VAN March/April 2011: From the Amazon to the Sahara

The Disappeared: Mother and Son
Augustine O'Donoghue 'The Disappeared: Mother and Son'

Augustine O’Donoghue reports on her recent work with the Artifarti Project in the Western Sahara Liberated Territories and the Tinduff refugee camps in Algeria.

Over the last number of years, my art practice has taken on an international dimension, which involves working with a wide range of communities around the world, often outside the traditional art arena. In early 2009, I undertook a research trip to the World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazil with NCAD. At the event, we had a chance encounter with organisers of Artifariti, an experimental art festival in the Western Sahara Liberated Territories. We invited them to speak at an upcoming conference / exhibition in NCAD ‘Art with Africa’. Following the success of this event, Artifariti invited NCAD students and staff to attend Artifariti 2009 in Western Sahara Liberated Territories and the Tinduff Refugee camps Algeria. Following my involvement in this event, I was invited back this year to develop a collaborative project with Saharawi refugees in Tinduff refugee camps (along with Irish artists Neil Rudden and Brian Duffy).

The Western Sahara is located in North Africa. It is a former Spanish colony, which was invaded by Morocco and Mauritania when Spain withdrew from the country in 1972. The invading Moroccan forces bombed and napalmed the civilian population, forcing them to flee across the Sahara desert into Algeria. Over 165,000 Saharawi refugees have remained stranded in the Sahara desert in Algeria for over 35 years, making the refugee camps in Tinduff the second oldest in the world. The area experiences one of the harshest climate conditions on earth. Those that did not manage to escape remain cut off from their families by ‘The Wall of Shame’ – a 3,000km wall built of sand and stone. It is the second largest defence wall in the world after the Great Wall of China, protected by 100,000 Moroccan forces and 5 million land mines.

While Mauritania later withdrew from the country, Morocco continues to occupy and control the country. Saharawis living in occupied territories live under Moroccan rule and face daily discrimination repression and human rights abuse. In 1991, there was a cease-fire between the Polisario Front (1) and Morocco, monitored by the UN on the promise of a referendum to determine the Saharawi’s right to self-determination. However, King Mohamed of Morocco has since declared that there is no need for the referendum. While UN forces are present in the Occupied Territories, they remain an ineffective presence. France continues to block a UN mandate on monitoring human rights so it has the dubious mission of being the only contemporary UN peacekeeping mission in the world without a mandate on human rights. Morocco blocks journalists and international political delegations from visiting the country to avoid reporting on the gross human rights violations in the country. Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Frontline has issued numerous report on the human rights abuse in the country, but the international community has largely ignored the plight and non-violent peaceful resistance of the Saharawi people.

It is in this context that Artifariti arts festival was initiated by Association of Friends of the Saharawis, a solidarity group in Seville as a way of highlighting the human rights violations of the Saharawi people. The event brings International and Saharawi artists together to develop work. While international artists tend to work across all contemporary art forms, the Saharawi artists tend to work in more traditional painting and sculpture although there is a shift happen in this area even from last year which is probably due to their exposure of new ideas and ways of working by International artists. Artifariti now in its fourth year has grown and developed in a number of directions since its inception. Artists from 14 different countries participated in this year’s event. Most of the artists worked in the liberated zone in Tifariti, which was a day’s drive across the desert from the camps. This year, due to the nature of my work, I based myself in the refugee camps and unfortunately as a result did not meet or view the work of the majority of other international artists.

However, I did work beside Irish artist Neil Rudden who ran collaborative workshops mainly using the medium of textile to transform a traditional Saharawi tent called a Jaima into a symbol of solidarity, while simultaneously creating an interior space to encourage creative practices. People responded with great enthusiasm to his concept with people of all ages from children to senor citizens working on the project.

henna application
Augustine O'Donoghue henna application for 'The Disappeared'

The focus of this year’s exhibition was disappeared people. Forced disappearance is a feature of the Western Sahara conflict. Over 30,000 civilians have disappeared throughout the conflict, with many civilians kept in secret detention centres by the Moroccan government. Some disappearance last a few days, weeks or months, while others last years. However, once disappeared many civilians are never seen again.

The experience of visiting the camps in 2009 helped formulate my ideas for this year’s project. I hoped to explore a project that could engage in the cultural traditions of the Saharawi people and to use materials that could be found in the area. Key to this was to develop a mechanism that would allow the work to be shown or reactivated in other countries.

