Memory on march
interview with Alpha Oumar Konaré, june 1991
(Alpha O. Konaré was at this moment President of Iccrom-Unesco, after being minister of Culture and later President of Mali)
par Jean Loup Pivin
JEAN LOUP PIVIN - Africa is today on a turning-point of his history. It is breaking with dictatorships and oligarchies, often amid suffering and disorder. The question of "what future" remains open : what Africa and what Africas for what tomorrow with what identity, at a time when culture has become a world wide phenomenon ? Where will artistic creation have its place in all this upset : will it continue to be essentially a foil for people in power (in which case, the talent-drain will continue), or will it assume a real place in national development ? If so, what place ?
ALPHA OUMAR KONARÉ - This historian, president of Iccrom, a former Minister of Culture who, during his time in office (two years at the beginning of the 80's) gave real freedom of expression to his country, Mali, and then joined the opposition, setting up a cultural cooperative which published newspapers, Jamana and Les Echos to name two of them. These papers had a decisive influence in the fall of President Moussa Traoré. Alpha Oumar Konaré is today the leader of the Adema party which has brought together some of the liveliest minds in Mali today.
JLP - Is there hope on the cultural, if not economic, front in Mali ?
AOK - Young people no longer believe in ideologies, but they do believe in the values of democracy, justice, work, solidarity. Everyone thinks the time has come to question the lessons from history and our cultural values. We have lived through a penury of ideas and free thought. Forget idleness and dependence. We are capable of finding our own solutions to the problems facing us.
JLP - Lorsque vous dites que l'avenir de votre pays est lié à la redécouverte de son identité, est-ce un retour au passé ou le désir d'une nouvelle construction dont l'expression de l'identité est le premier maillon ?
AOK - Il y a trente ans, c'était le temps des Indépendances. Aujourd'hui les faits démontrent que les choix se sont tous révélés mauvais et que nous nous sommes trompés de développement. Cette quête constante de ce que l'on appelle la modernité associée à cette recherche de l'unité pour l'unité, a été à l'inverse d'une démarche qui part de la diversité pour arriver à l'unité et qui s'impose aujourd'hui. On se demande si l'Afrique des Etats ne sera pas remise en cause avec l'émergence de nouvelles frontières, ou si l'on ne va pas voir des frontières concentriques se superposer aux frontières héritées de la colonisation. Si nous n'arrivons pas à résoudre ces questions, je pense qu'il n'y a pas de salut pour l'Afrique.
JLP - Africa has never had decisive cultural policies. Neither Houphouët-Boigny's caricature of international modernism nor Senghor's individualism have really succeeded in the cultural domain. In which case, is the saying "the future is a question of rediscovering identities" a return to the past or a hope for the future ?
AOK - We have taken the wrong road to development since the Independences. We must reverse the trend today : seek unity on the basis of diversity. The present State boundaries must perhaps be changed. Maybe we can superpose concentric boundaries, rather than preserve those inherited from the colonial era. No solution to Africa's problems can be found without such fundamental changes.
We must make mental efforts to link ourselves to the pre-colonial era. Reactivate our memories. This heritage, excluded from our schools, must be put back in our educational system. Those penalised because they didn't speak French can be asked to contribute. That's how we may be able to think in terms of new cultural policies.
JLP - Will regional as opposed to State policies motivate Malians and other Africans ?
AOK - The important things are health care, food and freedom, not T.V., cars and houses. Learning to read and write are also acts of freedom.
JLP - Where do you see artists in your project for society ? Haven't they often supported the establishment ?
AOK - Probably, especially in the case of some Malian singers and musicians. But music and singing are important, because they accompany nearly all the stages of social life in our oral societies. They can help free consciences. But sometimes they have even distorted history to serve the existing régime.
Artists have a primordial place in social mobilisation, as all régimes know. At times, they have been used to create a mystique of power. But some artists are aware of everyday realities and have taken part in recent movements : many theatre companies, for example, have openly criticised authority. They are some engaged writers like Moussa Konaté, who wrote "They have assassinated hope" before the recent changes.
JLP - What about the world wide context of culture ?
AOK - Has exchange so far been reciprocal ? First, the African artists who leave have difficulty in communicating with their milieu, have difficulty gaining recognition, and they have material problems. secondly, when they leave they are taken over, their art is created and recreated "in vitro", in a foreign laboratory, so to speak. They are out of touch with their country's normal evolution, and its everyday realities. We don't know how much these individual adventures will deform or modify African cultures.
JLP - Doesn't encounter with other cultures provide new sources of inspiration ? Isn't that the essence of exchange ?
AOK - Most African artists who leave don't return and don't give anything back. If there was renewed contact with their original countries, then that would create bridges between cultures and further the exchange of techniques and technology. Then we would benefit.
This reminds me that there is a fundamental change in our cultures : affirmation of individualism. The artist has a name. This is certainly an important factor, a new freedom for the individual. Take the example of sculptors, which is significant. When European museums have ten, twenty or thirty Tyiwara (Bambara sculptures), you can compare them. Out of context, the comparison can only be on aesthetic grounds because the scale of values has changed. In our country, these masks are used successively, never together. When the time comes, a new mask is made by an anonymous sculptor and it will have the same ritual value as the old mask, which is thrown away.
JLP - In modern African towns, sculptors no longer produce sacred objects or objects with a social function. What, apart from making tourist wares, is the sculptor's role ?
AOK - Individuality in art is new for us, but we were perhaps late in making this change. We have subscribed politically to the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et des Citoyens, which recognises the importance of the individual, but that doesn't yet show in social terms. The rights we claim should impregnate all our lives : artists are advancing in that direction.
JLP - What role do you see, in Mali, for modern culture, which is not really an "ethnic" culture ?
AOK - I don't believe it can simply be a copy of the past. Malian artists must react to the needs and preoccupations of the population.
JLP - The rest of the world penetrates Mali and Africa every day by multiple means, particularly T.V., emigrant workers, experts, movement of population over boundaries, etc. Both will be part of that world.
AOK - This unfortunately doesn't always help our geniuses to flower. There must be a balance. We must not become dependent on systems of thought which are not ours. Tomorrow's artists in Mali must stay in touch with their origins, their roots.
JLP - Curiosity and thirst for experience are fundamental traits of an artist : they will always leave. Just as young people leave their villages because they want to know what their village cannot give them. How do you consider this fact ?
AOK - My approach to present cultural problems leads one to question our educational structures. Local populations and cultures must be better integrated into them. School must be reinvented. Without far-reaching reform of educational structures, there can be no way of finding correct answer to our economic and cultural problems. Meanwhile, we must see what we can get out of our present structures.
JLP - Those who are 20 today - are they lost ?
AOK - No, but they must be recycled. The State can create favourable conditions. We won't go far without recycling our present cadres.
JLP - Aren't you one of them ?
AOK - Certainly. And I say what I do because I realise that. I sorry I didn't see earlier what my education lacked. I think generations before ours were luckier. If we don't realise our weaknesses and limitations, I believe that future generations will be sacrificed or enslaved. We must go in search of ourselves. For that, the modern world can be useful : new means of communication can free the media. There must be free local radios in local languages.
JLP - All that seems to require time which isn't on the same scale as world time, and perhaps not alterned to the wishes of the people...
AOK - When you march with Africa, you must measure yourself with time and be able to count with time. Time has passed since the Independences. We mustn't be afraid to let even more time pass in order to question ourselves and the experiments that have failed. Without such patience, don't think we shall go along with Africa.
Interviewed by Jean Loup Pivin, June 1991
text published in the magazine Revue Noire RN02, September 1991.