I'm revisiting my essay from my independent research credit in senegal this summer to submit it to an undergrad essay award contest. i figured i'd post it incase anyone feels like delving into 28 pages of my scintillating anthropological prose.
Artisans, Artists and Environmental Conceptions in West Africa
Anthropology 345, Directed Research, Spring 2006
In the last decade, recycled folk art has become increasingly popular throughout North America and Europe. It is examined in such exhibitions as “Recycled, Re-seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap” and in articles such as “Rethinking Recyclia” by Corinne A. Kratz (1995) and “The Ironies of System D” by Allen F. Roberts (1996). One can buy recycled folk art toys and gifts in fair trade boutiques such as Ten Thousand Villages, as well as many online stores. Much of this recycled folk art is created in workshops throughout western Africa. I first encountered recycled folk art when I was studying in Burkina Faso in 2003. I have now spent several months investigating recycled art in Senegal and Burkina Faso.
When first designing my research project, I entitled it “Investigating Perceptions of Recycled Art.” I designed open-ended interview questions targeted at folk recyclers. I knew of several artisanal centers from my previous trip to West Africa where I could find folk recyclers to interview. However, before I even started my interviews I began to realize that I, and many of the articles I had read about folk recycling such as those in Recycled Re-Seen, made assumptions about folk recyclers that might be unfounded. I had assumed that folk recyclers were creative environmentalists trying to make something useful while cleaning up their cities. So I decided to add questions to my interviews pertaining to how folk recyclers thought about the environment, in addition to my other questions that looked at how folk artist perceived their work in terms of aesthetics.
I began my research using the term “recycled art,” but I have discovered that this is often a misnomer. The artisans I researched often use recyclable materials, such as tin cans, however they are not recycling these materials. Recycle is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “to convert into reusable material or return to a previous stage in a cyclical process.” This implies that the material is being broken down into its basic form from which it can be made into something else, normally in an industrial process. The artisans that I interviewed are not recycling in this sense. I find the French word récupérer, that artisans often use when describing their materials, better serves this discourse. Récupérer is a cognate for recuperate in English. In the material sense recuperate means to recover, to bring back into use, or to salvage.
The interviewees of my study can be divided into two categories: artisans and artists. I started my research intending to only interview “folk artists” or artisans, but I was soon exposed to the large community of highly educated “fine artists” in Dakar. I decided to open up my research to include interviews with both artisans and artists. Still keeping to the topic of recuperation, I tried to investigate the different uses of recuperated materials between the two groups, as well as the differences in perspectives on environmental issues. How did I differentiate between artisans and artists? As one painter I interviewed, Amadou Makhtar Mbay called “Tita” explained; artisans work from a model and can reproduce the same thing many times while what artists create can only be created once. “The artist invents, not copies” (Mbay 2006). For artisans, the creation of an original model may be a creative process, but once the initial model is made, the process turns from a creative to productive process.
In addition to these theoretical differences, there was a vast difference in the education and social status of artists and artisans. Of the six artists I interviewed, four had completed both high school and had graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts in Dakar. In contrast, of the eleven artisans that I interviewed, none had completed high school, and several had had no formal education at all. Additionally, all of the artists I interviewed had spent time in Europe or North America exhibiting their work and seemed aware of world politics and events as well as being well read, and aware of or even engaged in local politics and events. This paper will address the differences between and within these two groups as concerns their thoughts about recuperation, creativity and environmental issues.
Artisanal Recuperators in Dakar
I began my interviews at ENDA Ecopole in Dakar, Senegal. ENDA (Environnement et Développement du Tiers Monde) is an NGO based in Dakar that works for “environment and development in the third world” (Ecopole). Ecopole, which opened in 1996, is situated in a ghetto of Dakar, and works with “youth, women and artists, associations and municipalities” working “against poverty, for a better environment and for effective citizenship.” Ecopole attempts this work through the urban informal economic sector. One of their main programs involves artisanal workshops, some of which use recuperated material (Figures 1, 2). I interviewed three young adults who are trainers in these workshops (all of whom started at Ecopole when they were young), and one other adult who is also a trainer.
My first interview at Ecopole was with Abdoulaye Mbow (Figure 3). Abdoulaye started working with recuperated materials in the early nineties in his village in northern Senegal. Before working with recycled materials he worked as an apprentice with a jeweller. Abdoulaye claims that he had never seen “recycled art” before making it. One day he started thinking about what he could create using materials that were around him rather than using new materials (A. Mbow 2006). The first recuperated object he made was a model motorcycle made from a Nescafe can and parts from a broken radio. About six years later Abdoulaye heard about Ecopole by word of mouth while he was visiting his sister, who was working in Dakar. He joined Ecopole in 1998 because he had no other work, and due to his previous experience and inventiveness, he became a trainer soon after.
Like Abdoulaye Mbow, Pecos Mbulu Milanda (Figure 4) started doing artisanal recuperation before joining Ecopole. He first saw artistic recuperation in an exposition in Côte d'Ivoire. In this exposition a sculptor had used recuperated motors in his statues. Milanda found this very interesting and it inspired him to try recuperation (Milanda 2006). In 1997, he started working with recuperated electric wire, and as he noticed that an increasing amount of Westerners were interested and buying “recycled art” he started creating more with recuperated materials. In 2001 a director at Ecopole contacted him and invited him to work with Ecopole because they needed trainers. At that time they could not even offer him a salary but he agreed anyways because Ecopole would give him some international opportunities and he was also interested in helping impoverished children. Milanda describes himself as an artist, although I would define him as an artisan. He explained to me that he chose to be an artist because he previously had problems with employment. He explained that as an artist he can do something for himself, take matters into his own hands (Milanda 2006). Milanda started using recuperated materials to save money. He first used electrical wires that he bought from a middleman who bought from electricians when they were removing them from old houses. Even though he had to purchase them from the middleman he claimed that it was less expensive than buying a new materials. Milanda also felt that the recuperated materials give another dimension to his work because he is “giving a new life to the material” (Milanda 2006).
