How You Do What You Do Is Sometimes the Most Important

Interview with Kadiatou Diallo and Dominique Malaquais from SPARCK

SPARCK (Space for Pan-African Research, Creation, and Knowledge), founded in 2008, is a program of experimental multi-disciplinary arts residencies, workshops, symposia, exhibitions, publications, and performances centered on innovative, ethically driven approaches to urban space. SPARCK is run by a two-woman, activist-artist-writer-scholar team: Kadiatou Diallo, a Cape Town based artist/curator/educator/catalyst with an MA in educational psychology (Universities of Maastricht, NL and Stellenbosch, RSA) and a diploma in Fine Arts (Ruth Prowse School of Art, Cape Town) and Dominique Malaquais (Ph.D. in Art History, Columbia University, New York City), a scholar and writer, senior researcher at the Institut des Mondes Africains (IMAF/CNRS).

SPARCK logo 300dpi

Zsuzsa László: Have you ever had any personal or professional relation to Eastern Europe?

Dominique Malaquais: We have long had a strong interest in relations between Africa/the African diaspora and the USSR and its satellite nations (notably, the GDR) in the 1960s and ‘70s. Of particular interest to us, in this regard, is the training of African students. In the 1990s and 2000s, I worked extensively in Cameroon, a country that was home to numerous women and men who studied in Eastern Europe. More recently, I have been co-directing a project called PANAFEST Archive, which looks at Pan-African festivals of the ‘60s and ‘70s; in this setting, the role of the USSR—and more broadly of Cold War oppositions— has emerged as a subject of considerable interest. Of course, we are far from alone in this concern for “Eastern Bloc” presences in Africa. Key, recent projects at work on the subject are Red Africa and the Non-Aligned Modernisms initiative developed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade.

ZSL: Could you tell how the SPARCK project started?

Kadiatou Diallo: We met in South Africa in 2004, in the context of research project, a think tank, seeking to formulate a project responding to the African continent’s will to engage with itself in new, different ways throughout cultural politics.

ZSL: How did it connect to The Africa Center?

DM: In 2004, Ntone Edjabe, the founder of the Chimurenga platform, was invited to bring together people—the think tank— who, over a period of a year and a half or so, would imagine what the Africa Center might in time become. Ntone brought me into in this process. Our intent was less to come up with definitive, programmatic answers than to gather thinkers from a very wide variety of disciplines:  writers, choreographers, sociologists, architects, artists, etc. All of these people came together on three different continents: in Africa (Cape Town, Johannesburg, Douala), in Europe (Paris) and in the United States (New York. City). The result was a series of position papers, which addressed the variety of ways in which people can work together in translocal, interdisciplinary, politically engaged ways. Different projects were born out of this reflection process. One of them was SPARCK. Originally, SPARCK was an integral part of the Africa Center. Today, it is its own entity.

KD: The notions, the ideas, the propositions and values established by this process were developed in response to what was happening in the context where the questions were asked. This context was, on the one hand, the African continent as a geographical unit, and on the other hand, much broader. One of the non-propositions the discussions highlighted—one of the approaches we quickly rejected—was the idea of having a physical building somewhere: a center where the Center would be located. There was simply too much of a disconnect between that idea (the notion of a place fixed in space) and our desire to apply ourselves to multiple localities at the same time. This conclusion still applies for the SPARCK project: it’s not a legal entity, it’s not an NGO, it has no physical structure, and no center; we are based in different places, and move and communicate through Skype a great deal. Obviously there’s a precariousness that comes with this setup, but also a great liberty and an ability to respond and go with whatever fluxes we feel interesting and relevant for us to engage. One of the early approaches that emerged from the reflection process was the decision to develop the first SPARCK undertakings in three geographically very specific locations. Initially, there was a temptation to take on the whole continent and to try to engage with everything at the same time. This, however, made for a far too general approach, incapable of getting into the details, into the specificities and complexities of spaces that do not lend themselves at all to generalization.

DM: These locations were secondary cities: Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Aba in Nigeria, and Touba in Senegal. There has been a recent focus on megacities both in scholarship and exhibition making. In choosing a different focus, our thought was very much shaped by a sociologist we both appreciate, AbdouMaliq Simone who was working at the time on the issue of secondary cities. We were interested in ways in which secondary cities contribute to the making of regional entities that are not nation states. Cities that very often are located near borders, but not necessarily, cities that are translocal, transnational, cities that become trade hubs, and which are not really taken in consideration, particularly in the context of the art world.

