Disparate Threads

Disegno #09 (2015)

Image by Thatcher Cook.

Sinthian’s roads are red with laterite, passing through green fields of millet, corn and pasture grass.

It is the rainy season and Sinthian, a village in the east of Senegal, is unexpectedly sylvan. Its goats, cattle and donkeys graze in pasture noduled with termite mounds, watched over by children in the savannah, while the village proper is grouped in a series of mud-wall thatch huts, white against the soil, close to which grow young gardens of okra, bitter eggplants, cucumber and spice.

Amidst this August verdure is the Thread culture centre. It is white-walled too, made from plastered bricks produced from Sinthian's clay, and its canopy is thatch, although of more ambitious form than the conical shapes that top the nearby huts. Thread's roof undulates across its low-rise walls in curves that suggest discrete shaded spaces within the open-plan centre below. The building is a rough figure of eight, open to the savanna at its middle and arranged around two concrete courtyards at either end, all of which is ventilated by geometric patterns in the brickwork that aerate the sultriness of Senegalese summer. The thatch parts above Thread’s dual courtyards and sweeps into extended circular skylights in the canopy.

Thread is a social experiment, conducted in an outpost of west Africa some 300 miles from the Atlantic coast and Senegal’s capital Dakar. The centre was designed by Jordan MacTavish, an associate at New York-based architects Toshiko Mori, and, in the spirit of experimentation, is a hybrid. Thread is an artists’ residency programme, with two live-work spaces for visiting practitioners. It is a community space, which Sinthian’s close to 900 residents can use for education, workshops, gardening, relaxation, and – as a result of Thread being one of the few electrified structures in the village – a charging station for mobile phones. Equally, Thread is a piece of infrastructure, the roof canopy pitched so that rainwater pours into channels that run through to external cisterns providing 200,000 gallons of water a year, around 30 per cent of the village's annual consumption. More than these functionalities, however, Thread is an attempt to answer certain questions. What role does art play in modern Senegal, a country that, historically, has used the arts as the engine for its political and societal development? And what role might art play in shaping a community, any community, through cultivation of personal identity? “What is the impact, what do we hope the impact will be?” asks Thread’s director Nick Murphy. “That’s what we’re trying to learn. What can this space be?”

Attempts to unravel Thread’s history quickly descend into knottiness. The centre is run by American Friends of Le Korsa (AFLK), a US-based non-profit that works across health, education and culture in Senegal. AFLK was founded in 2005, initially as a US support wing to an existing French NGO, Le Kinkeliba, yet funding for Thread comes from a third source, The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation.This foundation, based in Connecticut, USA, is devoted to the legacy of the Albers, Bauhaus artists who fled to the US from Nazi Germany in 1933 and made major contributions across 20th-century modernist art. Neither Josef nor Anni Albers had any tangible connection to Senegal and neither set foot in Africa. “How did Thread come about?” asks Nicholas Fox Weber, executive director of the Albers Foundation and president of AFLK. “In 1999 I went to Paris and visited a skin doctor. Actually no, let me step back…”

Serendipity played a major role in what followed. Fox Weber's dermatologist was Gilles Degois, founder of Le Kinkeliba, and in 2004 Degois took Fox Weber to Tambacounda, the region of Senegal in which Sinthian is based and where Le Kinkeliba was already established. “I saw that for a couple of thousand dollars you could make a life-saving difference to these communities,” says Fox Weber, who subsequently praised the region to his friend, architect Toshiko Mori. In 2009, Mori began leading expeditions with her Harvard architecture class to sites around Senegal and during one such expedition one of Mori's students, MacTavish, designed a cultural centre as a hypothetical project for the region. It made manifest an idea already championed by Magueye Ba, a doctor who runs an AFLK-funded medical clinic in Sinthian and who saw artist residencies as an opportunity to foster “larger ideas about life and ways to live” in his community. It's a messy story, one in which people and places collide in unexpected ways. “Anni Albers was a dear friend and a font of wisdom,” says Fox Weber. “She used to tell me you can go anywhere from anywhere.”

