Baba Wague Diakit

Baba Wague Diakite is an artist who defies categorization–a fact that reveals as much about the limits of artistic categories as it does about Diakite’s multiple talents. Both Malian and American, the artist has been a resident of Portland, Oregon, for more than fifteen years. He expresses himself in many media, from ceramics and textiles to storytelling and architectural sculpture. He creates both “high art,” made for display in museums and galleries, and “craft,” household objects that are made to be used. His work playfully draws together elements associated with “traditional” Malian and “contemporary” American cultures.

The quotation marks that surround several of the terms used above draw attention to their provisional nature and to Diakite as an artist whose career demonstrates their essential artificiality. His work grows out of the diversity of his experiences, which place him as much between categories as within them. Though he draws on a cultural heritage of which he is proud, Wague does not seek to express an essential Malian-ness or African-ness but instead his own humanity. In his words: “My work is not tied up with traditional concerns or techniques…. As much as I am proud to introduce a little of my culture through my art, I do not consider my work to be particularly African.” In this, Diakite shares the concerns of many contemporary artists from Africa, who seek to transcend the labels by which the art market organizes its categories, too often blocking entry to those whose work is not neatly classifiable.

Diakite was born and raised in Kassoro, a small village in the Fouladougou region that lies west of Bamako, the country’s capital. He credits his grandmother’s stories, which mesmerized children at family gatherings, with instilling in him the creative spirit he brings to every aspect of his work. He moved to Bamako in the late 1970s, joining his parents. Diakite has had no professional training, but from an early age he showed a talent for artistic expression, beginning with the creation and performance of puppet shows. I first met the artist through his paintings made using bogolan pigments, which are associated with a uniquely Malian textile known in the United States as “mudcloth.” He learned the technique, customarily the exclusive domain of women, from his mother during a visit home to Mali in 1987.

Since his move to the United States in 1984, Diakite has focused much of his artistic effort on ceramics, also considered to be “women’s work” in Mall. He creates vessels, tiles, plates, and figurative sculpture using a variety of techniques; some pieces are wheel thrown, others slip-cast, carved, or handbuilt. He fires his work in an electric kiln and uses brilliantly colored synthetic glazes–both distinctly non-“traditional” techniques. For Diakite, distance from “tradition” permits greater freedom to experiment: “Traditional artists work in one straight line of thought: to do things the way they have been done in the past. Putting too much creativity into it can cause a problem. Being in the United States, I realize that it is great to respect the past, but also having freedom in art is one of the best things you can have.” He recognizes that the women who make ceramics in a “traditional” manner also work creatively, some producing “fabulously sculptural functional ware.” Yet he clearly separates his innovative approach from that of artists whose work is more recognizably “traditional.”

Africanist art historians have devoted much effort, especially in the past decade, to combating stereotypical views of traditional arts as static, unyielding in the face of individual creativity. Two recent issues of this magazine, in fact, featured studies of individual artists, demonstrating the extraordinary creativity that informs their production in “traditional” contexts (“Authorship in African Art,” special issues Winter and Spring 1999). Diakite shares the views of many artists I worked with in Mali: for them, indigenous arts represent a point of departure for innovations that integrate distinctly contemporary influences, and the notion that they should work in a distinctly African (i.e., traditional) style is a source of frustration. Diakite has found that living in the United States frees him from the expectations that too often color the reception of his work among collectors.

Along with ceramic sculpture, Diakite has created large-scale installations for the Oregon Zoo, Oregon State University, and (in collaboration with his wife, sculptor Ronna Neuenschwander) the North Precinct Community Policing Center in Portland. His largest commission, not yet completed, is to be installed at Disney World in Orlando; it consists of a mural eighty-four feet long and five bronze medallions twelve to fifteen feet in diameter, which will be set into a floor. The artist has published two award-winning children’s books based on African folktales and illustrated with his ceramic tiles. His current projects include the establishment of a cultural center outside Bamako, where he hopes to offer American visitors an opportunity to become immersed in Malian culture, facilitating the same understanding across cultures that he himself has experienced after immersion in American culture. By moving beyond the divisions that often segregate both people and art forms, Diakite eloquently demonstrates the interconnectedness that animates the universe.