My two other interviewees at Ecopole had not worked with recuperation before joining Ecopole. Thiémokho Dieng left school in 1995, and since his father said he could not just hang out at the house and play soccer all day he joined Ecopole. Dieng explained that he never saw “recycled art” before working at Ecopole, and he didn’t see the importance of recycling before. He went on to say that now he thinks recycled art is interesting, and it gives him a way to help his family (Dieng 2006). Arona Sall’s experience is similar to Dieng’s: he became involved at Ecopole in 1996 and he has been a trainer since 2004. Sall learned about Ecopole because his uncle started working for ENDA. Sall started working at Ecopole because he wanted to help earn money for his family rather than spend their money paying for school fees. He had gone to school for six years when he dropped out. Like Dieng, Sall claimed that he had never seen artisanal recuperation before working at Ecopole (Sall 2006). At Ecopole, they buy many of their recuperated materials (Figure 5) from recuperators who comb through the trash at the Dakar dump, Mbeubeuss. They also buy misprinted sheet metal from canning factories. As many of their products have more non-recuperated materials than recuperated ones, such as plywood and new wire (Figure 6, 7), it seems that Ecopole’s main goal in recuperation is not reducing waste and saving money.
All of my interviewees at Ecopole agreed that the majority of sales are to Europeans. Abdoulaye Mbow explained that they sell mostly to French, Belgians, Italians and Swiss: either tourists or shops in Europe that place orders. Pecos Milanda explained that many merchants who have stalls at tourist markets such as the Marché Artisanal, the airport, and the Society of Tourism come and make orders at Ecopole. Milanda expressed frustration that these merchants bargain for good prices because they buy larger quantities and then make a lot of money on mark ups. In his opinion the artisans don’t make their fair share.
When I asked Ecopole artisans what they thought of the people that bought their work I sensed a reliance on European customers. Mbow responded that customers “are nice for taking the time to help us, they encourage us in our work, and sometimes help us find contacts of stores in Europe where we can sell our products.” Sall responded, “People who buy our products help us- they are our soutien.” (Soutien according to the Collins Robert French Dictionary (Clari 2003:502) can be translated as support or backing.) This language expresses a reliance on Europeans. Milanda also explained that he feels that Ecopole does not have enough support and financial backing. I think sense of reliance calls into question the sustainability of Ecopole as it depends heavily on European funding to continue its work.
Part of my interviews included open-ended questions about environmental issues; one of my prompts was “Do you think there are environmental or ecological problems that affect Senegal?” I went on to ask “What are these problems” and “Which are the most serious problems.” Further, I tried to get a sense of whether or not artisans thought of their work in the context of these problems. It is often a Western assumption that artisanal recuperators are also environmentalists. While this may be true in some cases, I found that it was not the primary motive for most artisans. Corrine A. Kratz discusses this common assumption in her article in African Arts, “Rethinking Recyclia.” Kratz examines the Western “notion of recycling and its ecological underpinning.” She explains, “an incipient ecological awareness is presumed to underlie [artisans] practice.” In reality artisanal recuperators often claim pragmatic or economic reasons for their choice of materials (Kratz 1995:11). I found Kratz’s assertion (1995:12) that the range of stances on environmental issues is highly varied, “from totally oblivious to deeply engaged,” to be true. Artisans and artists “politics and ecological engagement cannot be read directly off the materials they happen to use.”
Abdoulaye Mbow cited environmental problems in Senegal such as animals eating trash and getting sick (such as choking on plastic sacks). Also, he was concerned that there are dangerous things in the trash that could hurt kids who rummage through the dumps. Mbow thought that the worst problem in Senegal is litter, and stated that it needs to be cleaned up. Mbow explained that when he was on an exchange visit to Europe sponsored by ENDA Ecopole, he visited a recycling plant in Spain. He found the recycling with machines impressive but said that since there aren’t machines and factories for this Africa, “we have to do be resourceful.” Mbow claimed that at in his work at Ecopole he gives new life to trash and he thinks that this sort of “recycling” is better. Pecos Milanda thought that unorganized trash disposal and uncleanliness were the most urgent environmental problems. He also mentioned health problems such as a cholera outbreak that occurred in Dakar several years ago when there was flooding during the rainy season. Other interviewees were less articulate in their responses. Arona Sall didn’t seem to understand my question, which may have been a language issue: he told me to ask the administration about environmental problems.
I also asked artisans questions to determine whether they perceived their work to be art or craft. One question I asked was “Do you consider your work to be something personal or something useful.” Arona Sall thought that the ultimate product is something useful but the process is creative. He explained how he comes up with ideas for products, designs them, sketches them out and then makes a model. However, he confessed that the copies that he and the youth he instructs make are more useful than creative. Sall expressed that one of the reasons he likes working at Ecopole was the cooperative environment of sharing ideas and creativity. He likes to share his creativity with others and “wants to teach others the ideas in my head.” Further, he claimed that “art is something in my heart, I love making things” (Sall 2006). When asked the same question Abdoulaye Mbow replied that he thinks his work is something personal, and he doesn’t want others, outside of Ecopole, to copy it. However, the fact is that many of the products made at Ecopole are copies of others’ work. This touches on an issue that is common in artisanal recuperation: imitation and copying. This issue will be addressed throughout the paper.
Artisanal Recuperation and Recycling in Burkina Faso
Next I travelled to Ouagadougou the capital city of Burkina Faso (Figure 7.5). There I interviewed three adult artisans that do work similar to that of the artisans at Ecopole, and I also conducted interviews at two women’s cooperatives that work with different mediums.
