Art as a Verb

By Jheri St. James

In October 2006, the Burkina Faso soil collection traveled from:

  • Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso,
  • Lagos, Nigeria,
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands,
  • New York, New York,
  • Wilmington, Ohio, and
  • Hawthorne, California
  • To Common Ground 191 headquarters in Laguna Beach, California.

But that journey was less important than the minerals, silica, organic compounds, colors, textures and the invisible component—history--that make that jar of soil on the International Wall of Soils rich with meaning as deep as this well.

The BBC said on 3/26: “A poor country even by West African standards, landlocked Burkina Faso has suffered from recurring droughts, matched in number only by the military coups it has endured, especially during the 1980’s. Burkina Faso has significant reserves of gold, but cotton production is the economic mainstay for many Burkinabes. The industry is vulnerable to changes in world prices.

“Formerly Upper Volta, Burkina Faso has spent many of its post-independence years under military rules. After taking power in a 1983 coup, Thomas Sankara adopted a policy of nonalignment, developed relations with Libya and Ghana, and gave the country its present name, which translates as ‘land of honest men.’ In 1987, Mr. Sankara was overthrown and executed in a coup masterminded by Blaise Compaore, who has since instituted a multi-party system.

“Burkina Faso has faced domestic and external concern over the state of its economy and human rights, and allegations that it was involved in the smuggling of diamonds by rebels in Sierra Leone.”

The CIA says, “Burkina Faso’s high population density and limited natural resources result in poor economic prospects for the majority of its citizens. Recent unrest in Cote d’Ivoire and northern Ghana has hindered the ability of several hundred thousand seasonal Burkinabe farm workers to find employment in neighboring countries . . . One of the poorest countries in the world, landlocked Burkina Faso has few natural resources and a weak industrial base. About 90% of the population in engaged in subsistence agriculture, which is vulnerable to periodic drought. Cotton is the main cash crop and the government has joined with three other cotton producing countries in the region—Mali, Niger and Chad—to lobby for improved access to Western markets. GDP growth has largely been driven by increases in world cotton prices. Industry remains dominated by unprofitable government-controlled corporations. Burkina Faso is eligible for a Millennium Challenge Account grant, which would increase investment in the country’s human capital.”

Wikipedia says: “Burkina Faso is a landlocked nation in West Africa. It is surrounded by six countries: Mali north, Niger east, Benin southeast, Togo and Ghana south, and Cote d’Ivoire southwest . . . Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. This is represented numerically in its low GDP per capital income, $1,200. This ranks it as the 27th poorest nation, among other nations such as the Republic of the Congo and Tajikistan

“. . . Burkina Faso also hosts the International Art and Craft Fair, Ouagadougou . . . one of the most important African handicraft fairs.”

Many peoples of Burkina Faso continue to create elaborate and beautiful masks that are used in funerals, initiations, village purification ceremonies and market day dances, as they have been for centuries. These masks are almost indistinguishable from the great masterpieces of African art that have been displayed in museums and illustrated in texts for decades. A mask festival was held in Dedougou in 2002 which included these pictured.

Director Yacouba Bonde filmed the mask performances of the Bwa people in the village of Boni, in central Burkina Faso, including plank masks, hawks, lepers, dwarfs, serpents, and other spiritual beings. The masks performances recreate the characters of the spiritual beings they represent. Called “The Bwa Masks of Boni”, www.customflix.com features this and other interesting works filmed in Burkina Faso.

Love the art in yourself not yourself in the art
                                              Konstantin Stanislavsky

Other filmmakers are capturing African pottery techniques for viewing. Christopher D. Roy, Professor of Art History at the University of Iowa, explains each step in the preparation of the fresh clay and firing of the completed pots, including the concave mold, convex mold, direct pull, coiling, and hammer and anvil techniques. Professor Roy explains who the potters are, where they live, and how they market their work. Potters are from the Asante people of Ghana and the Mossi, Bwa, and Jelli peoples of Burkina Faso. Also available for viewing at www.customflix.com.

Art is much less important than life,
But what a poor life without it.

                                      Robert Motherwell

The list of agricultural goods produced by Burkina Faso begins with cotton, followed by peanuts, shea nuts, sesame, sorghum, millet, corn, rice and livestock. At the top of the industries list is cotton lint, then beverages, agricultural processing, soap, cigarettes, textiles, and gold. Judging by the many colors and patterns seen in the cottons worn by the charming ladies at left, it would seem that the art of dying and textile printing is a vibrant one in Burkina Faso as well.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
                                Thomas Merton


*   *   *

Our collector for Burkina Faso was Ruth Estabrook who is working with the Peace Corps in Ougadougou. Ruth kindly offered to collect soil from Niger, the neighboring country as well. She writes: “The Embassy here in Burkina Faso just gave me the letter you sent about looking for someone to collect soil from Burkina Faso. I am happy to do it for you (I teach art at the International School of Ouagadougou). I have filled out the volunteer form . . . I will be traveling to Niger from October 6-9 and can collect soil for you there as well . . . I admire your project deeply. The photos from Burkina Faso show an 8-year-old girl named Olivia getting the soil, as well as three girls, Imane, Olivia, and Eve.”

We gratefully thank Ruth, Olivia, Imane, the other Olivia, and Eve for participating in our project, particularly as Ruth’s mother had a health emergency during the process.

“Art is not a thing; it is a way”
Elbert Hubbard

The conceptual art project called Common Ground 191 is all about the “way” more than the “thing”. For the first time in art history, Gary Simpson is gathering up the soil (and its stories) of the member countries of the United Nations to bring them together in one place for the final 50’x 50’ fresco that will symbolize the way in which humans on earth are one: we all exist upon the soil of our great Mother Earth, regardless of the country name we give our little plot of land.

The wheel in the well at the beginning of the journal entry looks like a peace sign. The word for peace in Burkina Faso is lafi .

A rendering of the final fresco.

Top | Back



All images and text © Copyright 2018 Common Ground 191 - All rights reserved