It is tough for me to consider myself an artist, even if I do artistic work on my free time. As much as I’m supportive of people who pursue full-time artistic careers, either through higher education or employment, I know that could never be me. Thus, I don’t want to appropriate the title. Now, why that could never be me? Why I could never be a full-time artist? Firstly, because my socioeconomic status is not exactly good and I can’t risk it, as my family greatly depends on me (choosing a non-STEM degree was risky enough). Secondly, I don’t like to be told what to do, artistically speaking: I wouldn’t enjoy not having full creative control over what I create, and working mainly for profit would make me loss creative control. And thirdly, and most importantly: I like to separate my artistic work from my professional-academic career. Both worlds ought to be apart so none of them end up becoming overly boring and draining, while I bounce from one to the other as I want. This has always been my line of thinking, and it was challenged by my residency at Waaw.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Waaw is a Finnish-managed residential artistic organisation in Saint-Louis, which offers artistic and open residencies to artists and researchers around the world. I came across it when searching online for opportunities to do something in Senegal, from cultural exchanges to internships, a couple of years ago. At first, I was wary about applying, as it seemed as if they were looking for serious professionals with a proper career, while I was just an undergraduate university student. Fortunately, aside from their standard artistic residencies, which require a proper project and a lot of dedication, they offer less demanding and more flexible open residencies, with the possibility of doing research/ a project alongside cultural, artistic and language workshops. I decided to go for it and apply, showing my interest on some workshops and on potentially doing a research project based on my academic knowledge. When I received the letter of acceptance, I was positively surprised, and from then, I started to think about what I could research in Saint-Louis, without defining 100% my research project. It is difficult to choose a research aim, and its surrounding questions, when you aren’t familiar with the research setting at all. Hence, I decided to wait till I was in Saint-Louis. The flexibility of the open residency allowed me to do so.
Let’s fast-forward to the start of the programme. I remember arriving to Waaw late on the evening, after a long direct drive from the Blaise-Diagne airport. The building of the organisation wasn’t specially marked: it seemed like a normal house from the outside, with just a small sign with the name of the place. It was also semi-hidden in an alley close to a main street, which made it a bit creepy at night. However, during my first time there I wasn’t scared, as the driver who took my from the airport was with me. Besides, I was too tired to overthink about danger.
We knocked on the building’s door and rang its bell various times, but no one opened. I decided it would be wise to call the woman in charge of the program, as I had her number in case of emergency. She wasn’t inside the compound, but she came quickly to open the door for me. Her name was Emilia and she was very nice. After I paid the driver and told him goodbye, she let me into the residence and directed me to my chamber, located upstairs. The room was very spacious and simple, with a desk, a chair, a wardrobe and a bed. It had mosquito nets for the bed and for the windows. On the desk, there was an introductory pack for Waaw artists and a map of Saint-Louis. And that was really it. Before I submerged my knackered self in my bed, Emilia showed me some key places in the place, including the bathrooms and the kitchens. And then, I just fell asleep because I was too tired for anything else.
The next morning, my introduction to Waaw began. I attended my first group meeting, where I met other people doing projects and staying with the organisation. Group meetings were a weekly thing at Waaw where two main things happened. One, Emilia tried to organise the workshops and tours for the next days. And two, people doing residencies caught up with each other and shared how their stays/projects were going. The later helped to build the communal culture that characterised Waaw as a nice place to reside, socialise and work in cooperation, rather than being in isolation and in a strict professional environment. Indeed, even on the inside, Waaw looked like just a big house.
It had a central courtyard with a table and some chairs to sit around, where the weekly meetings were held. On the entrance floor, there were some rooms around the courtyard, as well as a kitchen and a toilet. On the second floor, there were more rooms, another kitchen and another three toilets at least. There were also two terraces on the roof of house, used for dancing & music classes, and to dry clothing after washing it. Despite the relaxing communal atmosphere, the private rooms, both the art studios and the individual dormitories, allowed a lot of privacy for those who wanted to focus on work or to just be alone. I really liked the Waaw house, it ended up feeling homely at some point, even if I spent most of the time in it in my room, and I didn’t really use the kitchen because I didn’t want to cook.
Following that first group meeting, I had an induction, led by Emilia, together with two other women who had arrived the same weekend at me. We were told more about the technical aspects of living in Waaw, such as how to do the laundry and where to find a space to do artistic work. We were also introduced to other facilities we could use. Aside from the main residential house, Waaw had another one less than a five minute-walk away from it, where there was a library and more studio spaces to work. The Waaw house was very well situated in the island of Ndar, with many relevant places close by, which Emilia showed us as part of the induction. In addition, Waaw had a partnership with a nearby local art gallery, where residency artists could potentially exhibit their projects. Most of the individuals doing the residency around the same time as me were visual artists, with a couple of music / dancing artists, hence doing an exhibition made sense for them. Meanwhile, it didn’t for me, as I was doing a written research project, and I’m mainly a creative writer and songwriter (arts-wise). I also do some photography, but nothing really worth exhibiting.
At first, it was weird being among fully invested, and even professional, artists, at Waaw: it made me feel out of place sometimes. When I was asked by them what did I do, I normally said “I write, so I’m not really an artist like the rest of you”, and they normally told me “writing is an art too!”. And while I believed them, I had never (and still haven’t) published any of my writing properly, so I didn’t know if it was at the standard required to be called ‘art’. I have never received adequate feedback about it either. I don’t even share it publicly anymore, except for some poems and son lyrics. However, my stay with artists at Waaw showed me that ‘artist’ is not just a professional title and ‘art’ is not just a final polished product: an artist is growth, a mix of dedication and interest, while art is a process, a combination of inspiration and effort. Seeing and hearing about the work my residency colleagues did made me realise I had more in common with them than I would have ever thought. Many didn’t have a predefined project either, they spent their day exploring Saint-Louis and getting inspiration anywhere. Some carried notepads with them and drew things they found appealing, spontaneously.
