Wendy Singer, Kenyon College (2022)
  • Reflection

Craft as Method: Vignettes and Fragments (Part 1)

30 January 2023

From November 3 to 6, 2022, GAEC/UGB, along with HAB/IIAS and support of the CHCI, organized Craft as Method; a joint graduate school in Saint Louis, Senegal that used 'craft' as legitimate knowledge to demonstrate the pedagogical potential of discussions between members of the academe, civic actors, and local participants. In bringing in community-based craft practitioners to learn about the embedded culture of Saint Louis in their work, Mali & University of Basel scholar and HAB partner Mohomodou Hossouba discusses his experiences as part of the workshop. (Part 1)

  1. Sidewalk musings: when does the Dakar-Niger run next?

Just about ten days before arriving in Saint-Louis, I was preparing to leave Bamako. We visited the train station, stood in front of its imposing colonial façade, then walked around to the arrivals side with a few ageless wagons still moored down amidst overgrown grass. Either a taskless railroad worker or a fantasizing nostalgist, a man came to us, smiling broadly and offering questions and answers about the Dakar-Niger railway. Amongst the taciturn, skeptic, closed faces of half-asleep, idle fellowship around, his enthusiasm and welcoming warmth couldn’t help sounding suspect. But it was good to talk with the jolly man, who kept promising that the stranded locomotives and wagons would moving again toward Kita, Mahina, Kayes, Kidira, Tambacounda, Dakar, and that in January 2023, the latest. 99 years after the 1,287 km line opened on January 1924!

I can say that unlike any other non-Senegalese participant, a Malian citizen will have the most to think about when confronted with everyday signs in Senegal. We still have just about the same flag: stripes of green, yellow and red. Senegal has a green star in the middle of the yellow and different armories. The motto is exactly the same: Un peuple, un but, une foi.  I resist any translation because it won’t make probably much sense in English.

To be sure, for all the colleagues coming from outside West Africa, the story of the Mali Federation (June-August 1960) wouldn’t ring a familiar bell. But, yes, it happened once upon a time – for about two months, the two entities gained independence as a federal state before breaking up under the ruinous rivalry between the two (in theory) cantankerous socialist leaders – Modibo Keïta leaning to the East Bloc and Léopold Sédar Senghor anchored to the West. The countries went their ways, fortunately without a war, both experiencing rather autocratic regimes in the first years, but Senegal would have better luck keeping a tenuously stable course, without a coup d’état, the hallmark of the first two decades of the independence era. Mali, on the other hand went from hardening socialist authoritarianism to military and single-party dictatorship. And, in a last twist of bitter irony, as the two countries were preparing for and gearing up to hotly contested election campaigns in 2012, separatist and jihadist outbursts in the north led to “post-democratic” coup while, despite the enduring separatist rebellion in Casamance, southern Senegal, the country went on to elect a new president and pursue its uninterrupted experiment with changing presidents and regimes through the ballots, not at gunpoint.

So, as I arrived in Senegal on November 1, 2012, after only two previous short visits in 2004 and 2008, I kept a keen eye on the external signs of divergent ways our two countries have traveled since the breakup. To be sure, I had heard over the years that the infrastructure has improved a lot in Dakar while Bamako’s impressive catch-up sprint of the early 2000s has long lost momentum. I could see the difference along the road, slow but incremental upgrades. However, this is still “atmospheric” and says little of access to decent livelihood. During my stay in Saint-Louis, I would be continually confronted with the gap between the formal façade of statehood and modern enterprise and the everyday practice of eking out a living, especially on an island village-city, which quickly looks like a fishbowl for those at the bottom of the chain of production and consumption. In this regard, there is not much difference between the countries across the border and the region.

  1. From on-site master class to shared teaching platform

The experience with craftswomen and men presenting their work, from concept to product, has left most striking and enduring impressions on me. Talking about pottery in a landscape shaped by mangroves and sea shells, riverbeds, rice fields, irrigation canals, roots furrowing across the rich beds of variegated clay, is like combining courses of history, geography, agriculture, architecture, fishing, theology, gender studies. It reminded me of the Place de Ziguinchor in Gao, in my youth a wide treed ground in the fourth district, named in honor of our twin city, the “capital” of Casamance. I only later learned from Senegalese friends that Ziguinchor too had a Place de Gao. Since it has become an entry point in conversation, to inquire about the plaza, if it is still there, intact. One never knows these days, with speculation on urban real estate and unlawful encroachment and land grab often allowed by corrupt, lawless officials at the expense of the commons. So far, both places seem to be there, in their respective twin cities. Back to pottery, as I listened to the course leader, an articulate and energetic woman, I realized how, even in their fragility, clay objects leave an unmistakable imprint on the landscape. She explained how used clay, even fired, can be recycled, re-fermented and remodeled to create new objects. If not, it joins the surroundings, like sand and stone. In our villages, there are often large areas covered by pieces of pottery dating back to centuries of precipitated flight and precarious resettlement. They are called ceddi (pronounced ched-di). A Fulfulde word by all accounts.

Recycled glass as material for craft follows the same process: earth transformed in fire and turned into beautiful objects with intricate details. It may not come across as global as pottery but it clearly delineates the pathways of globalization; that is, how the rejects of the consumption culture (drink glass bottles) are recuperated and repurposed to embellish bodies and places. I saw the same thread in turning fabric into beads, cheap market glass into majestic drawn or painted tableaux, “carving” wood or engraving calabash with sunrays.

All these processes are linked by precision language practices as well as social and spiritual rituals. Regardless of the openness with which a craft is presented, an element of mystery and superstition lingers on. At first glance, it’s all visible and tangible, but the moment after, the clarity drowns again into fuzzy and unseizable images. The observer cannot penetrate the intimacy binding the crafts person, the materials, ingredients, and substances that invariably need a third element, to blend, melt and fuse together. One is left with this unsettling as well as reassuring ultimate sensation of being outside the thing that one is in the midst of.

Is this a pedagogical opportunity, challenge, or both? I don’t think I have a definitive answer either way. For sure, there is an opportunity, at least at the entry level, to see academics forced into relative, temporary humility in the face of complex processes that involve lifelong learning, structured transmission and follow-up, quality control and vital accountability (no good product, no food on the table, to put it bluntly). There is little room for self-satisfied jargon-laden fudging or bluffing. Even if, at the sides, I also overheard local practitioners, translators and consumers complaining that there are other Saint-Louis crafts persons with greater skills and better products than the ones invited. I am poorly placed to settle the implied dispute, but suddenly we are confronted with familiar questions about selection criteria, equity, and value. More importantly, we realize that craft does not transcend the human condition. It is part of it, part of the daily effort to shape the world on infinitesimal and grand scales. Also, it is a natural multimedia process that lends itself to sharing on site and potentially online. Craft looks highly promising as the focus of shared teaching platforms on which scholars and students from different HAB regions could meet to share similar materials and different processes (indigo, rice, clay, cotton, etc.).