In January 2014, construction on Thread began. MacTavish coordinated the $200,000 project through occasional site visits, but mostly worked from New York, leaving Ba on-site to translate his plans for the Tambacoundan workforce. “My metier is medicine, but I could explain to the masons and builders exactly what to do because Jordan made great plans,” says Ba. “Where the challenges came is that the architects didn’t know the local materials as well as we did, so we proposed some alterations. We worked that out over email."

“There wasn’t much logic in it,” says Fox Weber. “If we were talking about functioning in the middle of London, there would be documents that go on for 50 pages, with endless discussions, symposiums, colloquia and discussion of metrics. Instead we're talking about a spirit that's ‘Let’s go ahead and do this. Let’s try this and see where it goes.’ I have to say that going with the gut and going with instinct has, so far, worked incredibly well.”

Part of the intrigue surrounding Thread is that it's not clear where it’s going. The centre opened in March 2015 and initially hosted residencies for Tambacoundan artists such as rapper Neggadou and found-object sculptor Saliou Diop. It is now August and Thread is entering its sixth month of existence and its first rainy season, bringing with it additional pressures. Already, the centre is changing. The pitch of the roof requires mild adjustment to deal with the rains, while one of the cistern walls has buckled and collapsed into the water, the result of a construction flaw. “We were working in unknown circumstances with unknown results, so you have to think of it as a refinement process,” acknowledges MacTavish, returning to the centre for the first time since its opening. Meanwhile, Thread has just welcomed its first international residents, Serbian video artist Ivana Bobic and Norwegian knitwear designer Siri Johansen, thereby initiating its first major attempt at inculcating cultural exchange. To cap it off, the centre’s on-site staff – general manager Moussa Diogoye Sene and agricultural coordinator Mamadou Yaya Diallo – constantly feed back on the community’s evolving relationship with the space. Plans changing is part of the plan.

The flexibility of the architecture reflects this. The centre breaks down into as many as 12 distinct spaces, yet the effect is amorphous and the separate areas difficult to identify. Wide central courtyards flow into narrower studios around the edges of the floor plan, yet no set use is prescribed and the series of wooden benches and chairs that populate the centre circulate as required. “It was appropriate to not just come up with a typical architectural box and then build boxes around a courtyard,” says MacTavish. “The whole idea was maximising the use of different gathering areas. Visiting it again, it’s become very clear that it is an experiment.”

Central to this is a desire for Sinthian’s residents to take ownership of the space. Plans are being assessed as to whether the cisterns could be converted into fish ponds, while the centre already functions as a waiting room for Ba’s adjacent medical clinic. Visitors drift in throughout the day and evening, and Sene, the centre’s manager, is enthused by Thread’s presence in the day-to-day life of the village. “Every day people come to water the gardens here,” he says. “Apart from that, they’re making soap. They were trained in the centre and make and sell it here, so it’s an income-generating activity that Thread facilitated.”

“We settled on an architecture that is incredibly flexible so that its function can evolve, change and adapt,” adds Murphy, who wants Thread to host an equal mix of international and Senegalese artists in residencies lasting between four and eight weeks. “We want people to feel comfortable using this space as they wish, proactively determining events, functions and uses for it. Thread can function as a retreat, but it’s also used every day as a community centre. There’s no way an artist would succeed here if they just wanted to be a hermit.” Bobic plans to produce a collaborative series of non-linear narrative films – “It all comes together in terms of storytelling. How do the people in Sinthian see the world that they live in?” she says – while Johansen has proposed a knitting project: “I have a jumper my mum was knitting before she died. She didn’t finish it and gave it to her friend, who didn’t finish it either. I would like to work with people here to complete it.”