Photographic Journeys I - Touba
Touba, a photographic journey — a SPARCK project. Photo © Aliou Mbaye

We are interested in Africa and in African worlds not so much as places bounded in space but in movement and in mobility, essential to lives lived in Africa and the African diaspora, be it in Asia, the Americas, or Europe. Colonialism, neocolonialism, postcolonialism; decolonization; the making of nationalisms and patriotisms, and the refusal of those; collusions between economic and political elites; migration; urban growth; the emergence of new urban cultures: self-evidently, none of these is specifically African. These are particular to a given period, to a given moment in which we live. So, instead of a simply geographical focus, we are interested in political, ethical, and aesthetic questions that travel.

Lubumbashi/Kolwezi, a photographic journey — a SPARCK project. Photo © Sammy Baloji and Axis Gallery.

ZSL: I wonder how the concept of Africa can be kept together throughout these many contexts you work with. I can refer to our experience with the concept of Eastern Europe, which a lot of people find very problematic, and a lot of people cannot identify with it at all. In the case of Africa is it a concept or an identity marker that all your partners and collaborators can relate to, or have you experienced any challenge in naming and defining the territory you wish to work with? More particularly, how do your colleagues, the participants, and audiences of your projects relate to the legacy of pan-Africanism? Is it something that is still inspiring, that people can embrace easily?
Les Ateliers de la pensée, source: France24 © Fatimata Wane-Sagna

KD: It depends very much on who proposes the notion of Africa.

DM: Last year, Achille Mbembe and Felwine Sarr developed a project titled Les Ateliers de la pensée, which goes a long way toward rethinking what the notion of “Africa” might signify. Sarr and Mbembe convene scholars, thinkers, artists, writers from across the continent and the diaspora once a year to Dakar and to St Louis, in northern Senegal, for workshops and exchanges rethinking for a new era the question of what it might mean to be African. They have just produced a book —an anthology of conferences given and texts written in the context of the Ateliers. In intellectual and artistic circles there’s a genuine interest in reigniting notions of pan-Africanism, not necessarily as an extension of what happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but in terms of wrestling with the idea of what Africa and African worlds might mean, freed from the straightjacket of what has been a largely European and North American fostered way of thinking about the continent. This interest bears little relation to stale discussions about the pros and cons of the African Union. What is exciting about the Ateliers de la pensée and related projects is the focus on complex intellectual and artistic exchanges between the continent and the diaspora, on the continent. Another example we might give, and which is close to both of our hearts, is Chimurenga platform. In the early 2000s, Chimurenga opened up the path for thinking in innovative, politically and ethically engaged ways about the continent as a nexus of intellectual and artistic creation, and managed to do so while staunchly refusing to be geographically defined.

The Chimurenga Chronic, a quarterly newspaper

KD: Having been in Switzerland for a year now, and having met a wide range of people who either are Swiss born with diverse “migration backgrounds” or have been living in the diaspora for a long time—artists, all kinds of professionals from a wide range of fields—I am struck by how clear an understanding they have of the specific dynamics of this experience. Many of those with whom I have been working and talking (not just in Switzerland but elsewhere as well) consider decolonization a very personal experience and not just an intellectual exercise. There’s room for embracing a self-defined notion of what “Africa” means that insists on space for the various complexities, specificities, and the differentiating that such definitions require. Projects like Achille’s and Chimurenga are beautiful examples of the same process in an articulated form.

ZSL: I’m interested in how these personal self-definitions can meet, or be linked to each other, and communicated. How can you and your colleagues and collaborators go beyond speaking about Africa or even African worlds as if it were one, homogeneous country—which the starting project of SPARCK, I think, also  problematized. In the diaspora where different backgrounds merge more easily, it might be tempting to rely on this abstract Africanism, but, I suppose, it can be disturbing for people based  in the African continent in divergent contexts.

KD: You won’t find any SPARCK projects that highlight Africa as a general idea. Very specific issues are addressed—issues that are commonly translocal. One key example is Chocolate Banana, which looked at trade relations between the African continent (in particular Congo) and China in 2010. I know a lot of people, like the artists who ran Chocolate Banana, Goddy Leye and Bill Kouélany, who refuse to be boxed under the label of “African artists.” I guess you ask this because there are similar challenges regarding Eastern Europe.


