Sahara: Under the Tent

Contemporary Sahrawi and Tuareg Artists from the Sahara

Sahara: Under the Tent (2016) by Contemporary Sahrawi and Tuareg Artists from the SaharaImago Mundi

The non-reconciled

We are in the quintessential desert, the one at the root of the etymology of the word itself and its geological and historical meaning. We are in the Sahara, which in Arabic and several Berber languages means “desert”. And we are not here through the pictorial fascination of those artists who live elsewhere and visit it every now and then to find their inspiration and recharge their spirit (there is plenty of such examples in the art of all continents): this Imago Mundi volume is devoted to the art of the deserts, and all artists were born, live and work in the desert. So, we are in the middle of the desert, in the company of men and women who, first and foremost, before being painters, sculptors or craftsmen, are and consider themselves people of the desert. 

Ibrahim Chahamata - Untitled, Untitled, Ibrahim Chahamata, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ibrahim Chahamata - Untitled, Untitled (2017)

If you expect to see men wearing the typical blue or white turban of the Tuareg or the Sahrawi, and women with brightly coloured dresses (in contrast to men and the popular discourse on “yes/no to the veil,” women are rarely veiled, even if the veil, now promoted by the Wahabi preachers, is gaining ground), you will not be disappointed – although this might sound like an exotic note that only lends colour to the topic at hand. And by the way, a touch of exoticism has never hurt anyone, and certainly not art. Provided, of course, that it is not used to manipulate a reality that can be sharp and bitter. The hard bitterness of the desert is demonstrated, like few other things could, by the recent history of the two groups and cities that are documented in this book: the Sahrawi from Tindouf and the Tuareg from Agadez.

Vitali Dehmach - Woujdane, Vitali Dehmach, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Vitali Dehmach - Woujdane (2016)

Mohammed Lemine Lakoueiry - For the cause of the Sahara, Mohammed Lemine Lakoueiry, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mohammed Lemine Lakoueiry - For the cause of the Sahara (2016)

But let’s take one thing at a time. First, it should be made clear that this book does not cover all the people who live in the desert, let alone their contemporary art production. When we talk about the “peoples of the desert”, which in contrast to common belief has always been a crossroad of contamination and encounters (conflicts are encounters too), borders, especially between humans, are even more liquid than elsewhere. The Tuareg, for instance, consider as such all “those who speak Tamasheq”; there is little more in common, and the colour of the skin counts much less than what the existing historiography seems to suggest.

Fatouma Aiya Attahirou ATTA AKINE' II - Tuareg letters, Leather decoration for Tuareg women, Fatouma Aiya Attahirou ATTA AKINE' II, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Fatouma Aiya Attahirou ATTA AKINE' II - Tuareg letters, Leather decoration for Tuareg women (2017)

Although they were merchants (and exploiters) of slaves for a long time, especially from Sub-Saharan Africa, this practice has had much weaker racial repercussions that it would be reasonable to expect. In fact, in Agadez I noticed how quite a few Houssa or members from other groups consider themselves as Tuareg in all respects, and are accepted as such. This is not the case elsewhere in the desert, including among Tuareg from different groups, and the Sub- Saharan “niggers” know it all too well.

Alì NAREY - Zebra, Alì NAREY, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Alì NAREY - Zebra (2017)

Khaled Moulay Idriss - Palms in the desert, Khaled Moulay Idriss, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Khaled Moulay Idriss - Palms in the desert (2016)

Important Tuareg communities and many artists can be found in Tamanrasset (Algeria) and Timbouctou (Mali), as well as in the refugee camps north of Burkina Faso – still in the middle of the Sahara, even if, moving south, it would be more appropriate to use the term Sahel. As for the Mauri, 90% of them now live in the capital city Nouakchott, which looks out to the ocean but is otherwise surrounded by the desert. In Chinguetti or Oudane and Oualata, however, they live in tents and stone houses which sometimes contain works that it is mandatory to call “works of art”, linked both to tradition and to the recent memories of a tourist sector that has now almost disappeared.