I related to this last point particularly because I always carry a notepad with me too, to write notes for my different projects. Many of my writing ideas, from novels to poems, haven’t come during moments exclusively dedicated to my literary and musical work. Those are normally editing moments. During primary and secondary school, I spent many hours in class focusing on my fiction stories. At times, when working as an intern/volunteer in offices, I have written lyrical verses, and even full songs/poems, during my short-breaks, and while waiting to be assigned new tasks. Sometimes at night, I have spent unsociable hours producing an instrumental for a song because I was just feeling it. When walking back home from university, I often stop to take pictures of things I find interesting, even with just my phone. The inspiration just comes to me randomly in those moments.
This is not to say that I can’t do focused and scheduled artistic work, but unlike my academic studies, or the variety of jobs I have had, I definitely happily do art even when I’m not supposed to, and for no reason other than personal satisfaction. Contrary to my general belief, my artistic persona isn’t really separate from my other personas, and I just don’t put it aside or take it back as I want. It might not be the focus of my professional career, but perhaps it is just as important. Or even more. Besides, being a writer and blogger on my free time has probably helped a lot with my academic and professional writing. I think all these worlds are intertwined, as much as I try to keep them separate. Maybe I should stop trying to do that.
My open residency at Waaw was marked by constant merging between my academic-professional work and my artistic-personal inclinations. While I did do research and joined educational tours, I also took part in cultural/artistic workshops and explored the cultural/artistic scene in Saint-Louis. I took Wolof language classes with a private tutor, Moutarou, who was phenomenal and gave me a good introduction. I learnt to cook two main Senegalese dishes during cooking classes, yassa poulet and ceebu jen, and even experienced buying in the local market with the help of our teacher, Soda, who was lovely. I participated in a Sabar drumming class with instructor Abdukhader, as well as in a Sabar dancing class with instructor Baye Samba: both sessions olidified my believe that my sense of coordination is awful, but they were fun! On my free time, I visited local clothing shops (not only to obviously buy ankara clothing, which I love!), but also to meet designers like Rama Diaw, who has a beautiful shop close to Waaw. I stopped by at the Ndar Ndar Music & Cafe place to drink something and chat with the owner a few times, interested to know more about music in Senegal and Saint-Louis (I bought a compilation of Senegalese acoustic music). I checked out craft shops and got involved in interesting conversations about the meaning of certain art works I saw, such as wooden masques as both identity markers/passports for many African ethnic groups and accessories for cultural celebrations.
Towards the end of my time in Saint-Louis, I came to an overall conclusion about the city: it is a vibrant and marvellous place not only because of its artistic atmosphere and distinct architecture, as often promoted in tourism websites, but because of its welcoming and charming inhabitants. I haven’t felt this type of warmth from locals in a place I have visited anywhere else, probably not even where I was born to be honest it, or where I normally live. I will never forget Rama Diaw’s, and her coworkers, smiles and kind voices, as well the gift they gave me (a beautiful headscarf!). I won’t forget the enthusiasm of the man talking to me about his African masques collection in his shop, and I will forever regret not being able to learn to play with him the West African board game mancala (I was ill; I will come back for this!). Nor I will forget about when Abdukhader and Baye Samba, who are relatives, invited me, with other colleagues, to their big family home for lunch, serving us delicious akara, ceebu jen, tea and fresh fruit. And of course, I will always be grateful for Moutarou and everything he taught me in less than a week, from the language to aspects of Senegalese culture, together with Soda, who apart from cooking, taught us informally about Senegalese and West African plants used for food and medicinal purposes. It all meant a lot for me, as someone disconnected from her Senegalese cultural background.
The aforementioned experiences not only enriched me personally and artistically, but also helped with my research. Saint-Louis turned out be a great setting for my project, and I would have felt 100% comfortable and happy carrying it out if it weren’t for one awful thing that happened which kind shook me a bit emotionally. It wasn’t something that had never happened before, it had in Spain various times when I was from a kid to a teen, and in Morocco when I travelling alone on the train. However, now it is a current hot topic with the #MeToo movement, and it is hard to not think about it. I’m no stranger to being harassed, but it caught me off guard when it happened in front of the Waaw house, and I felt a lot of rage when I didn’t react other than shouting to a man laughing and running away from me after touching me where he shouldn’t have had, and even trying a second time to do it again. There was even a kid nearby who seemed very scared when I shouted, with wide opened eyes and a confused expression.
After this happened, I was wary of going out and talking to strangers for a while, something I had been doing before: I was a bit paranoid and it took me a few days to shake it off. Fortunately, it didn’t happen again, although I did have a problem with two other men, one overly-insisting, who would follow me around at times seeking my attention, which I rejected, sometimes more harshly than others because I was fed up: I regretted all the times I had never said vocally no when having similar issues in Spain while growing up, and I decided to not just smile and let it go. From now on, I won’t do that anymore and I will try to stand up for myself. While these incidents affected my research a bit because I no longer felt as confident to explore on my own, and to interact a lot with people, plus I was a bit emotionally drained, my project was far from an incomplete failure. Thanks to mainly the educational tours and certain places I visited, I managed to gather enough information to possibly write an article on a multilayered topic. I will be explaining more about this in the following written post, stay tuned!
P.S. By the way, I have completely recovered from the bad experience. It didn’t make me any less in love with SainT-Louis or Senegal! As the #MeToo movement is showing, sexual harassment is a global issue, and the incident was just one bad out of many good interactions I had in Saint-Louis 😊