ZSL: Yes, it has a long history how artists relate to exhibition concepts focusing on East-European art, or when they are invited to represent a certain region. Some people prefer Central Europe, while others say everyone is translocal and these categories don’t apply to today’s situation. Even if all identities are hybrid some way, and you cannot talk anymore like “we” and “them,” everyday experience shows that to live in this part of Europe involves different commitments. It comes down to the question if and how you can represent anything more than yourself.

The question how you can avoid being defined by either the globalized art world or national identities, and what it means if you decide to tie yourself to a locality by actually living there or just as an intellectual focus.

DM: A number of artists we work with, for example Hervé Youmbi or the late Goddy Leye, or people like Ntone Edjabe at Chimurenga, have chosen explicitly not to move to Europe, not to move to the United States. They did not decide to do that out of some misguided nationalism or continentalism, but because they are interested, along political and ethical lines they believe in, in the challenges of what it means to think, to produce, to act from Africa. In other words, all of them are people who are constantly on buses, on trains, and on planes, and who are collectively interested in what it means to talk from a place that has it challenges, but also has a very particular and rich history, a history of colonialism, of neocolonialism, postcolonialism, decolonization, and so on. Some of our most interesting collaborations have been with such people who have decided not to rush full steam into the global art world. Another example would be our collaborator Amin Gulgee in Pakistan, with whom we developed the project? Imagining Cities and with whom we are currently working on the first Karachi Biennale. He is someone who has the career, the experience, the fame that could be well put to use in New York City; but he’s not interested in that, not interested in playing that particular game. He is interested in what can be done from Pakistan.

KD: The people we interviewed for the project Artists on Africa move all the time, and have a foot in several worlds, but have a strong commitment to whatever—for the lack of better word—their home is. A lot of artists with whom we collaborate are people who do their work in terms art, but also do incredible work in terms of building infrastructure in places where governments fail to do so. All of these elements feed each other, which means that these questions are not theoretical mind experiments, but questions of practice. The question of how you do what you do is sometimes the most important.

DM: One of our most important and formative collaborations was with Goddy Leye. He founded in the early 2000s a fantastic space that was called the Art Bakery in Bonendale, a village a few kilometers from Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon. The way it worked was that it was based in a bare bones refurbished colonial house, which he had chosen to settle in following his return to Cameroon from a course of study at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. He had been offered a lot of money by a major foundation to create a center for the arts in Douala. His response was: no, I’m not going to do that. If you take the money, he said, two things will happen. First you create local imbalances, and the other thing is that you build something great, but then run out of money. His argument was that you have to build yourself from the ground, with the means that are available to you. It does not mean that you don’t take foundation money, but you don’t build everything on it. The way he had constructed this school and residency program is that he said to young artists: if you have the means to get here, I will take you in and you stay as long as you want here, a month or five years. We’re going to talk together about the history of arts not only in Europe, but in this very place—a history that has yet to be written, to be considered seriously by the canon. If there’s enough food for three people, there’s enough food for six people. The result is that now there’s a whole generation of artists in their 30s from Cameroon, from Congo, and from Central Africa more broadly who were trained in these workshops that Goody developed. He could have done this in New York, as he was already established as one of the foremost initiators of video art in sub-Saharan Africa, but this was the choice that he made. Again it wasn’t an NGO, it was very much a grassroots initiative. As such, it had a tremendous influence on the ways we wish SPARCK to work.

Goddy Leye in front of his work, Berlin 2009, Photo: Dorina Hecht © Galerie Peter Herrmann

KD: It was truly a very special case, but not the only one, in which an artist creates spaces, infrastructure, schooling. A case in point is Misheck Masamvu, in Zimbabwe, who shows at the Venice Biennale, and whose work attracts a lot of attention. His artists’ space, run together with Georgina Maxim, though it receives money from foundations and embassies, is funded by the sales of his own work. There are many other people like him, and they can get very creative because there’s a necessity, an urgency, and these individuals who have standings in different kinds of worlds know how to play these. It’s true for SPARCK too, that even when we have funding for specific projects, these cannot take place without the networks that have contributed to them in all kinds of ways. Sometimes you need a physical space, sometimes you need a certain kind of expertise, sometimes you just need a cable, or you just need to feed someone, or need a bed to sleep on. I think we often underestimate the huge chunk of infrastructure that these every-day contributions can amount to, and what difference they make in realizing anything.