I conducted my first interviews in Burkina Faso at the Village Artisanal of Ouagadougou (VAO) (Figure 9). The VAO, which opened in 2000, is jointly managed by the Burkina Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Crafts, and the Luxembourg Agency for Development Cooperation (which contributed capital to start the initiative) (Chambre 2006). The VAO consists of fifty workshops that are rented to selected local artisans. My first interview at the VAO was with Pascal Ouedroago (Figure 8). Ouedroago started doing artisanal work in 1984 when he did an internship at the Centre National d’Artisanat d’Arts (CNAA) in Ouagadougou (P. Ouedroago 2006). It was not until 2001 however that he started using recuperated materials. He claimed that he had never seen artisanal recuperation before, and thought of it creatively. After making a few pieces, he saw that it was something white people liked, and so he continued to create and think of more ways he could incorporate recuperated materials (Figure 9).
Ouedroago works mostly with metals and makes small statues (Figure 9), statuettes (Figure 10), household decorations, lawn decorations, iron curtain rods (Figure 11), and iron furniture. The recuperated materials are mostly used in his statuettes. Most of the recuperated metal pieces come from mechanics- nuts, bolts, sparkplugs. Ouedroago explained that he buys these materials from a middleman who collects them from mechanics. When I asked if it was cheaper than buying new metals, Ouedroago replied, “not really,” because, as he explained, they are in high demand (Ouedroago 2006).
Ouedroago explained that the large majority of his clients are blancs (whites). He sells most of his statues and figurines to tourists. He sells his ironwork furniture to expatriates living more permanently in Ouagadougou, and he concluded that the only thing that Africans ever bought were his curtain rods.
When asked whether he was paid fairly for his work Ouedroago hesitated, saying, “it depends…no not great prices because there is too much competition from imitators.” I had noticed before interviewing Ouedroago that a workshop around the corner from his at the VAO was making almost identical statuettes. Ouedroago claimed that he had never seen this sort of recuperation before: it was he who started it and others imitated him.
Imitation seems to be a common problem in the artisanal sector. As Westerners have taken an interest in artisanal recuperation many artisans have started to do similar work, trying to appeal to this Western market. Many of the artisans I spoke with claimed to be the first to do recuperation; however it is clear that the majority, or all, of these claims are false. It appears that the market is becoming flooded with similar products and as a result it is becoming harder and harder to make a decent living as an artisanal recuperator.
My second interview at the VAO was with Rasmane Sawadogo (Sawadogo 2006). Sawadogo makes recuperated crafts very similar to those of Ecopole (Figure 12). He explained that he started doing “art” in 1987. He began making toys for kids and gave them as gifts. As he saw that kids liked them he started making them to sell. No one showed him exactly how to make these toys but he got the idea from a little car made from recuperated materials that he found in someone’s trash can in the Zone du Bois neighbourhood of Ouagadougou. The Zone du Bois is an upper-class neighbourhood where many expatriates, particularly North Americans, live. Sawadogo developed his idea from this, but asserts that his current work (Figure 13) is much prettier than this original car he found.
Sawadogo has had his workshop at the VAO since 2002. He heard about the VAO from a neighbour who works there. To get a workshop, he went and visited the VAO and saw that there was no one making similar products to his, and then talked to the director and obtained a workshop to rent. Sawadogo explained that before getting into artisanal recuperation he worked in construction. He felt that his current work was a definite improvement. In construction he was making about two US dollars a day and now on some days he can sell as much as 20 USD in one day. For the rent of his workshop he pays the equivalent of 40 USD a month. He felt that this was a reasonable price as the VAO is a location that attracts many tourists, his main clientele. “I make a lot more [money] here than if I had a workshop elsewhere because there are lots of visitors that come here.”
He also explained that the VAO Boutique, a storefront to the VAO, goes to expositions around the region. If they are at an exposition where they see another exhibitor selling something Sawadogo could make, they buy it and bring it back for him to try and copy. This is yet another example of the copying that is prevalent in artisanal recuperation.
Sawadogo specified that he sells the majority of his work to blancs, but that occasionally Africans also buy gifts for their kids from him. Figure 14 shows a recuperated lamp in an American expatriate’s home, in the Zone du Bois and Figure 15 shows a recuperated toy camera on a toy shelf in this same home. Sawadogo does not export his work directly but he claimed that he has several clients that come and make large orders and take his products to Europe to sell. When asked why he thinks white people like his work, he said that it’s beau (beautiful). When asked if his work was more about personal expression or more about earning money he replied, “[my work] is creative, but between artistic expression and earning money- it’s about earning money.”
When I asked Sawadogo about environmental problems in Burkina he mentioned the bottles and plastic sacks that “dirty the land” (Sawadogo 2006). I asked him whether his work has any impact on this problem. He replied that his work “reduces the trash and dirtiness a bit.” Is that why he uses recuperated materials? “That’s one reason I like these materials.” However, I think by this point in the interview I was feeding him answers because my questions were too specific. Later in the interview Sawadogo explained that he didn’t really intend or desire to work with recuperation at first, he just made it for kids. He started selling it because he needed the money, but he claimed that now he was happy with his work. He also explained that recuperated materials were less expensive than new materials. He gets his materials from recuperators who collect and then bring their finds to sell to him the VAO. These recuperators, who comb through trash dumps to pick out reusable cans and other materials, seem to have an established clientele. They know where the artisans doing recuperation are, and they often bring the cans and other materials they find directly to them for sale.
In my next interview I spoke with an artisan that does work very similar to Sawadogo’s. I met Issaka Comporé at his roadside stall that is in a busy area of Ouagadougou near some major hotels (Figure 16). Comporé is twenty-five and learned artisanal recycling from his older brother (Figure 17). He explained, “Since we quit school, we would just sit down and try to make little things.” Comporé and his brothers sell the majority of their work to tourists, but he claimed that some Burkinabe also buy them to give as gifts. Additionally the Comporé brothers export their work to buyers in Mali, Senegal, Ghana, as well as a few from France and Italy who place orders through email. Comporé claimed that they have some regular European clients that come every year to buy from them. Their prices, like most artisans, aren’t fixed, if a client buys a large quantity the artisan will greatly reduce the price.
