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apexart :: Guis Sou Me Le Mbao (I Do Not See You at Mbao) :: Claude Gomis and Saskia Köbschall
apexart thiaroye (dakar)
Guis Sou Me Le Mbao (I Do Not See You at Mbao)
organized by
Claude Gomis and Saskia Köbschall

On view:
November 12 - December 10, 2016
Camp Thiaroye (Dakar), Senegal
Wednesday to Saturday, 1-5 pm

Opening Reception:
Saturday, November 12, 5 pm

Featuring work by:
Nathalie Mba Bikoro
Mansour Ciss Kanakassy
Pierre Marie Ciss
Jean Marie Claude Bruce
Djime Diakite
Meissa Fall
Claude Gomis
Tita Mbaye
Cool Diabang Mory
Hassane Sar

A Franchise Exhibition Program winning exhibition.

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Claude Gomis, I Do Not See You at Mbao, 2016

brochure pdf
press release pdf
original proposal pdf

“They put flowers on tombs and warm the Unknown Soldier You, my dark brothers, no one calls your names They promised 500.000 of your children to the glory Of future deaths and thank them in advance, future dark dead Die schwarze Schande!”
Léopold Senghor, To the Tirailleurs Sénégalais Who Died for France 1938

The exhibition Guis Sou Me Le Mbao (I Do Not See You at Mbao) invites contemporary African artists to shed light on a silenced chapter of colonial history: the story of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, African soldiers who were conscripted for the French army from 1857 to 1964. The conceptual and physical starting point of this endeavour is the Thiaroye military camp outside of Dakar (Senegal), the site of a brutal massacre in 1944 of hundreds of Tirailleurs Sénégalais who had protested for fair and immediate payment after fighting in WWII and being freed from German concentration and war prisoner camps.

The title of the exhibition draws on the Wolof language expression “Guis sou me le mbao” (“I do not see you at Mbao”), which is used to warn someone that he or she is in great danger. The saying originates from the event of the Thiaroye massacre, when the soldiers’ families rushed to the nearby village of Mbao where the survivors had found refuge, hoping to see their loved ones. “I do not see you at Mbao” is one of the many traces revealing the ongoing trauma caused by the massacre.

Thiaroye 44, as the massacre is called in everyday language, is a significant starting point for an investigation into a historical chapter that spans more than a century, countless colonial wars on three continents, and two world wars. The story of the veterans who were killed that night is more than a story of silenced colonial brutalities, it is a story of a challenge towards the very logic of colonialism, a logic that persists up till now. By remembering Thiaroye 44, thus, we will not only pay homage to the lives of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, but also shed light on the continuity of colonial logic which impacts the lives of people on the continent and beyond until today. Remembering Thiaroye is a painful reminder of how little seems to have changed since 1944.

The night of December 1, 1944, was the lowest point in the history of the deployment of soldiers from the French West African colonies in the French army, but for this very reason it was also the beginning of a new discourse on colonialism. While the story of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais is in its very essence one of racial injustice and discrimination, of lives that are worth less than others, of promises not kept, the massacre in Thiaroye brought all of these aspects to a painful crescendo. Not only had the veterans killed that night fought for France in Europe in WWII, survived the cruelties and hardship that came with being a Tirailleurs, such as being positioned in the most vulnerable military positions in the battle fields, they had also survived the horrors of German concentration and war prisoner camps, in which many of their comrades had fallen victim to racist violence.

Thiaroye 44 was a wake-up call to many that, despite the sacrifices West Africans had made for France, they had come home to the same colonial brutality and discrimination. The news of that night sent shock waves throughout French West Africa and became a central part of the various anti-colonial movements’ discourses in the following decades, a paradigm of the corruption of the colonial system which amplified calls for independence.

Returning to Africa and demanding their fair treatment, the arguments of these veterans had suddenly become a threat to France’s imperial power, whose foundations had been profoundly shaken by the war. They were protesting the fact that some lives, white lives, were worth more than their own. They based their request for equal payment for their services in the war on the fact that they refused to be seen and classified as any less human, that their lives mattered any less, than those of the French soldiers who they had fought with side by side. The fact that they were killed precisely for daring to stand up for this logic, was nothing more or less than a determined answer: within a system and logic of coloniality, black lives do not matter.

Thiaroye, situated in the poor suburbs of Dakar by the seaside, is nowadays a place from which young Senegalese men depart in pirogues (wooden boats) in order to reach Europe every year. Recently, a boat with 200 men from the community on board disappeared on the Mediterranean Sea. When popular Senegalese musician Jreemaak sings “During the war, I was French, after the war, I became a clandestine,” he summarizes the absurdity of a situation that saw 33% of the male Senegalese population go to war on the same continent that their grandchildren now risk their lives to reach for a better life. Their bodies on the ground of the Mediterranean Sea in 2016, lie side by side with the bodies of their ancestors who did not survive their deployment at the very front of every battle field.

