Monthly Archives: October 2015

Moussa Ag Assarid

 This article appeared in the Expat Lives series of the FT Weekend:
Moussa Ag Assarid in the French city of Angers, wearing Tuareg garb, although not his traditional ‘cheche’©Theophile Trossat

When the fancy takes him and when he has the time, Moussa Ag Assarid walks around the French city of Angers sporting the elaborate indigo-dyed cheche traditionally worn by Tuareg nomads, “the blue men of the desert”. In this guise, he becomes an object of curiosity. On the streets of Angers, people can instantly tell he is a Tuareg, so deeply is the image ingrained in the French psyche, according to Ag Assarid. But this soon turns to puzzlement: “If you’re a Tuareg, you should be out in the desert riding your camel. What brings you here?”

The oldest of 14 siblings, Ag Assarid, now aged about 40 (like most Tuaregs born in the Sahara desert he doesn’t know his exact date of birth), looked after his father’s livestock as a boy growing up in nomadic camps between Gao and Timbuktu in central Mali.

His long journey to north-west France began in 1988 when a French journalist covering the Dakar Rally stopped at his encampment. A book fell out of her bag, which the boy picked up. It was Le Petit Prince (1943), inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as a pilot flying over the Sahara. Fascinated by the illustrations, the 13-year-old Ag Assarid vowed he would learn to read Le Petit Prince and one day meet its author.

A gifted storyteller, Ag Assarid relates the episode in the opening chapter of his first book, There’s No Traffic Jam in the Desert: Chronicles of a Tuareg in France. It was published seven years after he moved to France in 1999. The autobiographical account flits back and forth between Ag Assarid’s formative years in the desert and his first encounter with his adoptive country. Translated into Italian, Spanish and Korean, it has sold more than 100,000 copies.

Ag Assarid’s story underscores the importance of town twinning. Bamako, the capital of Mali and the city where Ag Assarid studied, is twinned with Angers. The co-operation between the two cities dates back to 1974. At that time Bamako was looking for a French “sister town”, while Angers wanted to broaden its horizons by twinning with a non-European city. The family of a teenage boy who visited Bamako on a subsequent exchange trip invited Ag Assarid to stay with him in Angers.

Getting to France was no mean feat. Armed with an international baccalaureate and plenty of pluck, Ag Assarid managed to overcome the initial hurdles. In order to get an identity card necessary to apply for a passport and a visa, he first needed to have a birth certificate made out — a bureaucratic challenge for someone who doesn’t know exactly when they were born. Friends lent him money for the plane ticket and the financial guarantee of 3,000 francs to cover his expenses during what was meant to be just a month-long stay.

On his arrival in France, the city struck him as very tidy and full of flowers. “One of the things that impressed me is that the streets in the centre of Angers were washed with clean, drinking water,” he recalls. “Where I come from, flowers are a rare sight. They come out once a year and stay around only briefly — a week at the very most. In Angers, I would see flowers of every colour [every day].”

Ag Assarid made up his mind to remain in Angers. He was determined to pursue his studies in France, rather than return to Mali where he faced persecution and discrimination for his political views. An outspoken member of Mali’s student and pupil association, he was illegally detained in a cell for 11 days in 1996 during student protests.

Before the initial month was up, Ag Assarid donned his Tuareg outfit and, without an appointment, knocked on the door of the city’s mayor. He was in luck. The mayor, who was about to travel to Mali, promised to speak to the consul of France in Bamako on his behalf. Not only did the mayor personally vouch for him and help him enrol at a local university, where Ag Assarid studied management, he also found him work in Angers’ recycling and waste disposal compound — the first of several occupations (storyteller, actor, journalist, writer, political activist, travel agent) that the enterprising Tuareg embraced to support himself.

Thanks to the mayor and a growing circle of friends and acquaintances willing to lend him a helping hand, Ag Assarid started to feel at home in Angers. This was due in large part to the locals’ familiarity with his country of origin. “The Angevins have heard of Mali, even if they haven’t all been there,” he says. Whereas “if I tell someone on a plane ‘I come from Mali’, they immediately assume I come from Bali,” he says.

After three years spent living in northern France, the lack of daily sunshine started to get him down, however, and he moved to Montpellier to continue his studies. Though it proved easy to meet people in the south of France, he found true friendships were harder to come by. Following the completion of his masters degree, he decided to make Angers a more permanent residence. He now lives there with his Tuareg wife, whom he met back home in 2009, and their three-year-old daughter.