Comporé thought that when people see his recuperation, it’s something they’ve never seen before, and it’s intriguing to them what you can do with “trash.” When asked if their work was something expressive or something useful just to make money, Comporé explained that it was a mixture, “We make our work with our own hands and it is creative. It is in expressing our ideas that we can make a living.” Comporé claimed that artisanal recuperation originated in their neighbourhood. As I have mentioned above, after several interviews, I began to see that this was a common claim. Figure 18 shows Comporé’s cars, which are nearly identical to those that Sawadogo makes. It is impossible to know where the ideas of artisanal recuperation originated, but it is certain that imitation is commonplace in the trade.
When I asked Comporé what environmental problems, such as pollution, they see in Burkina, he responded that trash is a problem, and added, “Our work reduces the pollution a bit” (Comporé 2006). He noted how it was becoming more difficult to find Nescafe tins in the trash now because the recuperators pick them out so quickly to resell. Yet they are still cheaper than buying new materials. Comporé explained that in the past to obtain their materials they would go directly through the trash themselves; however, now there are recuperators who collect the cans and other materials for a living and bring them to the Comporé brothers to sell.
Women’s Cooperatives and Recycling
The next interviews were my first with women artisans. I began with interviews with the president and vice-president of Papiers du Sahel a women’s cooperative located in Ouagadougou. Papiers du Sahel is an offshoot of a nutrition project started by an American expatriate, Beth Jacob. In 2001, twenty impoverished women (Figure 19) were selected to begin the paper project. These women, who previously had been unemployed, selling peanuts, or gathering gravel (some of the most lowly and difficult work in Ouagadougou), have learned how to make handmade, recycled paper (Figure 20), and then make albums (Figure 22), cards, boxes (Figure 21) and other gift items out of the paper (Papiers 2004).
Eugenie Ouadrago, age thirty-six, is the president of Papiers du Sahel (Figure 23). Haoua Ilboudo is the vice-president (Figure 24). Both women started working at the project because their children were sick and they didn’t have the means to pay for medicines and better nutrition (Ouadrago 2006). Ouadrago explained that she had never heard of or seen recycled paper before the project started. The women agreed that they wanted to form a cooperative to create jobs for themselves, and Beth Jacob found the funds from the American Embassy for them to start the project. It was also Jacob who came up with the idea to recycle paper and use recycled materials.
Ouadrago explained that she likes working in a cooperative, “It’s better when we work together.” Ilboudo added, “This is hard work to do alone, we have to put our skills together” (Ilboudo 2006). All the women share the proceeds for each month after they take out money for the rent and the materials, it is not a fixed salary, and some months are better than others. As leaders, Ouadrago and Ilboudo get 15% more than the others because their responsibilities are greater.
Jacob made most of the sales connections in the beginning stages of the project, and continues to help with contacts in Europe, but the women are working towards becoming more independent. They sell their products at their workshop and downtown in two different shops. However, the majority of their revenue comes from exportation to Europe, mostly to gift shops, and fair trade organizations in France. Ouadrago explained that they sell only to Europeans, “Burkinabe don’t have the means or need for our products.” Ilboudo added, “Burkinabe don’t like our products like Europeans do, it doesn’t serve them.”
Obtaining their basic materials, used paper and dried grasses, is quite simple for the women of Papiers. Celtel, the largest local phone company, and several embassies bring their already shredded paper to the project for free (Figure 25). The women buy local dried grasses, very cheaply, from a seller who delivers directly to the project (Figure 26). Other materials, such as dyes, the women buy at a near-by market. Unlike the other artisans discussed above, the work of the women of Papiers du Sahel is actually more of a recycling process than a recuperation process. They are taking used, shredded paper and returning to a state where it can be used again. Although the project is still developing and relies on assistance from Beth Jacob and other Western contributors, Papiers du Sahel is one artisanal project that has the potential to be quite sustainable. They use all locally available and economical materials, and although they do rely on clients from the West, they have a product that is usable, not just a trinket that collects dust on a tourist’s shelf. While few people will buy a Nescafe tin car more than once, Papiers du Sahel products can be used up, and clients can continue to buy their products for years on end.
When asked what she thought about recycling, Ouadrago replied, “I think it is better, instead of burning it [the paper] we can do something with it. Everything that’s thrown away, we could do something with.” Ilboudou confessed that she was unaware of many environmental issues. When asked whether Papiers du Sahel made any difference in all the trash of the city she realistically replied, “Our work doesn’t really make a difference with the problem of trash, we are not a big project that can do that sort of work, but we’re happy to get our materials from Celtel. It’s better that they give [the paper] to us than burn it” (Ilboudo 2006). Ouadrago could articulate environmental issues to me a little more in depth. She explained that the Mayor of Ouagadougou initiated a new city clean up program. She noted a new law that city residents get fined if they are caught throwing dirty water in the street or littering and that the Mayor has hired women who sweep and clean the streets. Ouadrago stated, “It’s a good and important program. It will help us have less illnesses, like cholera.” Ouadrago added that most respect these new programs, but some don’t. “Many people are unhappy because it takes more time and effort to put the water and trash in its proper place.”
Next I discovered a Women’s Association called G.A.F.R.E.H. that is based in Bobo-Dioulasso (which is the second largest city in Burkina Faso, west of Ouagadougou). G.A.F.R.E.H. also has a sales booth at the Village Artisanal of Ouagadougou. G.A.F.R.E.H. was the most independent and environmentally aware artisanal group that I encountered (Figure 27). Unlike Papiers du Sahel, a Burkinabe woman founded G.A.F.R.E.H. and environmental protection was one of their stated goals.
G.A.F.R.E.H., which stands for Women’s Action Group for Economic Revival in Houet (Houet is the name of the province where Bobo-Dioulasso is located), was formed in 1994 when businesswoman Christiane Lamizana (Figure 28) united 30 different associations that were in a neighbourhood in Bobo-Dioulasso to form a collective of women. This association began by putting together public awareness campaigns. These campaigns varied from the women and children’s rights, to AIDS prevention and awareness, to wellness for kids, to informing women how to develop their economic capacity. The association hired educators to come and work with the women on these issues. They also taught women about the casses populaires (credit unions) in order to help women obtain credit and learn about banking.
