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Public Culture 12.1 (2000) 285-288

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art*works, n., pl.: brief reports on innovative critical cultural work within and outside established institutions <new kinds of museums; alternative or oral history projects; the expansion of musical performance and recording into forgotten musical histories or the dissemination of a broader range of musics; alternative publishing ventures or exhibition practices in film, theater, and dance; innovative cultural work with children; public art and art in public such as murals and graffiti; innovative uses of television, radio, or other mass media; and reports on past cultural work--the modernist, socialist, and avant-garde counterinstitutions of the early twentieth century>


Visual "Literature" in Urban Senegal

Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts

Pape Samb left rural Senegal as a ten-year-old orphan, traveling to the capital city of Dakar. He has spent the last forty years there, in a fishing village squeezed between factory yards in the portside industrial park of Belaire. Samb has remained single, and his tiny one-room shack has just enough space for his hammock. The wealth of his life lies in his devotion to Sheikh Amadu Bamba (1853-1927), the Sufi saint central to the Mouride Way. Samb paints wall murals as a devotional task. He has no formal training; his inspiration comes from dreams, his hand guided by the saint. Samb's graffitist tag is "Papisto Boy," and [End Page 285] [Begin Page 288] his greatest achievement is a mural covering three long exterior walls of one of Belaire's factories.

Two-meter-tall portraits of Bamba and other Mouride luminaries appear beside revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Kwame Nkrumah, and Nelson Mandela. Politicians range from Jimmy Carter to Che Guevara, and medical pioneers, philosophers, and the pope all find places. Heroes of popular culture are prominent, and Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix are given pride of place as hallowed "messengers." Portraits appear in mystical configurations from Papisto's dreams and visions. For example, the Senegalese singing star Coumba Gawlo is embraced by the curving staircase of the infamous "Slave House" of Gorée Island, as she looks to its haunting "door of no return."

Papisto, an articulate French-speaker, has had only three years of formal education. Nevertheless he reads widely and refers to his murals as literature and poetry. Through his mural he hopes to give courage to the hardworking people of Dakar's informal economy while teaching them about world history. Papisto often discusses his mural. His portraits of the sainted Bamba are thresholds to reflection and sources of baraka (holy energy), and Belaire residents congregate in front of them in early mornings to sing zikr (songs of remembrance) before heading off to work. The imageric collage of Papisto's paintings refabulates the cityscape, endowing alienating space with hope of empowerment.

Papisto's wall has become widely celebrated, and his work will be featured in an exhibition of Senegalese Sufi arts opening at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History in 2002. However, the European manager of the factory whose walls Papisto has painted does not appreciate the attention brought to his property by Papisto's populism. Papisto argues that whatever transpires within the walls is the man's business, but that the outer surfaces belong to the people of Belaire. The manager remains unsympathetic, threatening to see to Papisto's arrest and the razing of his village if he does not desist. In June 1999 (shortly after these photos were taken), the effacement of Papisto's mural began. Popular arts may be "weapons of the weak," but their inevitably ephemeral nature underscores the vulnerability of inhabitants of the "invisible city" like Papisto who strive to make livings in the informal sector but are caught up in postcolonial class struggle.



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pp. 285-288
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Archived 2004
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