WRAPPED IN PRIDE Ghanaian Kente and African American Identity A Curriculum Resource Unit Lyn Avins and Betsy D. Quick UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, 1998. 162 pp., 20 color slides. $40 soft-cover.

This curriculum resource unit for teachers was developed in conjunction with the traveling exhibition of the same name, organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History (catalogue reviewed on p. 13). It is divided into four spiral-bound sections, which are followed by rich appendixes that include a poem by W. E. B. Du Bois, a kente-weaving song, a bibliography, glossaries, and extensive notes on the beautiful slides that accompany the publication.

The introduction provides brief yet comprehensive information on the Asante people of Ghana and an overview of the exhibition, whose 700 objects encompass individual works of art and many others “employed in recreated market environments as found in Ghana and the United States” (p. 11). The exhibition comprises several sections: The Weaving of Kente, The Market, The Wearing of Kente, The Fine Art of Asante Kente, The Fine Art of Ewe Kente, The Colors of African Unity, From Kente to Quilts, A Calendar of Cloth, and Portraits of Kente, which show prominent African American leaders wearing the cloth.

This resource unit is built around twenty colorful slides and a plethora of black-and white photographs scattered throughout the various sections. Unit 1, “The Leader, the People, the Nation,” provides an extensive general history of Ghana and the Asante kingdom and its leaders and leadership arts.

In unit 2, “The Making and Design of Kente Cloth,” Avins and Quick chronicle the evolution of the Asante and Ewe weaving and describe the delicate and time-consuming processes of putting the cloth together. The four distinct tasks that accompany kente weaving are explained in detail: winding threads into skeins and laying them out in the desired color pattern; threading the loom with the prepared warp threads; weaving the cloth to the desired length; and, finally, sewing the narrow strips together. Thorough descriptions of various warp-stripe patterns and weft designs are enhanced by images depicting the weaving process, which facilitate one’s understanding and appreciation.

Unit 3, “The Contexts of Kente Use in Ghana,” is replete with examples: the Adae Kesee, or the procession of the Asantehene and other paramount or divisional chiefs; durbars, or public audiences at the courts of local or paramount rulers, where the most important chiefs are carried around in palanquins; installations and funerals of chiefs; palanquin linings; gift giving from historical times to the present, as witnessed by the presentation of kente to England’s Princess Mary on the occasion of her wedding and more recently to the Clintons on their visit to Ghana. The continuing commercialization of the cloth has led to its use in baseball caps, backpacks, ties, shoes, bags, purses, and other accessories.

Unit 4, “The Pan-African Movement and Kente in the United States,” extends its view beyond Ghana. Clad in kente, Kwame Nkmmah and his entourage visited Washington in 1958 and 1960, when Eisenhower was president. When W. E. B. Du Bois received his honorary degree at the University of Ghana, Legon, in 1963, he donned an exquisite kente-based academic gown. In the United States, the cloth has become an integral part of the lives of African Americans, woven into events like Kwanzaa celebrations, Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and graduation at all levels. The conspicuous display of kente testifies to the widespread use and symbolism of this textile, once the “exclusive prerogative of Asante or other Akan chiefs” (p. 20).

This book is truly a rich resource that goes beyond kente; it is also a useful tool for teaching history and comparative cultures. The thought-provoking questions that begin each unit, the outlined activities, and the discussion in each lesson within the units will challenge and stimulate students. At the same time, such additions as proverbs, folktales, and descriptions of cultural activities like naming ceremonies make this a truly enjoyable publication. The names and the messages of the ten different kente patterns on the accompanying poster itself are a mine of lifelong learning. The Wrapped in Pride curriculum resource unit and its activities should be a mandatory addition to all lessons on African studies, especially since kente continues to be an integral part of the lives of African Americans. strongly recommend this book for libraries of all kinds.

KWASI SARKODIE-MENSAH is manager of instructional services at the O’Neill Library at Boston College, where he is also an Adjunct Professor in the College of Advancing Studies.