Lamizana explained that she got the inspiration to form the association because she was concerned about the lack of work for women in Bobo-Dioulasso, the lack of development, the poverty and all the kids who weren’t able to go to school. Haoua Iboudo, Vice-President of G.A.F.R.E.H., (Figure 29) stated that the association is based on advancing women’s economic position. G.A.F.R.E.H. recognizes that economic advancement goes hand in hand with a healthy environment, “If women don’t have a healthy environment to live in, then they cannot be economically stable” (Iboudo 2006). Iboudo cited issues such as clean water and proper waste disposal as important elements of a healthy environment.
In 2002 G.A.F.R.E.H. launched a plastic bag recycling project. In Burkina, as in Senegal, plastic bags, usually black, are used very frequently. When you stop at a fruit stand for example, you buy two mangos, four bananas and two avocados. The fruit seller will often insist on putting each type of fruit in a separate small plastic bag, and then putting all of those small bags in yet another larger bag, and then sometimes will double bag this if they are concerned it’s too heavy. So for six pieces of fruit you end up with four or five plastic bags! As there is no organized trash disposal, the majority of these bags are left to blow around the city and countryside, littering even the most remote corners of the country. The idea for this project came from Iboudo, who had goats at her house that kept dying for no apparent reason. Eventually Iboudo realized the goats were dying from eating plastic bags in the trash pile. The association brainstormed about what useful things they could do to use the plastic bags. One woman from the association had seen a clip on television about a woman in Benin who crocheted using plastic bags. The association decided to try and launch a project teaching women in the area how to crochet with plastic bags. At this point the association had a promising idea, but no funding to start the project. The women created a project proposal, and entered it in a contest for economic development sponsored by the World Bank. They won the 10th place prize. This prize money provided them with about 2,000 USD that allowed them to start their project. They started with crocheting and they sent several women to Benin to learn from the woman that they had seen on television (Figures 30 and 31). From this Iboudo got the idea to cut the plastic bags into string and weave with it (Figure 32). G.A.F.R.E.H. is proud to say that they are the first in the world to weave with the plastic bags, and as far as I have found they are one of a kind. With the fabric woven from the plastic bags they make purses, brief cases, wallets, and even fashion clothing (Figure 33) and head wraps (Figure 29). Lastly G.A.F.R.E.H. is starting to experiment with melting plastic scraps that are unusable in weaving and crocheting and forming them into bricks and stools (Figure 34). However, at this point, more machinery and technical experimentation is needed.
The plastic bags are gathered from the trash and litter by women in the association or by other unemployed persons wanting to earn a bit of cash. G.A.F.R.E.H. provides the collectors with protective gear (gloves and face masks), and the collectors are paid sixty cents for a thirty-pound rice bag full (about five pounds of plastic bags) and one dollar and twenty cents for a fifty-pound rice bag full. G.A.F.R.E.H. was the only artisanal group that I know if that looked after the safety of their collectors by providing them with protective gear. In addition to the paid collectors, the mayor of Bobo-Dioulasso has the women who sweep the streets save the plastic bags for G.A.F.R.E.H.
When I asked Lamizana and Iboudo what the biggest environmental problem in Burkina Faso was, they both responded that plastic bags where the most severe problem. Lamizana remarked that in a province called Touga “There are more plastic bags hanging from the trees than leaves!” Lamizana claimed, “Our project has helped reduce this problem in Bobo, now in Bobo plastic bags can even be hard to find because everyone is picking them up” (2006). Iboudo explained that they recycle plastic bags because they are polluting the earth, “Water cannot drain properly because of too much plastic in the soil and also because animals are getting a hold of plastic bags, eating them and dying from it” (2006). Iboudo continued, “We have tried to sensitize the population to the problems of plastic bags. Now more and more there are people that save and reuse plastic bags.” Iboudo mentioned other problems that needed to be addressed including the disposal of plastic water bottles and tin cans. She described that the association had worked previously on some other environmental protection and tree planting projects.
When asked about recuperation in general, Iboudo stated, “Before making recycled art, I saw that it had lots of value, because we need to protect the environment and reuse what we can.” When asked if it was expressive or useful, Iboudo stated, “It’s something useful for the women who work with the project. They make money to be able to feed their families, and it’s also helpful for the environment.” However, she went on to explain, “The process is also creative because everyday women are making new designs for different products. They are inventive and innovative in their work.”
Like all of the other artisans I interviewed, G.A.F.R.E.H. sells the majority of their products to tourists and expatriates. They sell at the VAO, at the biannual art festival in Ouagadougou, they export to a boutique in Nantes, France and also to a fair trade group in Paris called Debroilles. Their most popular items are their handbags, purses and brief cases. Lamizana hopes that if they get the foundry (melting plastic bags down, and casting them) working they could make plastic stools, and they think that is a product they could market to Burkinabe. Most Burkinabe use similar stools made out of wood. Lamizana thinks that their product could be cheaper than the wooden stools, so they would have a competitive advantage. G.A.F.R.E.H. is the only artisanal group that recognized the importance of having a product that was marketable and useful to Burkinabe. Although their purses and brief cases are lovely, they are expensive for Burkinabes, and it is unlikely that they will find interest in anywhere other than the Western tourist and expatriate market. Having a way to recycle the plastic bags and make them into a product that is useful to Burkinabe, stools and such, could greatly strengthen the sustainability of G.A.F.R.E.H. and reduce their dependence on the unsteady Western market.