My project titled The Disappeared involved collaborating with Saharawi artists, Eseniya Ahmed Baba and Mohamed Suliman. Mohamed, originally my translator for the project became a key person in the development of the project. The first part of my project involved the development of a series of portraits of disappeared people using henna paste. Henna is a natural plant dye used to decorate skin and part of the cultural tradition of the Saharawi people. I worked with Afapredesa The Association for the families of Saharawi prisoners and Disappeared, to get photographic images as well as stories and information on the disappeared. As Henna is applied to hands, the story of the disappeared person is told to the person receiving the henna and they in turn are asked to pass the story of the disappeared person on to another individual before the image fades from their hand. Henna can last between two to three weeks on the skin. As I applied the henna to many of the Saharawi’s hands and told the story of the disappeared person, many of them told me the story of disappeared people in their own family. This was something I had not anticipated, but reflects the extent to which the problem affects so many Saharawi families.

The second part of the project, which I am currently working on, is the creation of ‘Henna art kits’. The kits contain henna paste and stencils incorporating portraits of the disappeared people. In addition, they include stories of the disappeared. They will be sent to individuals and organisations involved in human rights issues across the globe and also to the many Western Sahara Solidarity groups established worldwide. This is a crucial feature of the project as it allows the work to be reactivated by different people in different locations. This may occur at a cultural or political event or perhaps just in a home between family members (2).

Saharawi refugee camp
Saharawi refugee camp

Another interesting development that emerged through the work came from an encounter with an elderly woman in the camp. Her husband was disappeared 35 years previous. Through my local translator, she spoke of her husband, but struggled to describe the man he was or what he looked like. However, while speaking she mentioned he was a poet. When asked if she could remember any of his poetry she recited his humorous and witty poems with unstrained laughter. It was through his poetry that I really began to see the portrait of this man. His character, humour and wit all became apparent. I discovered his poetry was never recorded in any form as it came from an oral tradition. His wife believed she would never be asked to recite his poetry again, I got the impression that it was a significant moment for her to recite his words again. As no photographic image of this man exists, I am trying to somehow develop a portrait from his poetry (3).

Developing art projects in the desert is not an easy or straightforward process. The intense heat makes the simplest of tasks almost impossible. Trying to simply think or work out plans in such a climate was a struggle. Contending with sickness and diarrhoea is also part of living in the refugee camp. Attempting to obtain information on the disappeared people while in the camp was a slow process as organisation and communication can be chaotic. On many occasions I waited hours for someone to turn up for a pre-arranged meeting because even though they may be just a 15-minute drive away, they could not always find transport. Walking in the sun is not an option and there are no telephones for one to inform you they are running a few hours late! This is normal life for the Saharawis and is something one must to learn to accept when working in such an environment. It was a challenge particularly when working to a tight schedule, without the modern conveniences to hand.

On return to Ireland from our first visit the Irish artists established a Western Sahara solidarity group and have undertaken a number of cultural and political events collectively and individually. This has helped strengthen our relationship with the Saharawi people and help develop an engaged understanding of the political situation which I feel in turn influences the artwork that comes from such a relationship. I hope to see Irish artists’ relationship with the Saharawi people develop and evolve. This already seems to be happening in an organic way with plans underway for future collaborations and projects.

In 2009 a film school was established in the camps as part of this year’s event many of the Saharawi worked in the school on collaborative film and photographic projects documenting aspects of their own life and culture. This is an interesting development and I think takes on some of the issues around representation that I felt were not adequately addressed in the 2009 event. It’s also a way of supporting and developing an indigenous Saharawi film language. There are also plans underway to develop an art college in the camps an exciting and ambitious dream for an impoverished population exiled in the desert where daily life is a struggle for survival.

For me, Artifariti has been far more that an art exhibition, it has helped build friendships and grassroots solidarity links with our fellow Saharawi artists, their families and their nation as they continue in their struggle for human rights, dignity and freedom. Sahara Libra!

Augustine O’Donoghue

(1) Polisario Front the political representative of Saharawi people. They operate as a government in exile from the Tinduff Refugee camps. Since 1979, the Polisario is recognised by the United Nations as the reprehensive of the people of the Western Sahara.

(2) Another step in the project is the further development of the henna designs. Currently, the designs incorporate portraits of the disappeared people. However, when I visited relatives of disappeared people in the camps, many did not have an image of their disappeared relative as they fled the country without possessions during the Moroccan invasion. A number of relatives had only their fingerprints or signatures from official documents. Therefore, I am hoping to develop a new series of designs, which will incorporate fingerprints and signatures into the henna designs so their story can also be included in the project.

(3) I have been collaborating with Mohamed Suleiman, the local translator, artist and Arabic calligraphy to develop a portrait using his poetry through calligraphy. While I frequently employ collaborative strategies within my work, this is a new and exciting type of collaboration for me: It will be interesting to see how it unfolds. Mohamed became a key person within my project. I have worked with several translators over the years but this was my first experience working with an artist / translator. Mohamed ‘picked up’ on things that a regular translator would not have understood. He brought enthusiasm, insight and passion to the project. I felt our relationship changed in an organic manner through the project from translator to collaborating artist.

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