Purple Magazine
— F/W 2006 issue 6




In the early nineties I visited Dakar, Senegal. I went to look at art and black Africa, where I’d never been. The occasion was a retrospective of the work of Mor Faye, an enormously gifted and imaginative artist who died at the age of 37 in 1984. He is a sort of African Van Gogh, an extraordinary innovator who couldn’t cope with the fevered workings of his brain.

It was a strange trip. I landed in Dakar not knowing what to expect from Black Africa or from an Islamic country. It just so happened that my country had decided to invade an Islamic country, Iraq, days before I left. I didn’t know if I’d get the ugly American treatment, but I knew that it wasn’t my war, it was an oilman’s war. Once I got past the shock of the anarchic airport, and immigration officials telling me that I needed immunizations, which I had been told I didn’t need back in New York (I didn’t particularly want to get a hypodermic in me in Africa), I found myself feeling an extraordinary sense of belonging in Dakar. I felt comfortable and strangely at home. The same feeling I’d had in Tokyo and Paris, but this was a place where I stood out like a neon sign.

Dakar is a cosmopolitan city but it is basically all black and there is considerable poverty. I discovered that I couldn’t walk around alone after I was mobbed downtown by about a dozen children whose hands went through all my pockets before I could beat them off of me. I had to have an escort, a guide and a translator, and very luckily I found one in an extraordinary man. El Hadji Moussa Boubacar Sy is a painter and an important figure in the lively Dakar art world. A tall, imposing man with ebony skin and a magnificent, animated face, El Hadji reminded me a great deal of Peter Tosh. He had that same Rasta Gnostic sense of things. No doubt ever, just pure assurance. If you told Peter Tosh he had confidence he would probably so, “No con! I-fidence!” El Hadji has the same spirit. He showed me his work and it was strong pictorially, combining abstraction with fantastic figuration. Actually his style reminded me a bit of Miles Davis’s painting but more practiced and composed. But El Hadji understood contemporary art and how it works. He understood high concept and he painted empty rice sacks, which he sold for the price of a full sack. When I was with him he was painting on stretchers. Literally, stretchers, those pallets used to carry the sick and the dead, a fantastic pun resonating through the entire idea of African art and history.

He knew he had to work outside the studio, too. To make a show not just of paintings, but of himself and his magnificent personality. To that end he was all over Dakar, visiting fellow artists, organizing shows, and making himself a presence in café society. And Dakar is a place with a café society. Each night we dined in excellent restaurants that demonstrate one of the truly great results of the collision between France and its colonies—a fantastic Creole cuisine. We dined and we wined. El Hadji (a name which signifies that he made the pilgrimage to Mecca), was never drunk, but I noticed that his wine glass was never empty either.

He took me to jazz clubs, discos, marketplaces, and the studios of his peers. I was particularly moved by my visit to the island of Goree in the Harbor. This was the point of departure for many thousands of the slaves shipped from West Africa to the Americas. The dungeons where they were held before shipment are still there, as is the fort that protected the slavers.

One night, or actually one morning, as we stayed out very late I said “El Hadji, I don’t understand the way you live. You are a Muslim but here we are every night, drinking wine and talking to these charming ladies.”

El Hadji’s face lit up and he flashed his ivory smile and said, “I am a modern Muslim. I drink wine. I chase women.”

It was funny but I understood. I understood him and his beautiful wife and his interest in women and the way polygamy sometimes worked so well here and how all of the things that seem fearsome and retrograde about countries like Saudi Arabia or Yemen did not apply here. Somehow black Africa made Islam work in a way that it didn’t elsewhere.

The other highlight of my visit was dining at the house of the great musician Youssou n’Dour, one of the most important African artists, and one of the most gifted and powerful musicians in the world. Youssou n’Dour is a man of great depth and substance. We sat on the carpeted floor of his dining room around a huge platter of rice, vegetables and meat, eating with our hands, as is the custom in Senegal. An American music critic was also a guest. I couldn’t help noticing the dirt under his fingernails. It was a small thing but it took away my appetite for the delicious meal and it perfectly illustrated a culture gap between Senegal and America, which might not be noticed by most Americans. The people here were so utterly proper and respectful. They understood the meaning of the smallest gesture, the fine details.

The history of Senegal is fascinating. The first president was a poet, Leopold Sedar Senghor, an important part of the Negritude movement. He was an artist and an apostle of blackness in all its depth and subtlety, and his spirit is still alive here. Of course the government here is no collection of artists, and the art museum Senghor founded has become the Supreme Court building, but creativity is still in the DNA of this community, this country where the religion was brought in the songs of the Sufi poets, where the president himself spoke beautiful words:

I left my warm meal and the handling of many disputes,_

Wearing nothing more than a pagne for the dewy mornings, _

I had only words of peace as protection and to open every road. _

And I too traversed rivers and forests full of dangers_

Where vines hung more treacherous than snakes. _

I went among people who would easily let fly a poisoned greeting. _

But I held on the sign of recognition_

And the spirits watched over my breath.

I think about going back to Dakar. I’d like to see how it has grown. I’d like to see the cultural community that has grown up on Goree, and see if the little children crippled by polio still frolic on the beach there, freed from awkwardness by the sea. I’d like to see El Hadji again, and see what his work is up to, and maybe have some wine and drink a toast to the modern Muslims, who sing and dance with joy, men and women together. I’d like to hear Youssou n’Dour sing live the songs I heard on Egypt, the songs of the Sufi poets put to a complex, contagious African beat, words of peace.

They say the human race was born on this continent. And it seems like this is the place for it to be reborn, a place where joy can replace anger, where love can replace war. A place where spirits watch over the breath, allowing words to work their good magic.

[Table of contents]

F/W 2006 issue 6

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