Toubab Art and the Mechanized Artist

Along the beach by the Point des Almadies, the westernmost point of Africa and a popular tourist destination, you’ll find loads of the same kind of art, jewelry, and clothing scattered around.


art by Nikita Borisov

One vendor sells batik (a dyeing technique in which wax is used to prevent parts of the fabric from being dyed) dresses with stripes, jewelry made of coconut shells and pretty plastic beads, and woven multicolored baskets with a cover and vertical grip bought from women working in a supplier workshop not far away. Two tents down, someone is selling the same thing, plus tiny wooden elephants, turtles, cats, and a variety of other animals that he sculpted himself, but no batik dresses. On the next block, someone is selling all of that, plus bags made of bright, quilt-like fabric with “African prints.”

Why, in markets and popular tourist locations, are dozens of vendors selling exactly the same wares, while original art is hard to come by?

Almadies is Dakar’s hub of expatriates and tourists, especially Americans and Europeans, or “toubabs,” the loosely thrown-around Wolof term for a white person or Westerner. (I’m of Indian descent, but I, too, am a toubab because I’m light-skinned enough and apparently have the air of an American.) Toubabs are the crowd that always seem to be hunting down Senegalese art.

Art has always been present in Senegalese culture—they wear batik, have decorative woodwork at home, keep fruit in woven baskets. However, today’s lower-middle class Senegalese homes and wardrobes house far less Senegalese art than those of expatriates. It makes sense that tourists and expatriates buy things that they see as characteristic of the culture they came to.

Like in the United States, you need to go into a formal gallery or studio to find original work. The tourist industry’s demand for what it sees as traditional makes it appealing for certain artists to branch away from Senegal’s fine artists into a uniform line of work. Artists became artisans. Wood sculptors became carpenters. Couturiers became tailors. The art feels handmade, but lacks uniqueness. Many toubab artists today can’t afford to be creative, think it safer not to, or simply have never thought about it.

In the Village Artisanal of Dakar farther downtown, Aliou Kanté sculpts daily alongside hundreds of other artists, smoothing small wooden beads, animal figurines, and decorative statuettes, as he has since 1985. He comes from a family of artists, and was brought to the Village by his older brother. His family is Laobei, a caste of woodworkers, of Guinean origin.

For centuries, strictly Laobeis made wooden sculptures. The Laobei artist Cheikh Sow, who also works in the Village making koras and sabar drums, explains that only they may cut down trees and know the incantations to do so without disturbing the spirits that the trees host. While the caste system is no longer present in Senegal, many Laobeis continue their family’s traditional profession, and they currently constitute the vast majority of woodworkers in Senegal.

Kanté loves his profession and wants to continue it, but explained that it poses large difficulties. Artists like him rely on business that comes almost entirely from tourists, but with the decreasing visibility and popularity of the Village Artisanal among tourists, due to the construction of a new road that gives drivers less of an incentive to drive by the Village, he earns little. He works for a full day but is forced to sell to retailers who buy at meager rates. Art sellers, like many in the stalls in Almadies, interact directly with often wealthier tourists and earn much more.

While he dreams of exposing his work in Europe and having it distributed throughout the world, I was surprised to hear that he doesn’t aspire to make any stylistic changes (I would expect international success to require more originality). He, however, has been working in the Village since 1985—meaning 32 years of unchanged style.

As it were, there are an immense number of artists in the field with Kanté who have developed a financial reliance on the chain of sellers and tourists, because it is an immediate solution for the lack of money in their pockets; change and creativity are risky.

It is detrimental that the art in demand among toubabs is stagnant, because it encourages many artists with large potentials to cater to a specific taste instead of working from personal inspiration. If expressing oneself is a risk, then it’s a part of artists’ job description.

Toubab artists need to have the opportunity to innovate; dependence on the tourism industry shouldn’t limit them. If Donatello or Rodin were confined to tiny animal figurines, the arts would have suffered. There is a danger in artists who want to express themselves feeling muted in an unhealthy industry that makes art a restrictive, menial labor.

What the industry needs is respect for those behind the beautiful culture that made it possible. It would be great if customers, especially toubabs, bought from the source. Prices must do justice to the time and labor exerted to make the art possible—artists ought to create unions, and the Senegalese government ought to lay down stronger legislation regulating labor (the arts are among many fields that this would benefit). Senegal will in the years to come, inshallah.

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