Halima Atchani - Details of Tuareg objects, Halima Atchani, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Halima Atchani - Details of Tuareg objects (2017)

Where this has not been destroyed by the Jihadists, it has been chastened by a certain type of “exotic weekend” journalism that enjoys portraying as dangerous places where the only real risk (which we hope is a residual one, even for those who have never been to the country) is that of colliding with a camel. Mauritania, where only one kidnapping of Western visitors has been registered in twenty years, is one of these places, and even Agadez is much less dangerous than we are told. Moving north, many Sahrawi still live in the country that they realistically dream of snatching away from Morocco and that they have been fighting for (against Moroccon sovereignety) for a few decades: the Polisario, also known as Western Sahara, and even before as Spanish Sahara, with its two main centres Laayoune and Dhakla.

Mohammed Maayouf - Loyalty, Mohammed Maayouf, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mohammed Maayouf - Loyalty (2016)

Other important communities live along the geometric impotence of the border between Niger and Tchad. These are the feared – according to their reputation – Tubu, who are in fact an extremely welcoming and even witty people. Sure, with some unusual habits compared to ours, if some travellers (like Arminius Vambery talking about the yurts in Turkmenistan) recount that they did not shy away from hitting their opponents with a few hard whiplashes in order to gain the honour of inviting a guest to their table. Others live secluded in the east, especially along the border with Sudan, a country that is certainly not lacking in places where art is present, among its immense deserts.

Ibrahim El Mouetedil - Formation, Ibrahim El Mouetedil, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ibrahim El Mouetedil - Formation (2016)

In Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, where the extreme limits of the Sahara extend (an area that takes on different names, from Danakil Desert to Somaliland), local art is certainly not the main reference for those who are interested in it, however it is not absent. Suffice it to mention the large parade mats of the Somali from Hargeysa (unknown even in the grey areas of the Internet) to realize that, when talking about art and using the adjective “contemporary” (which in the world of urban art means all but “art made today”), surprises never end. Talking about large decorated mats, the Tuareg used to make extremely long ones to shield their tents from the wind, but the most sumptuous ones were the work of the Mauri. The most beautiful ones have all the characteristics of great African art (and therefore of great art in general). Elisa and Raffaele Carrieri know it very well: their gallery in Milan (Altai) hosts a few very old and important examples, and theirs is the largest collection in the world.

Fathuma and Amina Abdramann - Tuareg pattern, Fathuma and Amina Abdramann, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Fathuma and Amina Abdramann - Tuareg pattern (2017)

Tindouf and Agadez are located in Algeria and Niger, respectively, mainly because of the mystery of post-colonial state borders, rather than because of real historical reason. By the way, terms such as “border” and “state” still escape the understanding of nomads. For them to remember what they mean, it took – and it still takes – the colonial armies first, and then the armies of the new, post-colonial countries. If Tindouf is still considered as the main refugee camp for the Sahrawi in Algeria, which hosts them as an anti-Morocco act, Agadez, along with Timbuktu, is the centre of the Tuareg revolts against the centralizing efforts of Niger and Mali.

Abdel Weddoud Essouleymani - The days, Abdel Weddoud Essouleymani, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Abdel Weddoud Essouleymani - The days (2016)

Tindouf is not only the political capital of a Polisario that claims its independence and sovereignty, but it is also the centre of Sahrawi culture, where the artists who fled from the historical Polisario now live and work. Many have actually been born and have grown in the Algerian town without ever setting foot in the places where their families originally come from. However, talking about a place of origin for the people of the desert is always an approximation: even the Sahrawi in Tindouf, whether they live in the urban area or in one of the many refugee camps which still surround the city, see themselves as “people of the desert”, just as much as people in Agadez do. Even more than in the case of the Tuareg, a possibly even bloodier conflict has cemented a national spirit that clearly emerges from many of the works in this catalogue.