Another thing to consider about the sustainability of G.A.F.R.E.H. is their environmental sustainability. Although they are helping to make a difference in their city, in order to make a long-term change, they must work to educate and change the mindset of Burkinabe in their use of non-biodegradable materials. They have found a use for plastic bags, rather than throwing them away, which is certainly commendable. However, in order to make a lasting improvement, Burkinabe must be informed about biodegradability (and non-biodegradability in the case of plastics), and shown alternatives. If given the resources, G.A.F.R.E.H. would be a wonderful organization to work with this. Many alternatives already exist in Burkinabe culture. Before plastic bags were introduced by the West, baskets and other reusable carrying devices were commonly used. If the practice of using such reusable carrying devices could be re-incorporated into the culture, to at least curb the use of plastic bags, and G.A.F.R.E.H. can continue to work with the remaining bags artisanally, I think the project could make a sustainable environmental difference.
Kratz emphasizes in her article, “Affinities among recyclia materials can also be assumed too readily to be evidence of similarities among recyclia artists, aesthetics, interactions or systems of production and circulation” (1995:8). I found a high degree of variation between recuperation artisans in terms of the sustainability and scale of their businesses, their perception of creativity, and their awareness of environmental issues. It is important to recognize these variations rather than assume affinities that often do not exist.
Artists Using Recuperated Materials in Senegal
I found further variation between artisans and artists. Upon my return to Dakar, Senegal from Burkina Faso I continued to explore the differences between artists and artisans and their use of recuperated material. Amadou Makhtar Mbay, known as Tita, explained that as an artist he is an inventor (Figure 31). He explained that artisans create a model and then copy it, but “what an artist creates can only be bought once. The artist invents doesn’t copy” (Mbay 2006). Tita was always interested in art when he was young, and he comes from an artistic family. He completed his studies at the National Academy of Fine Art in Dakar and was a professor there until 2000. Since then he has retired and works only on his art at a studio at the Village des Arts, a government-sponsored artist compound where many of the most talented Senegalese artists have their studios (Figure 32). Tita travels around Africa and Europe frequently for exhibitions of his work.
For the last fifteen years, Tita has been making his own natural pigments. He wants to “emphasize our relationship to nature” in his work, “Nature can give us everything.” Tita explained to me how he believes the environment is dynamic, but our society is one of consumption and rejection. As an artist he tries to call attention to this. One of Tita’s mantras is Rien ne se perde, tout se récupére (Nothing is lost, all can be recuperated or revived). To communicate this message Tita beautifully integrates found objects, such as scraps of rusted metal in his paintings and sculptures (Figures 33, 34). However, Tita does not use recuperated scraps only to communicate an environmental message, his recuperation is as much of an aesthetic decision as anything else. Tita clearly delights in the beauty of small rusted scraps of metal he finds (Figure 35). He explained to me, “There is a certain beauty in the marks on time on the objects.” He added, “my recuperation gives a second life to these otherwise discarded objects, their life is not finished.” To Tita, recuperation is about finding beauty in something that is otherwise disregarded and wasted by society. Tita elegantly combines his environmental message with his aesthetic appreciation in the objects he recuperates.
When asked of his opinion of artisanal recuperators, Tita said, “The things they make can be useful, such as kid’s games. Senegalese tend to buy games from the west for their kids. Why not buy these games that are made here, locally, using recycled materials?” However, Tita believes that Senegal also needs industrial recycling. In fact, he claimed that the lack of industrial recycling is the most fundamental environmental problem in Senegal. “Senegal has lots of trash! It is disposed of improperly and in addition to dirtying the environment, it promotes disease such as malaria and cholera.”
Adama Boye is rare for a middle-aged Senegalese woman (Figure 40). She has never been married, has no children, and she is an artist. She explained, “A husband could tell me to chose between him and my art” (Boye 2006). Boye has chosen her art. Boye researches and addresses specific themes in her artwork such as women’s issues, children, and since 2000, “cultural preservation.” Boye works with acrylic on canvas and incorporates scraps of recuperated leather and fabric into her canvases.
In 1998 Boye started using leather scraps that shoemakers discard (Figure 41). Then in 2004, after the death of her mother, Boye started using scraps of her mother’s fabric in her canvases (Figure 42). Boye sees leather and fabric as important cultural elements in Senegal. Leather invokes the importance of animals in religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Fabric also has ceremonial importance. Boye explained that traditionally when a baby is born a piece of woven cloth is used to wrap the baby during the naming ceremony. This same piece of fabric will be used over and over in ceremonies throughout the person’s life. At a person’s death, their ceremonial cloth is used to cover the head of each family member to comfort them, and then the family will keep the cloth.
Boye sees her use of recuperated fabrics and leather as more than just an aesthetic choice. To her it is about conserving and preserving: preserving both actual materials, such as fabric and leather, and the cultural history that they invoke. Boye has great respect and honour for the materials she recuperates. She said, “If you recuperate, you must do it well. You are reviving something.” In this way Boye respects the history of her materials and give them a new context in which they can continue to tell the stories of her culture.
Boye seemed very well informed about environmental issues in Senegal. She has volunteered as a researcher with a German NGO that was working with water drainage problems in a slum neighbourhood. In her opinion, sewage problems are among the most fundamental environmental problem in Dakar. She also mentioned the organizational problems of trash disposal. She explains that when she was growing up, it was much cleaner in Dakar. In the last twenty years, many people have migrated to the city due to droughts in the villages and Dakar cannot support the population anymore. Additionally Senegalese are buying more products packaged in plastics and metals. She agreed with Tita that industrial recycling is greatly needed to deal with the problem. She remarked, “As we are living more like Europeans we need recycling like in Europe.”
When I asked Boye what her thoughts on Ecopole were, she replied that she saw it was a positive project that can help to develop youths’ creativity, and intelligence. Ecopole “teaches kids that with nothing you can do something” (Boye 2006). Further, she explained that although her concepts of recuperation are more intellectual and more symbolic than artisans at Ecopole, the objectives are similar.
