Lotte Løvholm met the artist after her performance at the Biennale in Dakar to a talk about homophobia and the interment of an absent body.
In 2009 an incident of disturbing the peace of the dead got the attention of international media when a young deceased homosexual man was dug up from his grave just outside Dakar in a Muslim cemetery by his neighbours. Artist Mame-Diarra Niang made her first performance Ethère during the opening week of the 11th edition of the Dak’Art Biennale as a symbolic interment for this man and many others.
On the green lawn in the backyard of the gallery Maison Aïssa Dione in Dakar Mame is mechanically folding A4-papers with photos from locations in Dakar and a medical drawing of a heart. The paper says Sanctuaire, Plan des lignes, Poche, pocket-sized map of sanctuaries, if you unfold it. In front of her is a tomb lined with mirrors reflecting the above and suggesting an eternal extension of the blue sky when looking into it. A member of the audience has been invited to take a rest right next to the tomb – on a shroud. Every once in a while Mame directs her attention away from the folding towards the audience, she looks invitingly at one of the audience members, stretches her arm out with the map in her hand and with her gestures she proposes insistently to the audience to come and get it. As soon as the audience is about to grab the map from her hand she lets go of the eye contact and throws the map into the tomb.
Mame explains that this incident with the young homosexual man is unfortunately not a singular event and that her agency for doing this performance is to highlight the situation for homosexuals in Senegal: “It is important for me to do this performance. There are many people that do not believe there is an issue with homophobia here in Senegal.” Mame therefore decided to target this issue for the first time and probably the last time in her art practice since she does not want her art to be associated with activism. It became a personal project that started developing once Mame’s Senegalese father died and she realized she would not be able to be buried next to him being a lesbian woman: “It has been a long process for me. It has been a way of embracing death.”
The artwork was meant to be an installation but Mame felt an urge to be present in the piece and therefore decided to do it as a performance. Working with her own physical presence in her artwork for the first time, Ethère became an investigation into the relation between absence and presence – an often discussed topic in performance art: “It was important for me to find the right balance between absence and presence. I did not want to take over the whole space.” Part of the process was then also for Mame to lose control and not know exactly when the performance would end or where it would go. The performance invited the audience to take part through small gestures like filling the empty space on the shroud: it was another audience member that initiated my participation in the performance by inviting me to lie down on the shroud on the opposite side of the grave to Mame. A huge palm tree shaded most of my body but the strong equatorial sun blinded my eyes and I was forced to decide for myself what my participation could suggest to the performance – with my eyes closed. Meanwhile members of the audience were confronted with their own death being giving the choice to pick up the dumped map from the tomb of eternal sky next to me or leave it there.
In Senegal there is no tradition for using coffins in burial ceremonies and therefore the shroud is a rather strong symbol there. Clearly this reference will not necessarily translate to an international biennale audience. Being raised between Senegal, Ivory Coast and France Mame’s art often represents references from these different cultures making it impossible for any audience to fully understand all her references: “The works always have references that only I understand and it is okay that the audience don’t have the same perception of my art.”
Mame’s insisting gestures and then at times distance with her robot like movements and not to forget her own androgynous appearance are ways of blurring the relation between presence and absence. The work is aiming to express and devalue a fixed representation of identity. Homosexuals in Senegal are not identified as human beings; they are simply not accepted as presence. A dead body would suggest absence since it is only the remains of something that used to be presence.But as this presence is not accepted the absence is not either. Mame expresses how this way of looking at homosexuals is a rather new cultural phenomenon in Senegalese culture: “Before the event of colonialism same sex relations was part of the tribal culture in Senegal.” With her performance Mame disturbs those finely defined hierarchies predominantly found in Western ontology where the value of identification always rules: identification as the ultimate presence.
A week after her performance I met Mame in Dakar airport by coincidence heading to Paris. She had told me she had an open ticket – just in case. Ethère was an unannounced performance since it stresses the right for a deceased homosexual man to rest in peace in a country where homosexuality is illegal: “Of course I was afraid. Afraid of people’s silliness. But I did it.” Mame had good reason to think twice about her own security. At Cameroonian curator Koyo Kouoh’s space Raw Material Company the lights outside were vandalized after the opening of exhibition at Dak’Art on queer identity “Precaurious Imaging”. And the performance “Mshoga Mpya” by Kenyan artist Ato Malinda discussing constructions of gender also took safety precautions. During the opening night of the biennale before being let into a little box with room for two where Ato was already sitting I was asked whether I was in favour of the anti-homosexual laws in Uganda and Nigeria. With my Nordic political correctness I of course refused to be favour of such laws. However my bold friend from Zimbabwe had guts to test the “magic phrase”. She was not let in.
This article was first published in KOPENHAGEN MAGASIN.