In 2010, Ag Assarid became a French citizen, while retaining his Malian passport. This allowed him to participate in the democratic process fully and have his say in political decisions affecting his neighbourhood. French citizenship also offered him a measure of protection, as he was involved with the MNLA, an alliance of mainly Tuareg tribes in the Azawad territory of Mali which declared its independence in April 2012. The declaration was not recognised by the international community.

Ag Assarid never realised his dream to meet the “father” of Le Petit Prince. Saint-Exupéry, whose plane disappeared during a reconnaissance mission from Corsica in 1944, was long dead by the time Ag Assarid made it to France. Years after his move, however, he did meet some of the author’s descendants.

In 2002, the School of the Sands Saint-Exupéry — bearing his hero’s name — opened in the village of Taboye in the Gao region of Mali where Ag Assarid grew up. It was partly funded by a travel agency that Ag Assarid ran from 2000 to 2009 taking French and Swiss people into the Sahara. The school aimed to respond to the needs of nomad children, who were excluded from more traditional schooling. But the secular school closed down in 2012 after it was targeted by MUJAO (an offshoot of al-Qaeda) militia. There are now plans to rebuild it in a Tuareg stronghold in northern Mali.

Ag Assarid hopes to end his days where they began. “Nomads always return to their point of departure,” writes Ag Assarid in his Chronicles, and recalls his grandfather telling him: “Tuaregs are like acacia trees: they put down deep roots but their branches can spread far and wide.”


Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts

A version of this review of Over you / you, the 31st Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, appeared in issue 50 of Mousse magazine:


Karpa Godina’s Umetni raj (Artificial Paradise)

At a time when biennials are legion, what makes Ljubljana’s Biennial of Graphic Arts distinctive is its long-standing commitment to a specific medium, that of printmaking. Now in its 60th year, the biennial started life as the International Graphic Exhibition, animated by idealistic goals and the ambition to act as a meeting point between east and west, in keeping with the host city’s central European location and the country’s non-aligned status. Aptly named “There is no east or west”, Asad Raza’s animation of street lampsdesigned by Ljubljana’s celebrated architect Jože Plečnik for the broad central promenade of Tivoli Park – visually connected up in a programmed sequence of blinking lights the two main biennial venues situated at each end: Moderna galerija and the International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC), the event’s organizer.

Built around a selection of print works from the collections of MGLC and Moderna galerija, which were included in past editions of the Biennial from its inception until 1999 (when the open submission format was finally abandoned), Giles Round’s engaging archival display at Galerija Jakopič, titled “Ljubljana, 1955”, gave a measure of the vitality and ongoing relevance of this mode of image-making. Illustrating a range of printmaking techniques – from woodcuts and lithographs to etchings and screen prints – the show featured the likes of Gino Severini, Emilio Vedova and Karel Appel alongside lesser-known figures such as Edvard Zajec, whose abstract patterned compositions were informed by his pioneering use of video art and computer graphics.

Round’s findings and layered presentation, in which the hand of the artist-archivist is made visible, were echoed in the overall concept and look of the 31st edition, curated by Nicola Lees with Stella Bottai and Laura McLean-Ferris. Starting with the title – “Over You / You” – taken from the corner of a drawing by Martin Kippenberger, which beautifully conveyed the idea of something being copied, reproduced, pressed down. David Maljković’s “Untitled” (2011), in which a banana plant is squeezed beneath a wooden shelf occupying a room’s corner, vividly portrayed the latter. The titular slash or horizontal line was present in the shape of twin wood sculptures “Shelves for my parents”, mounted onto the wall one beneath the other, as if in a family tomb, in Becky Beasley’s deeply personal solo show “Sleep is when you grow” at the off-site Škuc Gallery, spilling over into the National University Library – Plečnik’s masterpiece – with a series of printed posters charting Beasley’s exhibitions and love life over the course of six years.

