Guinea-Bissau / Guinea-Conakry: Art in Transition

Contemporary Artists from Guinea-Bissau / Guinea-Conakry

Catalogue of the Imago Mundi Collection: Art in Transition (2015) by Contemporary Artists from Guinea-Bissau / Guinea-ConakryImago Mundi

Anxious Anticipation for a Future

When the first European navigators of the late Middle Ages laid anchor in the Gulf of Guinea, the ships’ captains were astounded. They saw in the words of the German historian Leo Frobenius in The Origins of African Civilization: Carefully laid roads, along which rows of trees stretched for kilometres and kilometres; for entire days of travel, a land covered with splendid fields, men in beautiful clothes, fashioned from cloth of their own fabrication. Collections from West Africa that date back to this period can still be seen, for example, in the old Royal Museum of Dresden: splendid, soft plush velvet, made from layers of very tender leaves of a special banana. Then soft and flowing fabrics, shiny and as delicate as silk, woven with well-prepared raffia strands. These cloths arrived in Europe from those coastal regions of Africa which, when the new American world needed manpower, were destined for the slave trade. And so, the coast of Guinea, visited by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, became the scene of bitter disputes between the French, English and Dutch, engaged in human trafficking.

Abdoul Aziz Diallo - Lianas bridge, Abdoul Aziz Diallo, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Abdoul Aziz Diallo - Lianas bridge (2015)

African beauty and taste were overwhelmed by a dramatic and cruel colonial history, artefacts were labelled ethnic art’, and the complex aesthetic practices of this world summed up by Francisco José Tenreiro, a poet from São Tomé, an island state in the Gulf of Guinea, as: strong tones, of the Cubist palette were forgotten until the twentieth century, when some major European artists in search of the new, recognized its powerful expressive language, value and depth. The Imago Mundi collection dedicated to two countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea the Republic of Guinea, also known as Guinea-Conakry, and Guinea-Bissau aims to give an aesthetically and morally honest account of a different land, full of vibrant colours, other bodies, a different sensuality: a beauty often shaped by nature, alive with spirit, linked to the primitive forces of existence. Forever suspended between disillusionment and hope.

Abdulaye Bangoura (Pecos) - The kora players, Abdulaye Bangoura (Pecos), 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Abdulaye Bangoura (Pecos) - The kora players (2015)

For the Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, who saw in the African revolutions a continuation of the hopes raised by the movements that resisted Nazism (Africa! My only alternative...), Guinea-Conakry, the birthplace of president Sékou Touré, which he always wanted to visit but never quite managed it, represented the future of the continent in the sixties.

Hassane Guilavogui - The palm wine collector, Hassane Guilavogui, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Hassane Guilavogui - The palm wine collector (2015)

Guinea-Conakry is the only country to have left the French community’ on the basis of a referendum organized by France itself. As the German sociologist Peter Kammerer noted, it was followed by the punishment of the offended white father De Gaulle, to whom Sékou Touré replied proudly: We prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery. In the aftermath of independence, France withdrew its economic and administrative aid, but the new government sought and found support in the Soviet Union. Touré became the symbolic figure of an independent African socialism, which would, nonetheless, end in tragedy between the millstones of the Cold War.

Kaba Traore - The African library, Kaba Traore, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Kaba Traore - The African library (2015)

Today the Republic of Guinea is still in a period of instability. The result of ethnic divisions in the population between Malinké (about 35%) and Fulani (40%), reflected in policies and party dynamics, and the health crisis (like Sierra Leone and Liberia, the country was hit by the outbreak of Ebola), which has been overcome, but has resulted, as always, in an economic emergency. Yet Guinea-Conakry is, for example, home to the most important water reserves in West Africa, earning it the nickname Chateau d�eau d Afrique. From its mountains spring the main rivers of the region, the Senegal and Niger, arteries along which flow the life and the economy of entire countries.

Boubacar Ben Barry - The fight against Ebola in Guinea, Boubacar Ben Barry, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Boubacar Ben Barry - The fight against Ebola in Guinea (2015)

Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and shaped like an elongated crescent extending inland to the southeast, it has a variety of different natural environments. The coast, where the Atlantic creeps into its estuaries and bays, lowlands with tropical fruit plantations, essential for exports, and mountains like the Fouta Djalon, which occupies the centre of the country with plateaus and high, rocky peaks reaching 1,500 metres. Moving down the valley, to the north, the savannahs open up and fade toward the Sahel, while in the south, the forests penetrate the green lung in the centre of the African continent.

Mohamed Traore - The Flower of my Country, Mohamed Traore, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mohamed Traore - The Flower of my Country (2015)

One of the main objectives of the country in the economic field is to encourage a more efficient exploitation of its mineral wealth: gold, iron, diamonds and bauxite, of which it is the world’s leading exporter. It also has significant agricultural potential, due to the wide availability of arable lands that are not fully utilized. The vital challenge is to develop agriculture so as to achieve food self-sufficiency and at the same time, increase the export of products such as tropical fruits, coffee, cocoa and palm kernels, which provide hard currency for Guinea to reinvest in infrastructure and development projects, such as the literacy program that led UNESCO to name Conakry the World Book Capital for 2017.

Jesué Milton da Costa Luis - Nikengletch na bulanha, Jesué Milton da Costa Luis, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Jesué Milton da Costa Luis - Nikengletch na bulanha (2015)

Guinea-Bissau, one of the first West African lands reached by the Portuguese, became a colony in 1879, elevated in 1951 to the status of Overseas Province. The nationalist leader Amilcar Cabral, founder of the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e do Cabo Verde, was the ideologue of a decolonization that aimed to transform society through a mix of sovereignty and socialism.