Almoustapha TAMBO - Apparition, Almoustapha TAMBO, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Almoustapha TAMBO - Apparition (2017)

Abdulani Sadikan Bila - Queue for a job, Abdulani Sadikan Bila, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Abdulani Sadikan Bila - Queue for a job (2017)

Let’s keep in mind that many of these artists are or were soldiers in the ranks of the Polisario Front, and this is the only other job they have ever had in their lives. Together with Khaled Moulay Idriss, who has followed the project in Tindouf, and in close cooperation with the Association Saharaouie d’Art Plastique and Volonté Saharaouie, we have come across conditions which, to a certain extent, are similar to those experienced by Tuareg artists, but also with different characters – if only because of the few thousand kilometres between Tindouf and Agadez. The disposition for traditional craftsmanship is less strong than among the Tuareg or the Mauri, which made us focus more on painters and a flourishing local school of calligraphy. You will see that the abstraction that is part of the very idea of calligraphy emerges and is expressed in often aniconic works, where a certain respect for the Muslim ban on images turns into a landscape art characterised by a subtle use of colours, reminiscent of the changing nature of the desert. At the same time, many artists depict reality through representations which can sometimes be harsh, and are not averse to the sharpest of all realistic languages: caricature.

Manam Hassan Hissein - The colours of the desert, Manam Hassan Hissein, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Manam Hassan Hissein - The colours of the desert (2017)

Jalul Vares - Untitled, Jalul Vares, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Jalul Vares - Untitled (2016)

I mentioned Timbuktu, which is not included in this collection of art from the desert, and is still in the limbo of a low-intensity war. The French army has driven out the Jihadists who occupied it in 2012, though without solving any of the issues that had pushed part of the Tuareg population to side with movements that are culturally and politically alien to them, such as AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) or MOJWA (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa). As is well known, the Tuareg are historically little inclined to excessive religiousness, but it should be equally well known that the worst enemy of our worst enemy becomes our best friend, and this is true everywhere. Thus, the Jihadist presence is still quite strong, as in this globalised world, as we like to call it, extraneousness and identity continuously shift and blend, at least on the political level, giving new shapes to geopolitical categories. Let’s not forget that the “humanitarian” intervention for the “restoration of legality” by the old colonial masters looked fishy even to those who hate the Jihadists. The term is not incongruous, as 50 years down the line, the bad smell of colonialism in Africa shows no sign of clearing.

Mohammed Aboubakar - Traditional decoration, Mohammed Aboubakar, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mohammed Aboubakar - Traditional decoration (2017)

In Agadez, a long expected inclusive, albeit cautious, policy for the Tuareg (the current head of the government in Niger is a Tuareg himself) has eased many tensions and the mood in town is much more relaxed than it was some time ago. The transit of refugees coming from the southern countries brings resources, and – paradoxically and unexpectedly – gold veins have been found in the middle of the desert, thus starting a new gold rush. Part of the population (and thousands of immigrants, especially Nigerian and Cameroonian) is now digging around the Aïr, turning it into the climatic opposite, with the same identity of hope and desperation, of Alaska – the epitome of the gold rush two centuries ago. From being a town with only a few thousand inhabitants headed towards accelerated decline, the Capital of the Deserts, a deserved UNESCO World Heritage site, still beautiful and moving, has turned into a sprawling, small metropole in the desert with, apparently, at least 200,000 inhabitants (keeping its similarity to Tindouf, which supposedly has a similar number of inhabitants).

