years later, compelled by yet another series of unexpected life changes, I attempted again, this time succeeding, in returning to those villages in Guinea to present my book to the people there.
There in the heart of West Africa, beneath the shade of giant baobab trees, I made gifts and sacrifices in accordance with the local traditions. There were a lot of prayers and benedictions made by elders and holy-men. These events went on for many hours a day, over the course of several days. In the end, blessings were bestowed, and the people were happy: with the book, certainly, but mostly with the respect I had showed them by traveling from afar to honor their traditions.
Staying in the village was a powerful and moving experience, and brought closure — or so I thought — to a decade-long journey. During the course of my stay, however, something new and unexpected was also taking place.
A new chapter of the story was unfolding…
The (He)Art Awakens
The latest journey had begun in the steamy capital city of Conakry, located on a narrow and crowded tropical peninsula on the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
Planning an extended stay in the remote Kouroussa region to the north requires a great deal of preparations and considerations, given the limited access in the villages to supplies, medical facilities, and the like. Beset with challenges there in the city, many weeks passed before we finally embarked on the journey.
An interesting thing happened, however, while waiting and working on arrangements for the inland voyage: I felt an overwhelming need to start making art again, for the first time in several years. On a whim, I had packed some drawing pencils and paper in my backpack. At the very least, I could start drawing again — I had neglected this part of my life for far too long, and it was starting to eat at me.
There in the bustling markets of Conakry, I purchased a small wooden table and a desk lamp. In the tiny room where I was staying in the suburb of Kipé, I set up an art studio…and began drawing. I was pretty rusty, but good things started to happen once I began working again.
Several times a week, I attended traditional Malinké festivals (called Dembadon), which featured lots of drumming, dancing, and singing. With the vibrant culture and music on full display, I felt inspired to make a lot of new artwork.
After the festivals, I would head back to my room and draw, often for ten hours straight, sweating buckets in my sweltering hot room. My heart felt happier and lighter than it had in many years.
On the Banks of the Niger
Eventually, with plans made and supplies purchased, I traveled north — some 20 hours by car, to the villages in the Kouroussa region. There, I would pay tribute, with gifts and sacrifices, to the people and traditions of the village who inspired my book.
I knew it was important for me to do all this, but I should also say that I really do love being in the village: life there is simple and peaceful. The kindness and generosity of the people is humbling. It’s hard not to be inspired by the powerful drumming, dancing, and singing that takes place there. Over the years, I had begun to form an interesting connection here, too — it’s a connection that I don’t yet fully understand, but here, right in front of me, was an opportunity to rediscover what had drawn me here in the first place, more than a decade earlier.
There on the banks of the Niger, I stayed with my friend Lanciné and his family, and took in the experience of living in a tiny African village for an extended stay. It was wonderful, albeit challenging: there was no electricty or running water, of course, nor any of the conveniences we often take for granted back at home.
To make life more interesting, most people in the village only speak Malinké. In the city, I could at least get by on my French — which I had worked very hard at improving prior to the trip. With months ahead of me in the village, however, I had little other recourse that to start learning Malinké. With nothing but time on my hands, I would walk around the village meeting people and practicing the language. It was a great challenge for me, and a constant source of humor for them.
During my daily walkabouts, I thought about art all the time; I wanted to draw all the fascinating people I met. I would study their faces, imagining the lines and brush strokes that would bring their character and personality to life on paper.
A New Art Studio
My long-time friend and mentor, Famoudou Konaté, who lived nearby, had a small house in the neighboring village of Kouroussa. He said that I could set up an art studio there.
From where I was staying, his house was only about 10 km away. In actuality, it took over an hour of rigorous traveling to get there. The trip involved a dicey river crossing, and driving on miles of cow paths and grasslands that really weren’t meant for cars (especially not the tiny 1980’s Renault we were traveling in, which was beginning to suffer visibly from the abuse it was taking). The commute between villages was always a bit of an adventure.
There in Kouroussa, I set up shop in a room that contained only a bed, a tiny table, and a plastic chair. It was perfectly minimalistic. No distractions. Traveling between villages every week, I stayed at “the studio” for three or four days at a time, living on Nescafé instant coffee, loaves of French bread, Laughing Cow cheese, fresh avocados, and pineapple…and drawing fervently, somewhat like a man possessed.
With no electricity or lights in my makeshift studio, I worked from sunrise to sunset as the light filtered through a single window. The sounds of the village outside were the soundtrack to my drawings. With just pencil and paper, I aimed to see how far I could take a simple drawing.
The artwork I produced here represented a return to basics, and I loved it. I was learning and improving with every drawing. I got to show people the drawings I was making of them pretty immediately. The response was quite positive, and it fueled my excitement to keep working.
Ancient Cultures in the Modern World
While I was there, I made dozens of drawings depicting the people and the culture of the region. I felt it was important to do. Each person, each drawing, had a unique story.
I also knew, from my past trips, that the culture here was changing. The modern world was encroaching, and fast. Change isn’t necessarily all good, or all bad — and who am I to say what’s right or wrong for these people — but I became aware that I was witnessing an ancient culture straddling between the world of its traditions and the frontier of modern ideals and influences. The entire region, and the culture itself, seemed to be on the verge of big changes.
Here I was, though, thousands of miles from home, bearing witness to an ancient way of life amidst a period of rapid cultural upheaval. I began to feel that the stories of these people were important: perhaps the world needed to hear their unique voice…before it became lost in the din of modernity. These were the thoughts that kept me awake at night, as I lay on my straw mattress in a small round hut, worlds away from where I was born.
Collectively, the voices of the world’s indigenous peoples resound with age-old traditions, ancient wisdom, and a manner of being in the world that has been ongoing for millennia. Every culture on the planet embodies a vast amount of knowledge and history, carried with them and carefully passed down in the fragile vessel of their language, songs, stories, and beliefs. Their uniqueness should be celebrated, for each represents a diverse set of adaptive choices, brought forth from the imagination, that were required to sustain a meaningful life in their particular place on Earth. In their collective voice, if we listen, we can hear the sound of what it means to have the fire of life inside us all.
It’s a voice that we’ve long since stopped listening to here in the West. And it’s a voice that is literally being extinguished from the planet: languages, an indicator of culture, are currently disappearing from the planet at a rate of one language every two weeks. When a language vanishes, so too do the songs, stories, and myths that were carried on its breath. When we lose a culture, we lose its unique vision of life, forever.
A Return Home
Since I’ve returned home to the United States, I haven’t been the same person I was before the trip. The experience changed me in unexpected ways. My artistic muse was re-awoken during the trip, and now burns like a fire inside of me. Like a seed that was planted inside me, it continues to grow. I am bound to it. Its health is my health.
And so, the Drawing on Culture series was born.
The book that you hold in your hands is a work-in-progress. It is the result of many travels and much work, and represents a direction that this project may yet go — but it is only a beginning. There is much more artwork to be made in this series, and it must still be compiled with stories and interviews with the people depicted in these artworks. As such, this version of the book can only be seen as incomplete; a stepping stone along the path to a greater vision of what I hope it will become.
Like many projects, this one has, at this writing, arrived a point where it needs additional support and resources to reach the next point on its destination. Like the captain of a ship that has found itself momentarily bereft of an apparent wind, I’m in the process of readjusting the sails and readying the whole vessel for whatever adventures may come next.
This book, then, can be viewed as a sort of “captain’s log” of the voyage thus far. By the time that you, the reader, are viewing these words, they may merely be an indication of where I was…for the journey is far from over. A slight shift in breeze may be all it takes to start sailing again.