Such communal projects tie to more general adjustments in ways art spaces are used worldwide. From formal display spaces, studios and galleries have gradually transitioned into community resources. “The role of the contemporary exhibition space has evolved from being a place to showcase artworks after they are produced to one that interacts or intervenes in the artist’s work,” noted Korean curator Sunjung Kim in a 2012 essay written for a symposium on art institutions in Africa. “The exhibition space is no longer a place that is removed from reality, but the site of diverse activities: from performances to lectures, film screenings, weekly DJ programs, parties and even massage sessions.” It could be the mantra for Thread. Bobic and Johansen are planning communal pancake-making, cinema nights and yoga for their residencies. In terms of massage, physiotherapist Alexandre Guillaumin has just completed a series of consultations in the village.

This commingling of art with community has a history in Senegal. The country was a French colony for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and when Senegal achieved independence in1960 its presidency fell to Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet and cultural theorist. Senghor was one of the progenitors of Négritude, a form of early 20th-century black cultural nationalism that advocated the legitimisation of African culture as a means for combatting colonial assimilation. Négritude became the cornerstone of Senghor’s worldview and his 20-year presidency promoted art as both a symbol of Senegal’s independence and the political mechanism for the assertion of this. Cultural bodies such as The National Dance Company and The National Ballet were quickly founded, while grands projets including the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts and Dakar's Musée Dynamique established the nation as one of Africa’s cultural leaders. A generation of Senegalese artists, such as painters Papa Ibra Tall and Iba N’Diaye, and film director Paulin Vieyra, began to emerge.

Subsequent presidents have not promoted the arts as vociferously as Senghor, yet a legacy remains. “The primary goal of cultural politics was to forge a national consciousness for nation-states that had inherited borders that rarely followed ethnic and cultural coherency established by precolonial history,” wrote Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne of Senghor’s presidency. “This emphasis is so significant that the idea itself must be understood to mean that true politics can only exist through culture and for culture.” Senghor created a postcolonial identity in which art and culture were indivisible from sociological development and, post-Senghor, Senegalese youth groups Set/Setal, Boul Falé and Y’en a Marre have all employed art as a means of political protest, feeding into a national ideology in which culture is the handmaid of social change. It’s a point made by Fou Malade, a rapper and artistic director of Y’en a Marre: “Art is something that is in our veins.”

The question therefore becomes what Thread might offer Senegalese society. While Senegal has a history of political stability and a growing economy, its debt is high and poverty stands at 46.7 per cent of the total population. One in three Senegalese live on less than $1.25 per day and the statistics deteriorate outside of Dakar. Tambacounda is particularly poor, its distance from the capital leaving it underfunded and cut off from certain essential services and supplies. “Tambacounda is ubiquitously considered as too far and too hot by the rest of Senegal,” acknowledges Murphy. Ba describes Sinthian, for instance, as “lost in the brush”, while Fox Weber is more prosaic: “If you’re born in Sinthian, you’re likely to be… in fact, no, there’s no other way, you will be brought up with your brothers and sisters in a structure that is about 3mx3m and you will eat very few foods other than peanuts and corn. It’s subsistence living.” Sinthian faces a battle – not just internationally, but domestically – to avoid slipping into obscurity.

To reach Thread, you travel through Missirah, a commune of rural villages of which Sinthian is one. The roads are widened dirt tracks that cars dig into, spuming up clouds of ochre laterite. Before Thread finally appears at the edge of Sinthian, by now deep in the bush, Missirah’s built environment is limited to the adobe huts that line the savannah route. The centre is reasonably small – 11,285 sq ft – yet seems vast and shocking against the modesty of its surroundings. Thread settles on the village’s extremity like a writhing manta staked out to dry in the sun, and the aesthetic tricks continue inside. The floor is made from shards of tile, with a ribbon of blue mosaic that surrounds the centre's exterior and gives way to an interior of reds, creams, greys, black and white. The tiles are all cast-offs, sourced from scalloped green bathrooms or grey-grid offices, or emblazoned with bunches of grapes and sprigs of spring flowers, and the bricolage seems a good metaphor for the project as a whole: Thread creates beauty from the unexpected.

