Conversations on Africa

2010-05-22 15:04

When multitalented artist

and thinker Veronique Tadjo speaks of the baobab tree, her aura transforms into

a mystical energy.

“It’s a magnificent tree, like the king of the savannah and a

beautiful sight. It is also a symbol of our traditional ­cultural heritage.


fact that it’s a tree that is so ancient and yet we can still admire it today

tells me about continuity – the old merging with the new – the beauty has

survived,” she says.

It is the story of the continuity of culture that drives Tadjo’s

artistic and ­academic expression. Currently head of French Studies in the

modern languages department of the School of Literature and Language at the

University of the Witwatersrand, she is steeped in ­literary tradition.

As an author of books for “young people” Tadjo loves to explore

African mythology while creating a new contemporary mythology etched in her

memory as a child growing up in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Born in Paris, over the years she has travelled to various

countries across West Africa, Europe and the US. Her voyages are rich

inspiration for her multiple artistic expressions.

As an author she has four books under her belt. Her second

offering, a story for children, is based on the legend of Abla Pokou, queen of

the Baoulé people of Ivory Coast. The book, La Reine Pokou, was awarded the

prestigious literary prize, Le Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire, in 2005.

The subject of her fifth novel is closely linked to her ongoing

inquiry into culture and migration and her experiences in South Africa.

“I’m very interested in finding out what happens in terms of

cohabitation; not just bodily cohabitation, but what happens when our minds get

together. What happens when we as Africans get together?” she says.

“In West Africa we have a fair idea of what that commonality is.

But when you go from West to South, what is there? What are the cultural

elements that we have in common? Is it a ­fiction?”

To Tadjo, Joburg’s dynamic cosmopolitan character promises much.

“I’m particularly interested in our baggage. When migrants come to

settle in Joburg with their ‘baggage’ – I mean their cultural heritage – it’s

what people bring with them. What happens when they meet?

“I want to write something about this meeting of minds and


Tadjo is not interested in finite answers to her many questions.

She delights in the journey of discovery in the nuance that lies between her

inquiring mind and her artistic works.

She strongly believes there are commonalities between the people of

the West and the South, but feels the commonalities have been suppressed.

Her intention is to bring the issues to the forefront, highlight

the positive and begin to find a common language of recognition.

Last month Tadjo’s exhibition, titled Crossing Borders, debuted as

part of the Wits WALE (Wits Arts and Literature Experience) Festival.

In Crossing Borders she speaks of ­issues of African identities

through a mixture of pastel and oil paintings. The blurb introducing the

exhibition is an exploration into her soul.

Tadjo speaks of the inspiration for Crossing Borders as a journey

into permeability, flexibility and tolerance.

“By permeability you allow me to invade your space with all my

baggage. When I talk of flexibility I can adapt to give you some room, which

will ultimately lead to tolerance”, she states.

Mounted in the foyer of the Origins Centre at Wits, the bold and

colourful paintings sparked much debate.

“I chose to put the exhibition in the foyer because it’s an open

space and more user-friendly than a gallery or museum,” she says.

“It’s interesting because many people may not see it as art. Some

need to be told: ‘Hold on – this is art’.”

Reflecting on how far the exhibition goes towards creating the

language in which we can converse about our commonalities, Tadjo says: “It’s up

to artists to create the spaces for the conversation. We have to multiply the

talking spaces. Joburg is not great for that.

“It’s still very compartmentalised. Joburg is not an easy city in

that sense. It is because of that difficulty that we need to open up. You want

to feel that a place embraces you.”

In exploring the rich diversity of ­African identities, Tadjo is

drawn to an all-encompassing notion of African culture but emphatically rejects

the ­notion of “one Africa”.

“There are several Africas of many different complex dimensions,”

she says.

“The Africa of today may be torn by conflicts and economic

difficulties but it is alive and dynamic.

“It’s about acknowledging difference and it is also about saying,

‘I recognise you, you recognise me, therefore we can start talking’.”

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