Mohammed Ahmed - Tuareg samples, Mohammed Ahmed, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mohammed Ahmed - Tuareg samples (2017)

Saukeyna Vadily Nazih - Myself, Saukeyna Vadily Nazih, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Saukeyna Vadily Nazih - Myself (2016)

In Agadez artists abound, although many of them belong to a generation of 40-60 year-old men and women who live in a desert where 70% of the population is below the age of 35. The inconsistency is due to the fact that, even if for just a few years, between the 1980’s and 90’s the desert was fashionable, the Paris- Dakar was run, four-wheel vehicles invaded Milan and Paris, where they ended up being double-parked, while in the desert they felt useful and functional (and there’s plenty of parking space and no traffic police): all these factors generated the emergence of a strong generation of artists. About thirty years ago, a new kind of customers had to be served, not only by those who produced Agadez crosses. Agadez became the destination of a niche ourism which has now completely disappeared, because of the events that were mentioned before. The wind and sand-worn symbols of that time still stand, such as the once glorious Hotel dell’Aïr. It is one of the worst hotels in Africa now, but it still preserves some sort of glamour that comes from the passing of time and its supposed and dubious sweetness, at least for people like me, who visited it at the time of its past glory. Luckily, there is also a new, elegant and at the same time essential resort, build right in the city centre and decorated like some sort of Gesamkunstwerk in the desert by Ibrahim Chahamata.

Touhamy El Jeilany - My homeland, Touhamy El Jeilany, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Touhamy El Jeilany - My homeland (2016)

Seymaly Errabouny - Face, Seymaly Errabouny, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Seymaly Errabouny - Face (2016)

Leading artists such as Chahamata or Almoustafa Tambo are still active, although the thinning number of clients is leading to a reduction in the number of assistants who train at their studios. Luckily, these places still boast one of the richest traditions of craftsmanship in Africa. Here traditional artefacts, which have elsewhere become the object of dull standardization, still have an historical meaning and some energy, when they are made for ambitious, proud and wealthy Tuareg dignitaries, who love to decorate their horses and camels, as well as homes and tents. Tuareg artists and craftsmen also live in other centres in Niger, we have found some from Agadez to Tahoua (another centre of Tuareg tradition), from Maradi to Tillabéri. Here, as well as in Agadez, we have also found some amazing hybrids, which remind us of what an old Italian song warned us about: “the world (including the apparently most isolated places) has never stopped one moment.” To cheer up my proud Tuareg friends I could sing the rest of the song: “Night always chases day, and daylight will come,” but I have never been very good at singing.

Enrico Mascelloni Art Curator

Ahmed Agali - Desert, Ahmed Agali, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ahmed Agali - Desert (2017)

Credits: Story

Art Direction, Photography and Production
Project Management
La Biennale di Malindi Ltd
Enrico Mascelloni
Project Coordinator
Oriano Mabellini
Barbara Liverotti
Giorgia De Luca
Editorial Coordination
Enrico Bossan
Luciano Benetton
Enrico Mascelloni
Khaled Moulay
Idriss Fatouma
Aiya Attahirou
Atta Akiné II
Adamou Aboubacar
Al-Sulaimani Bouwa’er
Editing and Translation
Simona Caldera
Emma Cole
Valentina Granzotto
Francesca Stopper
Pietro Valdatta
Art Direction
Daniele Tonon
Marco Zanin (Artworks)
Enrico Mascelloni (Introductions)
Adamou Boubacar (Photos following his text)
Umu (Mohammed’s daughter) - Tuareg pattern, 2017 (front)
Special Thanks to
Fondazione Sarenco
Oksana Ignatush
Association Saharaouie d’Art Plastique, Tindouf Volonté Saharaouie, Tindouf
Galleria Altai, Milan Sahara Mon Amour, Chinguetti
Khaled Moulay Idriss, Nouakchott
Adamou Aboubacar, Niamey
Fatouma Aiya Attahirou
Atta Akinè II, Niamey
Ibrahim Chahamata, Agadez
Almoustapha Tambo, Agadez
Alì Narey, Niamey
Elisa and Raffaele Carrieri, Milan
Pigi Cipelli, Milan
Fabrizio Rovella, Chinguetti-Turin
Bachar Algabit, Agadez
Hadrami Beraz, Nouakchott

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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