The success of the centre’s architecture is a good reminder of culture’s capacity to help Tambacounda overcome the challenges it faces. While cash-poor, the region has a rich arts community. The Centre Culturel Regional de Tambacounda, a state-run facility, estimates that the region is home to1,000 rappers, with the centre’s sound studio in heavy use. “We make two recordings a day,” says Abdourahmane Diallo, the centre’s director, “so you can see there is a demand for it.” Yet while artistic talent is present, Tambacounda lacks the infrastructure to support it. “The region’s cultural scene is strong, with many artists,” says Saliou Diop, one of Thread’s first residents, “ but they’re dispersed and there's nothing to bring them together.”

Dispersed, but also underfunded. “On a national level cultural funding is 200m CFA a year, but until now Tambacounda has received less than 5m CFA of that amount,” says Diallo. “We have many activities at the cultural centre, but the funding is not sufficient for all that we want to do and it’s not sufficient for the functioning of the institution.” Thread collaborates with Diallo’s organisation in an attempt to provide such a platform; an independent body to pick up the slack when state funding runs out. “Tambacounda is the one place Senegalese people don’t want to go,” says Murphy. “The only way to change that narrative is to support its artists, to support rappers or painters or graffiti artists, and share its story more widely.” Mamadou Yaya Diallo, Thread’s agricultural coordinator, is even clearer: “We have the goal of working for the community. As Senegalese, we have a duty to better their conditions.”

Thread will not solve all of Sinthian's problems, yet its willingness to suggest that Tambacounda might aspire to more than the bare necessities is encouraging, with the centre founded upon the principle that cultural engagement should play as critical a role in reshaping Tambacounda as provision of medical supplies and agricultural equipment. It would be a provocative suggestion in any society – particularly given that worldwide funding cuts to the arts make it clear that most governments consider culture an optional extra – but in a continent such as Africa, a place described by Malian author Aminata Dramana Traoré's as having been taught “to think of herself as poor”, it is positively radical.

A 2014 essay by urbanist Manuel Herz argued that conventional narratives surrounding Africa associate the continent with “the poor, the violent, the raw, the exotic, and the peripheral” and certainly, western perceptions of Africa rarely seem to move beyond the notion of relief work, the idea that the continent is fit for little but the grateful reception of medicine, shelter and food aid. “Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of ‘human nature’,” wrote Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe in his 2001 book On the Postcolony. "Or, when it is, its things and attributes are generally of lesser value, little importance, and poor quality. It is this elementariness and primitiveness that makes Africa the world par excellence of all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, its history reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest for humankind.” Yet Thread's positioning of culture as essential to Tambacounda – as something as important to human existence as the fulfilment of brute biological needs – is an effort to move beyond such a narrative.

It’s a proven methodology. The past 25 years have seen independent arts spaces spring up across Africa, from Doual’art and Bonendale in Cameroon, to Townhouse Gallery and Darb 1718 in Egypt. Thread is part of this movement, which Koyo Kouoh, founder of Dakar-based gallery Raw Material and a curatorial advisor to Thread, encapsulates as a pan-Africa cultural flourishing: “Whether large or small, generously funded or not, centres such as these are changing the cultural and artistic landscape and, if nothing else, they replenish the dearth in spaces of free expression, productions, exhibition and reflection.” The independence of such spaces is key. While Senghor helped establish art’s contemporary role in Senegal, he also created a near state monopoly on its funding and production. “As a general rule, the types of administration inherited from colonial systems and perpetuated by the political and administrative elite in Africa, have not placed an importance on private initiatives,” says Kouoh. “This is especially true in the arts and in the situation of former French colonies, where the heirs to a centralistic model of an omnipotent and omnipresent state continue to adhere to their constitutional roles as initiator, regulator, controller, promoter, producer and critic.” Platforms such as Thread help divorce art from governmental control, acting as incubators of national identity outside of state machinations.

