Drawing attention to and highlighting things that everyone looks at, but no one really sees. For me, photography is above all bringing out the value of things.
All the income generated from photography basically comes from festive occasions and events. But we shouldn’t see this work as art.
Painting bodies using clay is a way for me to bypass taboos and play with cultural codes, while maintaining a respect for our customs.
30% OF MY WORK IS THE RESULT OF CHANCE.
EVERYONE IS AN ARTIST
Q How would you describe a Senegalese photographer’s working environment?
OD In Senegal, in general, people consider a career as an artist if they don’t do well at school. You might be influenced by a brother who’s a musician or a photographer. But there are no schools to train photographers in Senegal. All the income generated from photography basically comes from festive occasions and events. On Saturdays and Sundays, it’s an endless succession of christenings and weddings. Women put on fancy clothes and make-up, and photographers are there to take their pictures. They make a living doing this kind of photography. But we shouldn’t see this work as art. It’s only from the European perspective that these photographs are considered as art. It’s the Europeans who show an interest in old photos taken by a photographer who lived here forty years ago, and in art history. Here, we don’t see that as art. They’re just photos, old photos. We should also take into account that we’re in a context here – how shall I put it – in which there’s no one to judge. Everyone’s an artist, everyone’s a photographer, anyone can be anything.
WITHOUT A TRIPOD
Q You studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Antwerp. Can you tell us about that?
OD I learned a lot in Antwerp. That’s because, as I explained earlier, in Africa we’re guided by feeling and intuition, but we lack technical skills. We’re not very technical, we don’t respect conventions. There’s a lack of schools here to train artists. There’s a lot of talent here, but sometimes it’s not channelled effectively. A good method doesn’t necessarily produce good work, and vice versa, work that is potentially good can be wasted due to a lack of method. In photography, for example, tripods are rarely used, far too rarely. I don’t even have one! I get by using books, or I improvise something to sit the camera on. I manage pretty well, and I find it amusing! I could buy a tripod, but I prefer to manage without it. That’s the whole contradiction here. It’s important to have technical knowledge, but you must also make room for chance and the surprises that come with it. 30% of my work is the result of chance. Ultimately, what really counts is the subject, always knowing what should be photographed. Drawing attention to and highlighting things that everyone looks at, but no one really sees. For me, photography is above all bringing out the value of things.
STORIES ABOUT SHOES
Q You told us that as a photographer, you like to reveal the beauty of things that are considered ugly. Can we go back to this idea?
OD To answer your question, I will tell you about Ahmadou Bamba. Do you know about Mouridism? You don’t? Well, the Mouride tradition is a Senegalese religious, or spiritual, movement. Senegal is a Muslim country where the Mouride brotherhood embodies something that’s very important. Thousands of people are involved in the Mouride movement, which worships the Grand Marabout, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, and his disciples. I have a story I’d like to tell you that relates to this. Imagine that one day you find a pair of old slippers. Your first reaction is to throw them away, thinking, "Who could have left these crappy shoes here?" But the next day, you discover that the slippers belong to the Grand Marabout. So you search through the rubbish to find them, because you now see them as having value. I like giving this example when I talk about the value of things. Two years ago, I exhibited my work at the Dakar Biennale, and the subject of the project was another story about shoes. My inspiration came from a shoe repairer in a working-class neighbourhood who, in order to sell his stock of shoes, had hung all the old shoes he had collected, cleaned and repaired in a tree. I asked him if he would allow me to photograph his installation – because he had created an installation without realizing it. I think that someone who didn’t live here would have had more trouble photographing that situation. The shoe repairer might have refused, or he might have been suspicious about it. For every photograph, it really is the question of environment that arises – the cultural environment and its significance in the image.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE WIND
Q What interests you about the female body?
OD Yes, as a matter of fact, my preferred subject is women. Women interest everybody, but in the Muslim world, we’re not permitted to show their faces or their skin. So I decided to photograph the female body the same way I would photograph the wind. Because wind is something you feel, but you cannot draw it. You can only draw the way the wind makes things move. Visually, wind is an abstract element. It’s something that exists, and yet doesn’t exist. That’s what led me to the idea of covering women’s bodies with earth and colour. My photographic series on women usually provoke two reactions. Firstly, people ask me if they’re paintings – it’s true that you need to look closely at the images to realize that they’re photographs. Then they ask about the colour of the models’ skin: are they white women? My use of white clay creates this impression, but all of my subjects are black, Muslim women. Painting bodies using clay is a way for me to bypass taboos and play with cultural codes, while maintaining a respect for our customs.
PHOTOGRAPHY AND STAGING
Q Your series on Senegalese women have an underlying sense of movement, of energy. They also evoke dance, or perhaps ceremonies. Do they document particular events?
OD Yes, these photographs document staged situations. My work starts with an empty space. I then purchase a black fabric, and apply a mixture of earth and water to the women’s bodies, adding different powder pigments. You have to imagine that the scene involves movement, music and pauses. In the near future, I’d like to do a performance project with twenty women who will carry calabashes filled with earth. They’ll be dressed in large black pagnes. The performance will be accompanied by "village-style" traditional music. When the models begin to bathe their bodies with the earth, the music will reach a crescendo. The action will be accompanied by three painters who will paint their works live during the performance. It will be a mix of colours and sounds. When the first musical piece ends, we’ll hear the sound of a sabar drum, and then a group of wrestlers will arrive. My work as a photographer often starts with the choreography of a procession. It incorporates the use of earth and digital technology, painting and photography, as well as dance and music.
Interview conducted in Dakar, Liberté II, 21. 02. 2011
by Bärbel Küster, Marleine Chedraoui, Judith Rottenburg, Janine Schöne, Tanja Schütz
lives and works in Dakar,
Art, Chance and Conventions
Interview with Ousmane Dago in Dakar, 2011