It is ten o'clock on a Sunday morning. The streets of Amsterdam are deserted. An African breakfast is laid out on the table in the studio of the Thami Mnyele Foundation in the Bellamystraat in Amsterdam Oud-West: Nescafé, petits pains and omelette. Over cups of steaming coffee, we have a conversation with Alassane Drabo (33) and Saliou Traoré (36), two artists from Burkina-Faso. They are currently in Amsterdam at the invitation of the Thami Mnyele Foundation, that promotes artistic and cultural exchange between the Netherlands and African countries. Drabo and Traoré have been in the Netherlands for two months; their stay is almost at an end.
According to Drabo and Traoré, the differences between the Netherlands and Burkina are immense, the climate for instance. Although this has no influence on the essence of their work, it does however influence how they work. In Ouagadougou there studios are located sous le ciel bleu
, under the open skies, while in Amsterdam they are forced to work within four walls because of the cold. The fact that it is not so warm can occasionally be agreeable, but after having to look at a grey blanket of clouds for days on end, they begin once again to long for the African sun.
The weather conditions are of course not the only difference. They are particularly struck by how well the art world in the Netherlands is organised: the galleries, the various organisations, networks, contacts etc. Artists in Burkina have only begun organising themselves in recent years.
According to Traoré, this development was initiated in 1993, with the arrival of a new director of the French Cultural Centre in Ouagadougou. The arrival of this man, Monsieur Klain, signalled the beginning of a new policy that included a greater focus on the visual arts. The most important component of this being 'Ouag'Art', a series of workshops in which African artists received coaching from Western artists.
Ouag'Art was a new phenomenon in Burkina. Up until 1993, the artists, approximately forty in number, and according to Drabo and Traoré all autodidact, each worked independently in their own studios or work places. They did visit each other occasionally, but there was no question of any form of organisation. Through the workshops, they got to know each other and after a while it was decided to found two associations: the ANAPAP (Association Nationale des Artistes Professionnels des Arts Plastiques), for visual artists, and the AASDO (Association des Artisanats et Sculpteurs), for sculptors.
Since these collectives became active 2 years ago, artists have been able to strengthen their position. This has been of great importance as it is very difficult to earn a living as an artist in Burkina. The general population are not very interested in art. People cannot afford art, but according to Drabo and Traoré, they also do not yet appreciate its importance. For sculptors it is even more difficult to survive. On top of the fact that people do not have enough money for art, few people would have the space in their homes for a large sculpture - and Europeans prefer to buy a painting that they can roll up and take with them, rather than a heavy sculpture.
In Amsterdam, the artists were asked to arrange the layout of two rooms in Hotel Winston in the Warmoesstraat. Dutch outdoor public toilets, the street 'urinals', provided the idea upon which the layout of rooms 404 and 406 was based. What they found most striking about the urinal facilities was the fact that these were exclusively for men; 'Women are forced to make use of paid toilets, or a toilet in a bar or restaurant where they are first obliged to buy a drink before being allowed to use the facilities. Women always have to pay while there are free toilets everywhere for the men. Apparently women are also being excluded in the developed countries!' says Traoré.
The idea has been formulated in an extremely original manner in the rooms in Hotel Winston: the Dutch icons for 'men's toilet' and 'ladies toilet' hang between (gender) symbols that appear throughout West-Africa. Three stripes for male, four stripes for female. Traoré and Drabo manipulate these signs. There is for instance a painting in which the male and female symbols are attached to each other. A spiral form is also represented. This is a Lobi-symbol, a male sign that offers protection against sickness or accidents etc. The symbol can be found in daily West-African life in the form of jewellery or decoration. In addition to this the artists have used a symbol that has a dot on top, which refers to 'dotting the i's', an expression that also appears in French and has been adopted in French-speaking African countries.
The 'ladies-toilet' room includes more female than male symbols. Here hangs an icon for the ladies toilet in which the waist is considerably narrowed, just like the sign that was in use in the Netherlands some decades ago. For Africans this is distinctly feminine - in contrast to the sign that we currently display on the doors of ladies toilets. That icon, the lady with the wide dress, hangs in the 'men's-toilet room' in Hotel Winston. ' To us, this is the sign for a man,' explains Drabo: 'After all most men wear a boubou.'
The artists will be returning home soon. What are their plans? An exhibition, with landmines as its subject, will take place in a few months time. Drabo and Traoré are both members of the AASDO; they work both independently and by commission. Most commissions - for institutes and embassies, although relatively few for the government - are organised via the sculptors collective. In the exhibition about landmines the artists intend, through their sculptures, to draw the public's attention to the fact that although the situation in Burkina has been stable for years, people should not forget that things could easily go wrong again, with war as the result.
Drabo is also preparing an exhibition on the theme of integration. On 1 January 2001, a law was to come into effect in a number of West-African countries, which would result in far reaching integration between the various countries. The law did not take effect due to the problems in the Ivory Coast where hundreds of thousands of foreigners felt threatened and a menacing situation was created for the entire region. 'There are no problems between artists from Senegal, Mali, Benin, Burkina and the Ivory Coast,' states Drabo, 'but at a political level problems sometimes exist.'
'Inter-cultural relations' are, in addition to various other themes, also an important subject in the work of both Drabo and Traoré. Who knows, perhaps the western toilet symbols will appear in new work by them in the future, or perhaps the museum visitor in Ouaga will get to see an actual street urinal.
Heidi Lutgendorff is an historian and publicist in the field of African art and history.