ZSL: With Mezosfera, we also envisioned such network and now try to build commitments and common aims through which members of such a utopian network can support each other; but still wondering how realistic it is in different contexts.

KD: Networking and collaboration really have become buzzwords, and sound a bit more hollow than they should be. In our experience, usually an idea gets sparked, yet might only be realized a year later, that is how long conversations might take. It is the side effect of the decision not to become an entity that has to mount a festival or some such thing on an annual basis. We can always decide what kind of projects we want to do and who we are doing them with. You are not only committed to an idea, but you are also committed to the people, and these relationships are ongoing so you keep building trust and you go on a journey together. Sometimes you are just sharing information, sometimes you are just supporting what the other initiative is doing. Another really important thing is that the structures that make the SPARCK network are not hierarchical. Nobody is at center. That it does not have a physical center is also a reflection of the fact that it has no hierarchical center. It is very different from what you find in traditional funding scenarios, when there’s a physical space, where residencies can take place, and a committee chooses who can come. It makes the relationships different and the network very strong and lasting.

ZSL: So you avoid making an institution of SPARCK?

KD: Institutions like museums, which have directors, are just one type of institution. The word has more to do with practicing in a shared way, so arguably, SPARCK is an institution, just of a different type. It’s just not a legal entity.

ZSL: As we at tranzit .hu understand this, the wider definition of what makes an institution an institution also includes that it offers ideas, structures for public use, and that it should last longer than personal initiatives, as well as its quality that an institution is somehow more than the sum of its all activities.

DM: We have talked about ourselves, as a program, as an initiative, as a node in a network. What is important is that SPARCK is not a center that is calling others to itself. What interests us is how to create links between already existing structures. What disturbs us about the usual understanding of institution, is that the term, the notion, has a kind of perennial quality to it. Something that is readily identifiable, that has fixed points A, B, and C. Whereas, we are very interested in fluctuation, and with every project we change and rethink things. It is not a situation in which Kadiatou and I do every project together. Both of us are involved in a range of projects, and we bring them together, or sometimes we don’t. It’s a very fluid set-up.

KD: The magic happens when people working on similar things, likeminded people with similar values, at times get together, and it explodes for a moment, and something else happens, it ripples. We obviously follow each other’s individual work, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination going on. These have to be kept in the right balance. You need a kind of core to stay stable and committed, but you have to avoid it getting so heavy that you cannot respond anymore to what is happening.

ZSL: Is this your interpretation how art institutions can be decolonized (cf. Decolonizing Art Institutions symposium, Zürich)?

KD: There is, right now, a wide interest (in the West) in a number of questions relating to social and political transformation; decolonization is one of them, Africa is one of them, red, East, left are others, and there are a numerous events and platforms spotlighting these issues and I think that is a good thing.

I also think it is important to allow for sufficient nuance and differentiation in addressing these questions. For instance, in the case of decolonization, it has to be considered that the way the previously colonized are engaging or have to engage with the process of decolonization, out of a very different kind of necessity, is not the same process the western, previously colonizing powers (or complicit powers) should and can embark on. So, the questions need to be specific and the context (where is the question being asked and to whom) must be carefully considered.

DM: One thing that we discuss very often is the difficulty, and at the same time, the opportunity to keep at front and center one’s ethical and political beliefs. Numerous initiatives and institutions have to shape what they are doing for the cash to come in, or artists in order to be shown in major institutions, which unfortunately still means in Western Europe and in North America. There are very exciting spaces in Africa, Asia, and in Central and South America that, over the past ten years, have been managing to walk that very fine line between working within the funding system and being radically independent. They take outside funding, yet manage not to lose sight of what they have to do. There are others who are losing sight very badly. If you look for instance at the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos or at Raw Material Company in Dakar, or Chimurenga of course, they take some funding from abroad but they are not losing track.

Raw Material Company (Dakar), an initiative launched by curator Koyo Kouoh

KD: You have to understand certain dynamics very clearly and work with the reality. There was a time when people were fighting globalism, which was of course a lost endeavor because it was going to happen. If you are aware of what you are dealing with, you still have choices. It requires clever, value-based, creative, and very thorough strategizing.

DM: It is important to move away from geographical focuses, which tends to be what gets the money now. There’s a lot of money for shows about African art, contemporary African art. Africa is the so-called “rising” continent, in which investors want to put their money, and the result is that you have massive shows on African art where artists are only represented because they happen to be African. They may be good artists but what does that say about them?