Mohamed Galiou (Ali) - Stop Ebola, Mohamed Galiou (Ali), 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mohamed Galiou (Ali) - Stop Ebola (2015)

The armed struggle that began in 1963 led to the liberation of most of the territory and, ten years later, Guinea-Bissau unilaterally proclaimed independence, recognized by Portugal in 1974, after the fall of the Salazar regime.

Bacar Balde - Dolphin, Bacar Balde, 2014, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Bacar Balde - Dolphin (2014)

In the following decades, this small West African country, with less than two million inhabitants and an incredible cultural diversity, has undergone periods of severe political instability and civil war that have plunged it into a deep economic and social crisis, from which it is now trying to emerge through a complicated process of normalization.

Youssouf Ben Oscar Barry - Iniquitous thought, Youssouf Ben Oscar Barry, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Youssouf Ben Oscar Barry - Iniquitous thought (2015)

Political instability, in fact, has endangered international aid and with it economic growth, which should leverage a more effective exploitation of mineral resources (bauxite and phosphate) and agriculture: the country’s main export is cashews (80% of its total), destined for sale to its largest trading partner, India, with which trade has grown perceptibly in recent years.

Beao Pansau - Rooster Racing with bike, Beao Pansau, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Beao Pansau - Rooster Racing with bike (2015)

Guinea-Bissau’s unique natural resources in the West African panorama also mean it has a great potential for tourism: seven national parks, the archipelago of Bijagós, the largest colony of saltwater hippos, a turtle sanctuary, bird nesting and breeding areas, the largest network of rios (saltwater inlets immersed in mangroves) and primary forests inhabited by wild animals. But today, unfortunately, its image in the world is above all that of a great African drug hub, the ideal transit spot for South American cocaine en route to the European markets (Africa is white, wrote Roberto Saviano in his book ZeroZeroZero). This is partly due to the fact that the capital, Bissau, is about 3,000 km from both eastern Brazil and Spain, a distance easily covered by mid-sized planes.

Manuel Julio - Dream, Manuel Julio, 2014, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Manuel Julio - Dream (2014)

In the face of hesitant social and economic policies, art and culture are attempting to counteract the negative image of the country, and to form a new, shared identity. An example of this is the works and the testimonies of the director Flora Gomes, one of the greatest African filmmakers, who grew up, artistically and politically, alongside a key figure for Guinea-Bissau, Amilcar Cabral.

Mahamadu Lamine Djan (Lés) - Girl, Mahamadu Lamine Djan (Lés), 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mahamadu Lamine Djan (Lés) - Girl (2015)

Even popular culture can become an area for growth and redemption; examples include Netos de Bandim, a group of young artists and traditional dancers who, from the streets of their neighbourhood, Bandim, one of the poorest and most disadvantaged areas of the city, have become famous throughout the country, and abroad, thanks to social media. Today, they help young Guineans hope for a better tomorrow, and contribute to their education by investing part of their earnings in school projects, in collaboration with various NGOs operating in the area.

Luis Manuel Fernandes Carvalho Nogueira - Landscape, Luis Manuel Fernandes Carvalho Nogueira, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Luis Manuel Fernandes Carvalho Nogueira - Landscape (2015)

I think the duty of a musician is to portray people’s lives, dreams and hopes for the future, says the singer Binhan, who, in his melodies sings the lives of an entire people. A little like the griot have always done, the itinerant storytellers who, through music and songs, have passed down through generations the historical memory of the country. Our collection of 140 10 x 12 cm paintings (97 from Guinea- Bissau, 43 from Guinea-Conakry), collectively bear witness to the bond of the artists with their common African soil. The collection shows the daily life of the villages, men and women at work, dancers, wild animals. Primal strength, lightness, ingenuity, humour and dignity. But also fear, uncertainty, illness and the inability to fully choose their own destiny.

Francisco Sanca - Shield of power, Francisco Sanca, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Francisco Sanca - Shield of power (2015)

In a colourful canvas of blue, yellow and green, the African continent is represented as the great Mama Africa, welcoming, the cradle of archaic man. But there is another Africa, as the journalist and intellectual from Guinea-Bissau, Filomeno Lopes, points out, that is born with a conscious identity on the ships that transported slaves to the Americas, that is, with the problem of forced migration. It began as a blend of passion and suffering, and as a project for a better future. Today as another canvas in the collection dramatically shows the future of Africa is still a big, red, desperate question mark. Neverthelss as Pasolini recognized Its future is in its anxious anticipation for a future; and its anxiety is a great patience.

Luciano Benetton

Mamadù Bangura - Mama Africa, Mamadù Bangura, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Mamadù Bangura - Mama Africa (2015)

Credits: Story

Art direction, photography and production

Project management
La Biennale di Malindi Ltd.

Felisberto Bobodjeu
Pereira Cà (Botodjo)
Enrico Mascelloni

Project coordinator
Oriano Mabellini

Barbara Liverotti

Editorial coordination
Enrico Bossan

Luciano Benetton
Felisberto Bobodjeu
Pereira Cà (Botodjo)
Enrico Mascelloni
Peter S. Nyaga

Translation and editing
Emma Cole
Sara Favilla
Valentina Granzotto
Francesca Stopper
Pietro Valdatta

Moussa Sidimé,

Art direction
Namyoung An

Photography of artworks
Marco Zanin

Photography of artists
Felisberto Bobodjeu
Pereira Cà (Botodjo)
Enrico Mascelloni

Marco Pavan

Special thanks to
Fondazione Sarenco
Oksana Ignatush

A sincere thanks to all the artists that took part in this project despite the tremendous Ebola epidemic that was plaguing Conakry and threatening Bissau as well as any other town and village in the two countries.

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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