Guibril André Diop, a sculptor who works at the Village des Arts. He is also reflective of Senegalese culture and recuperation in his work; however, he and Boye have different thoughts on recuperation. Diop explained that in the past he went through a period where he often worked with recuperated metals in his sculpture, however now he buys all of his materials. In his opinion, recuperation art has been popular in the West because in the West trash disposal is organized, “People don’t just throw their trash on the side of the road as is commonplace here in Senegal. So in Europe, using trash in artwork surprised people, but it didn’t shock people here because the culture is different” (Diop 2006). Diop now buys new materials because he does not want the already existing forms of recuperated metals to influence him. “I want to take materials and make it into what I them want to be: something completely original.”
Diop had a very thoughtful opinion about Ecopole and artisanal recuperation. He stated, “what they make [at Ecopole] doesn’t symbolize Senegalese culture in any way, it’s just a little object of curiosity. What they make is just to please Europeans; it doesn’t have importance in our culture.” He also believes that Ecopole isn’t a future for kids because the kids are not given enough creative freedom. “They need more creative freedom to start making new things that are useful to Senegalese, not just copy European products and make them out of recuperated materials. You need to liberate kids to be creative, so that they can have ideas. Now they are not creatively thinking about what Senegal needs” (Diop 2006).
Gabriel Kemzo Malou is also a sculptor who uses recuperated materials. After completing his Baccalaureate, Malou continued his education at the National Academy of Fine Arts where he focused on painting. Why did he become an artist? “I didn’t want to do something just to make a living, something simply to earn money. I wanted something that impassioned me” (Malou 2006). After completing his formal schooling, Malou continued his education in fine art by apprenticing with a famous Senegalese artist, Moustapha Dime, for four years. It was with Dime that Malou began his work in sculpture. Malou first exhibited in 2001, and has since exhibited in Senegal, Mauritania, France, Belgium, and the United States.
Most of Malou’s sculptures integrate some sort of recuperated material. He explained that these recuperated materials have a history and a story to tell; they have witnessed a specific time and place (Malou 2006). Malou believes that behind all objects there is a discourse, a cultural dialogue. Through his work, he gives the materials a new context in which “they can continue to witness in a new way.” Further, Malou explained that objects have witnessed things that are otherwise unaccounted for. He compared this work to that of an archaeologist who examines an object and that object witnesses of the time, place, and culture in which it existed. Malou explained that he finds most of the materials he recuperates randomly, without looking for them specifically, but he also uses some materials that are given to him, such as shoes from an old friend.
When asked his opinion of artisanal recycling, Malou explained that when people started using recuperated materials they were just looking for a more economic alternative. For example, originally chests were make out of solid wood, but now recuperators make them out of plywood covered in pop cans because solid wood is too expensive. Unlike him, “the history of the materials doesn’t interest [artisans]” (Malou 2006). Additionally, he explained that artisans work is different from artists because “they are making a product purely for consumption. I’m making a product for cultural consumption.” Malou is not simply using the material to make another product; he is preserving the materials in order to give voice to its history.
When asked specifically about Ecopole, Malou explained that in the beginning he supported Ecopole and thought it was a good idea, but he is unhappy with the way it has gone. “In the beginning it was a good idea- helping kids that didn’t have something to eat, feed themselves and learn.” He criticised Ecopole for no longer helping kids to develop, “You need to put something in their minds, they are not developing their creativity any longer because it’s just about production.” Malou explained that when he works with students, as he frequently does, “It’s not just about creating sculpture, I want them to develop their intellect as well.”
When asked about environmental issues and ecological problems, Malou replied, “There are so many! Trash, deforestation, no recycling.” On the topic of recycling, Malou criticised artists who pretend that their work is helping to resolve with the trash problem. Realistically “they are only recycling .05% of the trash!” So what can artists do according to Malou? “What artists can do is get people to prendre conscience (become aware)” of environmental problems. Malou sees environmental problems in Senegal as a result of the lack of education and he believes strongly that artists have a role in educating the public about environmental issues.
Seni M’Baye, a painter who has had his studio at the Village des Arts since 1998, and who has exhibited in the United States and throughout Europe, believes that artists need to take an active stance on environmental issues. Although M’Baye does use some recuperated elements in his paintings, such as fabrics (Figure 43), he claims that what he does is not recuperation. He explained that when he adds a scrap of fabric to a painting it adds another dimension to the work. “I see a scrap of fabric as I walk down the road and pick it up. Maybe later that scrap inspires me, or I may be working and I think of it and it is the perfect thing to complete my painting.” However, M’Baye is opposed to being labelled as a recuperator, “People think that my work is recuperation because I sometimes use old wood or scraps of cloth. But I am capable of working with any materials- that’s the proof of my creativity. But I don’t want to constrain myself, if I were to call myself a recuperator and only work with found objects, I would be limited in my work. I want to go further, I want my work to evolve” (M’Baye 2006). Like Malou, M’Baye referred to his work as a form or current archaeology, “the recuperated pieces in my work are a form of identification of the times, the period in which this was made.”
Beyond his personal work, M’Baye believes that recuperation is not serving youths at Ecopole or the country as a whole developmentally. M’Baye explained this thoughts about Ecopole, which are comparable to Malou and Diop’s. “Ecopole limits itself to these cars and bicycles. What they make might be pretty, but it’s limited. Kids there are just learning these really specific skills that don’t really take them many places in life. Why not train kids in useful things or keep them in school?” (M’Baye 2006).
In the context of the entire country, M’Baye also expressed his concern about recuperation and environmental problems. He stated, “There is recuperation and there is recycling: we need recycling. We need to take the old materials and industrially transform them so we can reuse them.” He expressed his frustration that Senegal had not reached this point yet, “For 50 years we’ve been independent but we haven’t developed that much…. Africa must go beyond this artisanal stuff: we need industrial development. Dakar, one of the biggest cities in West Africa, doesn’t have a good waste disposal system- we don’t even have incinerators. And why don’t we have industrial recycling? You can do so many things with recycled plastics!”
But where will these changes come from? In M’Baye’s opinion, it is time for artists and intellectuals to step up to the plate, “Politicians have done nothing good for Africa- it’s time for artists and intellectuals to take over politics. Artists can change Africa. Artists know how to cooperate and are inspired. They know how to find solutions- the kind of solutions that are hidden right underfoot. While the politicians search for solutions elsewhere, the artist looks for solutions here with what he has” (M’Baye 2006).