KD: They are not making art because they are African, as Eastern Europeans don’t make art either because they are Eastern Europeans.

ZSL: Still these shows create a common reference point for a lot of people.

KD: It is market logic. The good thing and the bad thing is that the market has an appetite for novelty. But novelty does not come from the market, because the market is lazy and it’s slow. Novelty comes from somewhere else, from other initiatives.

ZSL: Can you, and how can you make a shortcut and avoid this sphere and connect horizontally with other similar initiatives out there somewhere?

KD: The fact that you found SPARCK is a testimony…

ZSL: How do you translate all this to practice? Could you give some insight into the projects you are currently working on?

DM: We have four major projects at the moment. One of them is called Yif Menga, which in the More language of Burkina Faso means “come and see for yourself.” It is a two-year project run by five of us, scholars, writers; ten performance artists are also involved. It is about performance art as a political project: not just presenting politically engaged artists, but also thinking through what it means in political and in ethical terms. We have been invited by a performance art festival that takes place  every two years in Ouagadougou, called Les Récréâtrales. They have actively moved away from the usual funding sources, and managed to rely on their own resources for eleven consecutive sessions. Scenographers are invited to create a 650 meter performance and viewing arena in the streets, and even in private spaces (courtyards), in a neighborhood given little attention by the government. There, performances take place every night, as well as conversations with the public about the political meanings that performance art, theatre, dance can have. They are creating temporary cultural spaces where people can go, who would not otherwise visit centralized cultural institutions.

Les Récréâtrales
Les Récréâtrales

KD: Our other current project is Artists on Africa (AoA), which we developed so that we can keep the conversations going even when we don’t have funding for bigger projects. We also realized that a lot of our projects are accessible to people through their online residue, but that sometimes they have a content that does not translate to such formats, and that, as a result, some important part of these processes get lost; AoA was also motivated by my love for the medium of podcasts and radio. Thus came the idea to have conversations with artists who can speak on their own behalf about what is important to them, with minimal editing. It started in 2013, but was dormant for a while because there were so many other projects. The first series was about the kinds of spaces people create around the African continent. People like Misheck Masamvu, whom I mentioned earlier, or a filmmaker from Madagascar called Laza who runs a short film festival and is establishing a Malagasy film scene. There are now a number of conversations that still need to be published, like interviews conducted at the 5th European Conference on African Studies with performers who participated in the Africa Acts festival, which Dominique curated with a young scholar called Caroline Roussy. Because I’ve been in Europe for almost a year, the next series is going to be conversations with artists focusing on diasporic realities.

Dominique already mentioned the Karachi Biennale with Amin Gulgee, with whom we curated the Imagining Cities project. He invited us to present a SPARCK take there. We have just finished editing our catalogue entries.

DM: Finally, there’s the PANAFEST Archive project, which came out of our scholarly practice. We are working on the production of a web documentary that will be hosted by Chimurenga. This will highlight some 30-35 interviews conducted by the PANAFEST team, with people who took part in four Pan-African festivals of the 1960s and ‘70s:  The First World Festival of Negro Arts (Dakar 1966). The First Pan-African Cultural Festival (Algiers 1969), Zaïre 74 (Kinshasa 1974) and the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Lagos 1977). Each interview (video for the most part, but also audio) runs between 45 minutes and an hour and a half. These could be put on a university website, but then you are preaching to the choir, and it’s not interesting. Chimurenga has a particular interest in such festivals, and through them we can make this material available not only to scholars but also to artists and intellectuals, as well to witnesses who actually participated in these festivals.

Photo made at the First World Festival of Black Arts or World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, 1966, from Chimurenga Library

ZSL: Regarding connections, you also emphasize transdisciplinary approach and creativity: creation and knowledge instead of art.

DM: We both share an allergy to the incomprehensible, to the overwritten, to the exclusive. There’s something utopian about SPARCK because this is the kind of conversation we want to get up for in the morning, it’s the day job we really want to have. We have other jobs too, to make ends meet, but this is the job we want, these are the friendships we want, this is where we want to be. That’s why it is never finished and constantly ongoing, and reflects our lives, how we are changing.

KD: We are committed to what we are committed to as people, and whether it is called SPARCK or something else does not matter. SPARCK is just a name for something we believe in; it is just a carrier. If at one point SPARCK no longer needs to exist in this format, then something else will come. What drives us is that it is liberated from being self-centered.

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