Azawad Libre! New Media and Imagined Geographies in the Sahel


Azawad Libre! New Media and Imagined Geographies in the Sahel
Exhibition, 2012
Portland Museum of Modern Art

The West African Sahara is a sparsely populated landscape that often conjures up images of emptiness and quietude in the Western imagination. The newly introduced integration of digital tools into this region has resulted in an abundance of graphic ephemera circulating via Facebook, Cyber Cafes, and cellular phones. In contrast and defiance to both geography and tradition, new technologies are being utilized to create inspired new genres of art.

With a barrage of multipurpose functions, the cellular phone plays a central role in digital art throughout West Africa. Cheap and ubiquitous throughout the desert, features such as the camera, video recorder, mp3 player, and hard drive have established the cell phone as the first personal digital device, analogous to the Occidental personal computer. Built-in photo manipulation software has led to stylistic trends, combining personal photos with superimposed pixilated graphics. The recent proliferation of home PCs further introduces new techniques of photo manipulation. Utilizing software-based templates and automated web-based montage platforms, the personal identity is altered and re-imagined into new forms; desires, hopes, and dreams are expressed in hyper-real manifestations. Invoking colorful and sometimes garish worlds of montage, digital distortions and lens flares, the images are informed by Western cultural objects, yet liberated from the points of origin.

As political unrest has spurred a rebellion in Mali and a presidential coup d’état, the fast-trending digital art medium is finding a new purpose among information sharing. Central to the rebellion is the concept of “Azawad” (translation: “land of transhumance”), a name coined over 40 years ago for an independent Tuareg state proposed to stretch across seven countries. The concept was previously relegated to an ideology exchanged in political folk ballads, but recently the availability of graphic tools has engendered new forms of propaganda around this subject. As “Azawad” languishes in political stalemate and uncertainty, the geography of this “promised land” thrives in the collective dream of digital statehood.

Challenging the concepts of folk art and ethnography, this exhibition showcases digital art from West Africa collected from within the country and via the internet: personally crafted avatars, viral propaganda disseminated through cell phone videos, imagined geographies of non-existent states, and personal identities redefined through designers of the digital realm. Examining the rich content of the digital artifacts which circulate through the networks of the Sahel, Azwad Libre! considers not only the roles of new media and democratization of creative tools, but the beauty of uninhibited inspiration.