Such ideas of agency are embedded in the cultural mission of Thread, but also within the architecture itself. Thread is largely constructed from materials local to Sinthian – the bricks made from its soil, the thatch woven from its grass and bamboo – and the small number of press articles that greeted its opening focused on this heavily. The Guardian mentioned the importance of familiar materials in promoting local ownership of the space, while The Wall Street Journal praised its capacity to speak “in something approaching a local dialect”. The idea was that Thread’s embracing of the vernacular made it a good cultural centre for Sinthian.

In part, such praise for vernacular architecture comes from context. The second half of the 20th century saw modernist architecture blossom in Africa as postcolonial governments rushed to embrace the International Style, the results of which were rarely international and frequently degraded to a simple transplant of US and European values onto African nations seduced by western affluence.“No word captures the hopes and ambitions of African’s leaders, its educated populations, and many of its farmers and workers in the post-war decades better than ‘development’,” notes historian Frederick Cooper. By contrast, vernacular architecture seems more palatable, although praise for its adoption is all too often patronising, a closeted form of exoticism that celebrates what looks “right” in a context – in this case an African village – or what is “understandable by locals.” At least modernism was up front about its intentions: “Modernisation stood for the belief that with a big push any nation could reach the same level of development as the First World,” writes Manuel Herz. “In that sense, even if maybe naive and even if often perverted, modernism stood for an honourable promise.”

The danger of focusing on vernacular is that it awards primacy to the idea that Thread is a good cultural centre for Sinthian, but remains silent as to the suggestion that Thread might be a good cultural centre period. The use of thatch and locally-sourced bricks is not some emotional sop to the populace, but a sound architectural decision. The materials are cheap, durable, quick to produce, and can be worked with readily by local tradesmen. These factors enabled MacTavish to manage the build from a separate continent and also facilitate the small but constant revisions the centre is likely to undergo in the months ahead. The centre's materials and structure are further vindicated by the final result. Thread has architectural moments on a par with anything offered by buildings with construction budgets many thousand times its own. “The architecture photographer Iwan Baan covered the opening of Thread and the opening of the Vuitton Foundation in Paris as well,” says Fox Weber. “He pointed out to me that for the cost of building the Vuitton Foundation, you could build 10,000 Threads.” Tambacounda’s rainy season brings frequent thunderstorms, during which the circular openings above the centre’s courtyards take on a new purpose. Reconfigured as Turrellean apertures, they frame the sky blue and rose, the cloud cover illuminated by sheet lightning as rain hisses all around. It is a staggering effect.

Such gestures are central to Sinthian asserting itself on a wider stage. “When I arrived in 2000, there was nothing,” says Ba. “Now, there’s a kindergarten, a medical centre, a school, and with Thread the people know that their village is now known throughout the world. I was just in France and people said, ‘Ah Sinthian, I’ve heard of it, we were just talking about it.’” A notion of civic pride is undoubted, yet so too is a sense of placemaking. Thread is a kind of Guggenheim Effect for Missirah, the entire project an assertion that Sinthian has something to offer. “Aesthetics have a real social function in terms of generating pride and encouraging use of a space,” says Murphy. “There are the little moments of Sinthian being a destination. We field many requests from journalists, every week, saying ‘I’m in Dakar, how do I get out to Thread?’ These are journalists who would never get to Tambacounda. While we’re certainly not the only reason to go there, if we're what gets people here, then they can go on to have a wider experience of the region.”