Until today, there are controversies as to how many people died in Thiaroye 44, with the numbers ranging from 30 to 300 casualties. Until today, there are controversies as to how many Tirailleurs Sénégalais died in WWII, with the numbers ranging from 15,000 to 30,000 casualties. The remembrance of this great imbalance of numbers, still a contested issue, always results in a wide range of polemic debates. Much of the brutality of the colonial past gets “silenced” through the uneven distribution of power and means to produce historical narratives, amplified by the fact that massacres were often committed with full impunity and legitimized by the authorities in power. While there are many representations of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais and Thiaroye 44 in songs, poems, and books from the African continent (and not least in Ousmane Sembène’s seminal film Camp de Thiaroye), they are mostly absent or at best side notes in official historical accounts of the world wars in Europe, including those taught in schools not only in Europe, but also on the continent.

Our present is deeply informed by the way our past is remembered and understood, especially through cultural practice. How do we challenge the silencing of historical narratives and which effect will this process have on our present? Which questions will we have to ask? What kind of (artistic) language does this process require? These questions inform the exhibition project I Do Not See You at Mbao, with its title issuing a literal warning of the dangers of non-remembrance of the colonial past and the invisibility but severity of its repercussions in our present through the persistence of colonial epistemologies, social, and economic structures.

The project will feature African artists based on the continent and in the diaspora working in different mediums, who have been invited to reflect on the history and politics of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais from their diverse vantage points.

Claude Gomis’ mask sculpture Thiaroye references a medal-adorned military attire. It is part of The Witness series, which features sculptures made up of a myriad of contrasting recuperated materials and precious traditional pagne mandjak. They reference traditional African masks, objects that have been deemed backward by a colonial gaze and are rarely displayed on equal terms among contemporary artworks in the West. Each mask refers to a particular event or historical figure within the history of colonialism, slavery, and ongoing racial injustice.

Mansour Ciss, whose grandfather had been deployed as a Tirailleurs Sénégalais in WWI, will present an installation of five silk screen prints titled La Mémoire du Temps, that features images of a well-known African hero of WWI: Captain Charles N’Tchoréré (1896-1940). Born in Libreville, N’Tchoréré became one of the few African soldiers who was awarded the military rank of captain after fighting in both WWI and WWII, and was executed by the German army in 1940.

Cool Diabang Mory’s performance on December 1, the anniversary of the massacre, titled Regard sur le passé? will feature a myriad of mirrors that spectators will be encouraged to look at. The conceptual premise of the work is that every look one takes at oneself in a mirror is a look at the past that informs our present.

Nathalie Mba Bikoro’s audio and video installation If You Fail to Cross the Rubicon features the voices of Tirailleurs Sénégalais, who were prisoners in colonial camps during WWI in Germany, and the artist’s translation and reinterpretation of those voices in English and French. They were recorded by the German linguist Wilhelm Doegen in their native languages in order to be displayed in the first world culture museum, alongside objects from the continent. While the interest of the recorder was solely in the sound of the dialect, the content of the recordings was often cries for help that went unnoticed.

The title of Hassane Sar’s mixed media sculpture Thiaroye Dem Dik (“go to Thiaroye and come back”) refers to the “car rapides” driver’s exclamations calling passengers for a trip to Thiaroye from Dakar. The piece consists of a portrait of a Tirailleurs Sénégalais mounted on a broken windshield recuperated from a “car rapide” after an accident and alludes to those who haven’t returned from Camp Thiaroye.

The concept of the shadow as an alternative narration to the dominant historical discourse, as the silenced historical event or figure that continue to shape our present, is central to Jean Marie Claude Bruce’s work. The untitled sculpture represents an abstract shadow of a person, and consists of rusty and polished metal pieces and other materials that the artist collects on the streets of Dakar and assembles into a new symbiosis.

Tita Mbaye’s untitled mixed media sculpture is part of a series of works of the artist that portray Tirailleurs Sénégalais in an effort to honor the African soldiers who fought in both world wars in Europe. The pieces are a continuous exploration of the concepts of identity, aesthetics, and history as these are inscribed onto the sculpted form.

Djime Diakite’s painting Appotheose des tranchéesalludes alludes to the horrors the Tirailleurs faced in Europe during the Second World War. In a multi-layered, abstract depiction of a grey landscape of destroyed houses, tanks and weapons.

Pierre Marie Ciss’ work Independence Day explores the question of how a truly independent, post-colonial aesthetics might look. Although formal decolonization took place, the repercussions in politics, economics and not the least culture, will still take much effort to expose and overcome.

Franchise Exhibition Program Winner 2016-17

Claude Gomis is a Dakar-born artist and musician living and working in Brooklyn. He grew up traveling and performing as a dancer and percussionist with his father, Rudy Gomis, from Orchestra Baobab. In his teens, Gomis started creating videos and stadium-sized concert backdrops for musicians like Youssou N’dour, Peter Gabriel, and Positive Black Soul. After completing his studies at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Dakar, Gomis moved to New York to pursue his career, recording and touring with bands like Midnite and Sadao Watanabe. He released two solo albums that blend Senegalese musical traditions with jazz, reggae, Afrobeat, and blues. His paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Dakar, New York, and Berlin.

Saskia Köbschall is a Berlin-born cultural manager, curator, and anthropologist. She completed her graduate studies at the New School for Social Research in New York with a Fulbright scholarship. She is the manager of the non-profit art space SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin. She has been the project coordinator and curator of numerous exhibitions, educational projects, and discursive programs.

apexart's programs are supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Buhl Foundation, the Degenstein Foundation, Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Greenwich Collection Ltd., Affirmation Arts Fund, the Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation, the Fifth Floor Foundation, and with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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