Revolutionary Contemporary Art in Africa

Revolutionary contemporary art in West Africa Book chapter, essays, articles and talks

When I was studying Art History, I had a focus on Contemporary Art in West Africa. You can find in this section “Revolutionary Art in Africa” the archives of my works resulting from 5 research field travels in Benin, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Master Thesis Essay : Images of Political Leaders in Circulation in Africa, a Digital Cognitive Approach

The reappropriation of the propagandist representation of revolutionary leaders of the 1980s in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the revolutionary and popular art of the 2000- 2018 period, constitutes a micro-process of cultural evolution that can be modelled and quantified thanks to artificial intelligence. This phenomenon tends to converge the artistic portraits of these idealized leaders into popular icons with recurring facial features and characteristics. The traits that recur are cognitive attractors that have spread virally on social networks since the 2000s, constituting a phenomenon of “cultural epidemiology” (Dan Sperber). Through the development of computer vision and deep learning algorithms, it is possible to visualize the emergence of recurrent patterns and to understand their attraction factors. From this hypothesis, we applied computer vision algorithms on a database of more than 1000 portraits of Thomas Sankara, Haile Selassie and Nelson Mandela. Thus, we will be able to understand how cognitive, visual biases and environmental attraction factors (economical and historical) shape the evolution of the representation of these portraits. In this presentation, we will first present a pattern recognition algorithm that enables to gather symbolic attributes of leaders’images that resemble the most. A study on color features will reveal the visual biases that shape the evolution of revival portraits into attractors with color histogram  and color segmentation. Average face (mixing the pixels of all images) and Eigenfaces (the selective  extraction of the main visual components of the images) with Principal Component Analysis machine learning algorithm   will show that the portraits are stabilized according to more frontal visual components, edges accentuated on specific facial features (especially smile and eyes)  and brighter colours.  . Then, once georeferenced and visualized through chronologically, the clusters of portraits can help trace the diffusion of specific political visual semantics, and highlight cultural transmission phenomenon. 

The following slides for the conference “Visual Semantics” @ ENS present the project synthetically.

Press Article for the Calvert 22 gallery about revolutionary artists remembering Sankara during the riot in Burkina Faso in 2014.

You can read the full article here :

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The graffiti on Place de la Révolution — built in the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou in 1984 under the revolutionary Marxist leadership of Thomas Sankara — reads “Blaise Ebola Dégage!” (“Get lost, Blaise Ebola!”) A reference to the reviled president Blaise Compaoré, removed from power after 27 years following violent protests in 2014, it would be hard to find a more potent symbol of the reappropriation of Burkina Faso’s socialist cultural legacy by the nation’s young generation of contemporary urban artists.

For 20 years, an artistic and cultural protest movement that reconstructs the memory of Thomas Sankara has been developing on the margins of mainstream Burkinabe contemporary art, which these days is firmly entrenched in the global art market. These popular urban artists campaign for civil rights, and were intensely involved in the fall of Blaise Compaoré in the 2014 revolution. So who are they and how do they make use of both the figure of Sankara and seemingly outdated revolutionary socialist symbols in their art and struggle?

Book Chapter : The memory and legacy of the figure of Thomas Sankara in Contemporary engaged popular art in Burkina Faso

in A certain amount of madness. The life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara directed by Amber Murray. You can read a resume and critic of the Book published by “Le Monde Diplomatique” here :

With this lyric in his song, ‘My Generation’ (which features in his 2015 album, Prevolution), Smockey, the leader and co-founder (with Sams’K Le Jah) of the resistance association Le Balai Citoyen describes his generation. Smockey’s was part of the Burkinabè youth leadership that came together to protest against the oppressive regime of Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. Youth mobilised for civil rights, freedom of expression and democracy. This generation, as described in the song, is ‘connected’ to one another and the wider social world through technology, is well informed, and, for the most part, lives in economic uncertainty. This generation, Smockey’s generation, revolts against oppression and injustice. Smockey’s song captures some of the characteristics of the protestors, organisers and resistors of the 2014 movement and also points to the larger role of artists in the movement (see Figure 21.1).

Indeed, artists played an important role in the revolution of 2014. One of the unifying trends amongst artists was their use of the figure of Sankara in their fight for democracy. Sankara became the personification of change. His figure was a catalyst for ideas and concepts to which the young generation could identify. Many artists associated themselves with Sankara as a human being who lived closely with the people. In the streets of Ouagadougou, protestors held his portraits and, marching in procession, accumulated a sort of energy – a power. Sankara was reincarnated symbolically as the main opponent to Compaoré. He provided and inspired some of the necessary strength for the revolution.

The iconic figure of Sankara is seen widely in many forms of contemporary urban popular art, which exists on the margins of the mainstream Burkinabè contemporary art scene. In this chapter, I explore some of the recent engagements with Sankara’s memory and image by Burkinabè artists, particularly considering how and when artists make use of the figure of Sankara in their art and larger struggle. Indeed, popular urban art in the city of Ouagadougou has an almost obsessive reference to the figure of Thomas Sankara. This popular urban art includes graffiti, photomontage, painting, theatre, music, poetry, film, photography and even T-shirt art. Popular urban art is also widely shared on social media networks, most prominently Facebook. I refer to these artworks as ‘popular’ because they are realized by a young generation of artists who are most often self-taught, by contrast to a more ‘elite’ urban artistic cadre who appeals to mostly European audiences and consumers. Johanes Fabian sees in popular art the possibility of a space for the ‘contestation of traditional art and elite art’ [Q1]. Indeed, popular art in Burkina Faso develops in parallel to the official system and it is a place for resistance and engagement. These ‘popular’ artists also actively took part in the Revolution of 2014 and many of their works were created during or just after the revolution. For instance, the activist photographer Vivien Sawadogo took photographs while protesting. The intention was not merely an artistic endeavour to document the riot but also to galvanise and be a member of the larger resistance energy. 

In what follows, I first explore artistic production during the 1983 Revolution, emphasising both (a) Sankara’s support for art and its possible influences from USSR and North Korea as well as (b) Sankara’s own rejection of hero-worshiping during his lifetime. Next, I draw from original ethnographic research with popular urban artists in Ouagadougou to outline some of the ways in which Sankara has become a powerful artistic and political symbol for contemporary social movements in Burkina Faso.

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Talk on Revolutionary Art in Benin and Burkina Faso @ Colloquium “African Socialism”

See the video conference

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