As the first installment of the Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series, WACAI’s Executive Director, Andrea DiPalma Yansane had the privilege to interview Baba Wague Diakite on a live stream between Zoom and Facebook Live on Thursday, October 15. The Oregon Black Artist Spotlight Series is a partnership between West African Cultural Arts Institute, Oregon Folklife Network, and the Museum of Natural and Cultural History designed to shine attention on seven Black cultural artists throughout the state of Oregon to elevate their work and discuss how racism affects their lives. Our first featured artist is Baba Wague Diakite, a Multi-media artist from Mali, West Africa. Baba has been living and practicing his various artforms in Portland for over 35 years, has had a robust career, and a prolific body of work. He engages in diverse mediums such as mud cloth, ceramics, mural painting, and illustrating children’s books, while always keep the common theme of storytelling.
There is a very strong tradition of storytelling in Baba’s family line and he starts the interview off with a beautiful homage to his grandparents, noting particularly that his grandmother who was also an herbalist and village doctor, was a huge influence in his life. Both grandparents were farmers as well as storytellers. In Mali and in other countries throughout West Africa there is a tradition for youth to learn about their genealogy by returning to their family’s village for an extended stay during holidays or recesses from school. During that era in the 1960’s Baba worked with his grandparents in the fields farming peanuts and rice by day and joining a crush of cousins and elders around the fire for the “nightly excitement” of hearing the age old stories being passed down by night. Baba likes to think of these nights of storytelling like his “first movie” experience since these stories were funny, educational, and scary and spoke of all beings living in harmony with self and others, including animals and spirits. Baba talks about how his grandmother was deeply committed to educating the children in her midst about the traditional ways of Mali that date back to over 400 years ago, long before the Western influences of French colonialism. She would say, “you have to be educated to go to school” meaning you have to know about Mali’s rich history and learn about Mali’s old ways first and foremost to make sure you do not lose the connection to your roots and heritage that the colonists were striving to erase through indoctrination.
It was his grandmother who taught Baba the art of making “mud cloth”, a craft that marries storytelling and visual arts through traditional narrative imagery. Mud cloth, or Bogolanfini in Baba’s native language of Bambara is a handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud. This natural dye produces a sundry of earth tone colors that range from all shades of black to rusty brown to yellow and orange and has become a big part of Malian identity. Baba shares the origin story of how mud cloth came to be, saying that a hunter followed an antelope into a muddy pool while resolutely pursuing it. The hunter lost track of the animal in the quagmire, but upon returning to the village it was discovered how beautifully and permanently his woven clothes had been transformed and a new tradition was born. Baba also shared that traditional attire can also be dyed with indigo, a native tropical plant whose leaves produce a distinctive blue color that was originally associated with royalty. Traditional outfits were also brewed in water solutions steeped with powerful herbs to enhance the colors as well as provide a magical protective quality against the “evil eye”, a belief that a malevolent glare from an envious or hateful person will cause injury or misfortune . These herbal concoctions are also believed to invoke the spirits of the forest from where these herbs were collected and the spirits of the water present in the dyebaths.
Like mud cloth, other artforms that Baba uses as a medium to tell stories are ceramics and mural painting. His clay platters, pots, and sculptures depict nostalgic memories from his childhood and a mindful connection to the animal kingdom and spirit world. In his vibrant mural located in Portland’s largest affordable housing complex housed in the Lloyd District, Baba honors Louisa Flowers, a respected African American pioneer who settled in Oregon in the late 1800’s. Her family was one of the first black families to own property on Portland’s east side and they operated a farm and built homes near the place where this new building stands today.
When talking about being an artist in Oregon Baba says it is most important for him to stay connected to his roots in Mali while he introduces people to new expressions of artforms and visual ways of communicating the connection of all beings. He says that artmaking is his “passport” and path to mutual support and happiness. He is quick to point out, however, that as an African immigrant he has experienced many challenges along the way. In his approximate words Baba says, unlike African Americans who are born in the US, as an African I did not see the less overt manifestations of racism at first, but as time passed, I learned. Specific examples of this is the pattern he began to recognize of chronic, superficial interactions and indirect communication. Baba has lived in Portland for over 35 years and speaks English fluently and articulately yet feels like he isn’t much closer to most (white) people in his community who he has known since the time of his arrival. He talks openly about the phenomena of people’s preference to go through another (white) person to communicate with him or ask about how he is doing rather than asking him directly, saying, “it’s insulting.” He states that as a Black man who has lived under (racial) stress and has struggled for a long time, he found immediate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
When asked about the relationship between his artwork and the greater social justice movement Baba talks about how the community aspect of people coming together is a overarching theme of all his work, especially his story telling, found in the oral tradition and the children’s book illustrations. Towards the top of the interview he spoke of Mali as an “open society” where apart from sleeping most of life’s activities are conducted outside the house, out in the open. Throughout West Africa rather than individuals living in single family houses, people live in compounds where many different families live in homes that radiate off an outdoor, commonly shared courtyard. Domestic activities like cooking and washing clothes by hand are either done in the courtyard or in the veranda areas. All social gatherings including weddings and baby naming ceremonies are held outside and are public, not private events. This creates an environment where people openly air their grievances with the moderation of an elder and is carried out in the presence of many others. Problems tend to get squashed so that everyone can go back to normal communal living. Because the open society model doesn’t exist in the United States Baba started a tea ceremony in his own home for the purpose of bringing people together to share their stories and talk about troubling issues. Another arena where Baba combines his activism and artwork is witnessed through the founding of Ko-Falen Cultural Center whose mission is to promote cultural, artistic, and educational exchanges between people in the U.S. and Mali through their locations in Portland, Oregon and Bamako, Mali. Ko-Falen means “gift exchange” in the Bambara language which perfectly characterizes the value of shared experiences between countries and cultures.
In concluding the interview Baba mentioned a few specific actions that readers like yourself can do to support Black visual artists. Individuals can purchase artwork created by Black artist and take their hands on art classes, galleries can display more work of Black artists, and schools and institutions can hire Black artists to teach, do installations, murals, and produce other artwork to bolster support and put money into the Black community. He also said that its important to take time to get to know people of color in the community being mindful not make assumptions about their lives and speaking directly and openly. Another action to take to support Baba specifically is follow Babe Wague and Ko-Falen on Facebook and Instagram, visit BabaWague.wordpress.com, and share his wonderful work with your social networks.