The challenge for Thread is whether an international organisation, by means of a building created by an international architect to house international artists, is the best body to facilitate a Senegalese community uncovering agency through cultural practice. Any form of foreign intervention in a nation’s culture is sensitive, but in an ex-French colony whose oppressors asserted the legitimacy of their actions by citing the supposed superiority of European culture – “La mission civilisatrice” – it feels particularly pointed. AFLK says that it is alive to such criticism. The body is advised by Senegalese consultants who live and work in the communities it supports, while Allegra Itsoga, the organisation’s director, points to countervailing practicalities also. “I think we can act as a sort of bridge,” she says. “Senegal has a severe shortage of funds and the projects we’re doing are ones they cannot do. The other thing we can do – which local artists, doctors and residents cannot – is get meetings with government officials and bring these causes to light. Unfortunately, when you’re foreign you have connections with people in Europe that people in Senegal just don’t have. I’m not saying that that's a great system, but we’re going to use it to help the people we can.”

“People are understandably sceptical of a Western organisation being involved in any kind of aid in Senegal or West Africa,” admits Murphy, “but the amount of sensitivity built up around it can also cause a sort of congealing where people don’t take any action. That isn’t an answer either and I’m frustrated by the notion that when we raise money to put into these projects we’re seen as fundraising, but when Magueye Ba develops a relationship with our organisation and leads discussions to bring the cultural centre to this community, he’s seen as receiving. The bent of the West is to grant ourselves agency and deny it to others.”

Murphy’s message is a good one. Even within the context of Senghor’s Négritude, Senegalese arts policy was based around twin concepts of enrancinement and ouverture: rootedness and openness. A national culture was to be cultivated, but one that was embedded in the international arts scene. “Senghor wished to demonstrate that African civilisation had contributed to universal civilisation,” writes political scientist Tracy D. Snipe, "thus refuting European claims to the contrary,” and while Senghor's development of cultural identity was nationalist, it was certainly not isolationist. Ditto, Tambacounda does not wish to be isolated. The region is not so fragile that outside influence risks subsuming its culture; instead, it desires a place in the wider artistic world on its own merits, to borrow what it good in other cultures and to share what is good in its own. As suggested by Koyo Kouoh, “The times of micro ideas in micro states have passed.”

Which is where the strands of Thread – its origins, its ambitions, its location, its philosophy and its context – start to knit together, curiously within the two figures who seem to stand apart from it all, the two people who never even went to Senegal: Josef and Anni Albers.

The Albers are firmly embedded in art history. Josef’s paintings and university teaching helped form geometric abstraction and colour theory, prefacing minimalism, while Anni is credited as the foremost textile artist of the 20th century. Their work sells for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars at auction “but they couldn’t stand art-world pretension,” says Fox Weber, “people clapping their little hands when a Mondrian goes for $10m on the auction block. For them, makers of everyday household objects were true artists.”

The Albers believed that art's power derived from its being embedded in the quotidian and conceived of the modernist mission as an assertion that art spoke a universally understood common language, functioning as an essential constituent of any healthy society. “Yes, art is useless, in a sense,” wrote Anni in a 1969 article. “But it has a restorative power that we need again and again. It assures us of a timeless meaning across epochs and regions”. It may not have been full-blown Senghorian “art as politics”, but the Albersian interpretation of culture was nonetheless compatible, built on an understanding that art is not an elitist adjunct, but something that ought infiltrate all areas of life. “Although you may expect a long answer to this, my answer is very short,” said Anni in a 1977 interview with art critic Gene Baro. “There is no medium that cannot serve art.”

Thread is this ethos made manifest. “AFLK’s view is to encourage the support of culture right alongside health and education,” says Murphy, “because these things don’t exist in Tambacounda in separation. You can’t support one without the other and if one is weak they all feel that way. There is a real misunderstanding that art and culture should be this privilege afforded to those who have everything else squared away, when in fact it can be the most important thing to these villages.” To this, Magueye Ba makes an addendum, offering a parting shot that Senghor and the Albers would be proud of. “Art is not something at the end of development; it’s a form of development.”