As befits a graphic arts biennial, special care had been taken with the printed output, from tickets and programme leaflets to the exhibition guide and logo, in Mina Fina’s visually arresting graphic design. The cover of the guide book featured a blown-up, pixellated fragment from Round’s facsimiled copy of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1963 lithograph “Accident” bearing the trace of the broken stone used for its making, which won the artist first prize at the Ljubljana Biennial that year. Pleasing in their recurrence, Luca Frei’s vignettes of lithographic stones showing signs of wear and tear appeared framed by a coloured background and pasted directly onto the walls in several rooms at MGLC. Ruptures, seam lines and glitches were equally flaunted in Andrew Hazewinkel’s haunting installation “12 figures (after Niccolò), studies in collective anxiety” (2015), for which the artist made twelve non-identical plaster copies of a terracotta bust attributed to Donatello by deliberately misaligning the different parts of a silicone mould. Using sculptural means, the work explored the tension between the hand-made and mass-reproduced object inherent in printmaking.

The biennial exhibition as a whole steered clear of the unique object, focusing instead on reproducible art prints, in line with the biennial’s original remit. Besides artist-made books, drawings, posters, postcards, photographs and ephemera printed on paper, “Over You / You” showcased prints applied to more unexpected material supports: white raffa hanging down from the wall in loose plastic strips on which Adriana Lara printed a rudimentary diagram as part of her serial “Interesting Theory #11-b” (2012); a hand-woven Gobelin tapestry inscribed with a supermarket receipt detailing the contents of a purchase in Gabriel Kuri’s “Superama III” (2003-05); or a banner bearing black-and-white photographs of Walter de Maria standing amid fellow landscape artists from the Slovenian OHO Group in Ištvan Išt Huzjan’s “Exchange Banner – OHO and Walter de Maria” (2015).

The decision to include a number of moving image works in a biennial ostensibly dedicated to the graphic arts is more problematic, even though a film can be copied and reproduced. Weaving fact and fiction, Karpa Godina’s filmic account of Fritz Lang’s six-month stay in Slovenia during his military service, “Umetni raj (Artificial paradise)”, paired with Mike Cooter’s thoughtful installation at Moderna galerija, which included a cinemascope lens-distorted Hans Hartung print curtain featured in the 8th Biennial in 1969, appeared relevant in the local context; Declan Clarke’s film “Group Portrait with Explosives” (2014), looking at the trade of military equipment made in former Czechoslovakia and deployed by Irish resistance forces in Northern Ireland, rather less so.

Curators of the past two editions of the Biennial have adopted a radically different stance with regards to the chosen medium that has historically been its raison d’être and abiding concern: either turning away from what is perceived as an outmoded art form to adopt a new focus, or emphasizing the specificity of printerly processes and what makes them appealing for artists working today. Lees’s intuitive approach to exhibition making steered a middle course. Working with her own set of rules and understanding of what it is that makes graphic arts graphic, she has struck the right balance between printed matter per se and artworks that address similar concerns – with doubling, duplication, distribution, and dissemination – albeit through other means.

Jasmina Cibic: Tear Down and Rebuild

This Critics’ Pick of Jasmina Cibic’s Belgrade show appeared on

Jasmina Cibic, Tear Down and Rebuild, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 52 seconds

A conference room has never looked this good. Immaculately dressed and made-up, the four female speakers seated at the round table beneath a vast, elegant glass dome could be characters from Sex and the City were it not for their posh British accents and the fact that they appear to be debating the merits and demerits of an unspecified building slated for demolition. Culled from speeches by public figures, state officials, dictators, and architects spanning the last century, theirs is no ordinary dialogue. Each woman embodies a certain position—nation builder, pragmatist, conservationist, and artist-architect—though at one point two of them begin to act out of character and unexpectedly switch allegiances as the minidrama unfolds.

Shot inside the inaccessible former Palace of the Federation in Belgrade, this staged meeting of the minds is Jasmina Cibic’s new film Tear Down and Rebuild, 2015. Like the two prior installments in the artist’s “Spielraum” trilogy, which takes its title from Austrian satirist Karl Kraus’s 1912 essay deploring excess ornamentation in language and architecture, this film is displayed within a theatrical installation featuring a curtain and sculptural pieces that double as seats for visitors. The walls of the gallery space leading to the projection room behind the curtain are entirely covered with a black-and-white printed reproduction of a sublime mountain view. At the opening, five Belgrade-based artists sporting light-gray outfits painstakingly gilded slogans inscribed onto trompe l’oeil banners floating in this imaginary landscape made of photographs pieced together from Josip Broz Tito’s personal archive. The fictitious building evoked in the film is matched by the unreal landscape, garlanded with rousing, generic injunctions that smack of doublespeak.