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“You can judge a bird from its feathers”

INTERVIEW. Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté shows a different side of his textile-based art at Blain Southern, working in a liminal space between African traditions and Western academicism. See his show before it closes Sat Apr 18.

Image for “You can judge a bird from its feathers”
Photo by Erica Löfman

Through April 18, Blain Southern gives the perfect amount of breathing room to the splendid textile compositions of Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté.

Konaté’s art has been often hailed as quintessentially African, both for his signature use of traditional Malian textiles and the recurring ‘ethnic’ references to his country’s cultures. But the cathedral-like Blain Southern gallery brings a new perspective to work that is often highly pictorial and immensely contemporary. African at heart but trained to the standards of Western academic art, Konaté defies labels and transcend traditions in a colourful syncretism. 

The exhibition starts with “Fight Against AIDS”, one of your oldest works. If you were asked to do it again, would you still choose AIDS?

At the time, it was meant to be an homage to all victims of all kind of woes, tragedies and disasters. Today I probably wouldn’t choose AIDS. Unfortunately, there are so many potential topics… like Ebola, for example.

Football seems to be a source of inspiration. What’s behind the abstract homage to referees?

I wanted to pay my respects to them. It’s a difficult job. Unlike the players, who make millions, they don’t earn much money. They enjoy very little recognition, let alone praise. For example, during the African Cup just recently, some had to leave the field under escort!

Are you a football fan?

I like to watch football. I believe it is a fantastic means of communication between people. Some choose to only see the violence, the money and the corruption. For me, it is a way for people and cultures to meet and mix. It’s also an amazing opportunity for young people from my country. Africans have an equal, if not better, chance when it comes to playing football.

Recent works seem to be more focused on formal quests, namely colour and light. Are you getting less political?

No, I’ve always been working on both fronts. Human suffering always was and remains a theme for me. On the other hand, at times I focus more on colour, which is for me a lull, a transition time. Some themes are so violent, you need to create gaps, breathing and reflection spaces for yourself.

How did you come to drop the easel in favour of textile work?

During my studies, the focus was mainly on Western culture. Then for years I worked at Bamako’s National Museum, hence very close to traditional art. In the 1990s, I started working on very large-scale surfaces, mainly installations. Then came the idea of using bazin (traditional cloth used by Malians)… it felt right.

You often use the phrase ‘craft’ to refer to your work.

Yes, because as with any other craft, you first need to master the know-how; then you can create your own codes. And you never stop learning. Every time I start a new project, I realise there are things I need to go deeper into. Things I need to work on. People I need to work with.

How many people work on one of your textiles?

I have a minimum of 4-5 people working with me at the studio. Then, according to the size of the work, up to 30 people can be involved. I don’t do the sewing myself. My assistants are in charge of that part, mostly men. In Mali, men traditionally do the sewing. I do the design and create the colours. We assemble the parts by hand, right on my studio’s floor.

You’ve said your recurring feather-like white dot pattern was inspired by guinea fowl. Do these birds have a special meaning in Malian culture?

When it comes to African traditions my inspiration is twofold: forms but also beliefs. The guinea fowl is present in many sayings in Africa. For example, one says, “The true colours of a person are inside; those of a guinea fowl outside.” You can judge a bird from its feathers; people are much more difficult to get to know.

As a visitor, you really want to touch the works…

Of course in galleries and museums they ask you not to, but as far as I’m concerned, you can. 

ABDOULAYE KONATÉ – USEFUL DREAMS Through Apr 18 | Blain Southern, Potsdamer Str. 77-87, Mitte, U-Bhf Kurfürstenstr., Tue-Sat 11-18 

Originally published in issue #136, March 2015

13.04.2015 - 11:30 Uhr