Issues and Possibilities Concerning Recycling in Senegal
As M’Baye and other artists propose, the move towards industrial recycling is crucial. To better examine the issues around recycling, I met with Dr. Cheikh Mbow, a professor and researcher at the Institut des Sciences de l’Environnement at the University of Dakar-Senegal. As I have outlined above, currently the only recycling that exists in Senegal, and many developing countries, is an informal process. To begin with, Mbow reiterated the difference between recuperation and recycling. He gave the example of a bottle of wine which is drunk by someone, thrown in the trash, brought to the dump, gathered by a recuperator, cleaned out and then finally sold in the market to be used for something else. This bottle it is not physically converted into anything else. In Senegal this informal recuperation process is driven by poverty and unemployment (C. Mbow 2006).
Dr. Mbow (2006) explained that in Senegal, much of this recuperation takes place at the Mbeubeuss dump, which was opened in 1970 near Dakar. According to Abdou Faye of IPS News at this unorganized dump “household items and industrial wastes are deposited indiscriminately, with little in the way of sorting or treatment” (Faye 2004). Informal recuperators do the only sorting that takes place at Mbeubeuss. Mbow explained that most of these recuperators have come from rural, farming areas in times of drought, when subsistence farming became nearly impossible and have settled in irregular squatter settlements. Most come with no occupation and little or no education. This means that most recuperators know nothing about the dangers of the substances that they are likely coming in contact with. These recuperators do however, have sophisticated networks to sell the goods they recuperate.
What is an ecologist’s view of artisanal recuperation? For Mbow this was no small question. Mbow, who knows the ENDA Ecopole project quite well, explained his position on their work. He sees Ecopole as a positive institution in some aspects, “they’re giving a good example, they’re raising concern…. The idea is to show to the nation, that if you try to be imaginative and creative, you can use some of your waste” (C. Mbow 2006). However, Mbow went on to say, “The other side of the question is how far this will this improve the environment: I don’t think that it’s efficient for the environment” because if you look at how much waste is being brought to the dump everyday, and how much artisans like Ecopole are taking out, “it’s just nothing.”
Mbow also explained that in environmental terms, Senegalese artisans taking a tin can and making a trinket out of it to be bought by a European tourist to be thrown away a year later when it is dusty on their shelf is really just the “transfer of waste” from Senegal to Europe. Mbow emphasized that although the world is becoming increasingly globalized, countries “need to solve problems instead of transferring problems elsewhere.”
To Mbow, and many of the artists I spoke with, this means that Senegal and other developing countries need to move beyond recuperation towards recycling. Professor Mbow (2006) explained why this is particularly important in the developing world.
Think about a country which is as poor as Senegal: we are importing so many plastics, glasses, metals, because we don’t have the raw materials here… so think about a good recycling process which is meant to reuse all of these materials that are now going to the dump, and put them back into the system. Think about many billions of CFAs (many millions of US dollars) a country could gain a year doing a recycling process- for plastics and metals, everything- I think that the recycling process is something which was meant for developing countries, not for developed countries. You [in the West] have billions of dollars- we don’t have these kind of resources, we need to have a sustainable reuse of material, and this can only be done in a good recycling program.
But what is it going to take to implement such a system? In further research upon my return from West African and in further correspondence with Professor Mbow I have learned more about the past and the unsure future of the Mbeubeuss dump and the trash disposal system of Senegal. The Mbeubeuss dump was opened in 1970 on the site of a dried up lake bed on the edge of Dakar (Figure 44). In the last three decades Dakar’s population has burgeoned: from only 1.6 million in 1990 to over 3 million today, and the dump has sprawled to cover over 600 hectares (Diallo 2004). According to journalist Abdou Faye (2004) in his article “Raking the Muck in Dakar: The Battle of a City’s Teeming Dump” with all the squatter settlements of recuperators and scavengers the line between where human settlement ends and the rubbish heap begins has been blurred. Faye continues, the site has belatedly been recognized as an environmental hazard due to rising levels of ammonium in the ground water beneath and near the dump, and in “a 2003 report the ministry of the environment described Mbeubeuss as a veritable ecological catastrophe” (Figure 45). A report for LEAD International characterizes the site as a “source of serious environmental, sanitation and public health threats to the local population” (Diallo 2004). But at the same time, Mbeubeuss is a site where a number of economic and income generating activities take place: market gardening (Figure 46), coco-nut harvesting, urban aviculture, steel mongering and recuperation.
In 2001, the Senegalese government finally made the decision to close Mbeubeuss by 2005 and open a new cite in Gandoul, 70 kilometres east of Dakar (Faye 2004). Authorities say that the proposed new Gandoul dump will adhere to European standards of waste management, and the Senegalese government has contracted Alcyon, a Swiss recycling company whose subsidiary in Senegal, called AMA-Senegal, is to treat the waste over a 25-year period. AMA-Senegal says that waste will be sorted and recycled; some of it will even be used to produce compost and electricity. Further AMA-Senegal and the government promise that new jobs will be created for people in the Gandoul area (Faye 2004).
These plans, however, have met stiff opposition, and while I was in Dakar (May-July 2006) the move to Gandoul was still in political deadlock. The first to express their disapproval of the move to Gandoul were the recuperators who earn their livelihoods combing through the trash at Mbeubeuss. The population around Gandoul has also opposed the move. In April 2004 they organized a march to protest the creation of a dumpsite on their lands (Faye 2004). Faye also notes that the Senegalese Environmentalist Union (RES-Greens), a “green” political party dedicated to the defence, preservation and promotion of the environment and natural resources, is sympathetic to the Gandoul opposition, and thinks the proper solution to efficiently tackle the problem of waste “lies in educating Senegalese citizens to handle their garbage more effectively.” According to Dr. Mbow (email to author, August 2, 2006) the Mbeubeuss site was to be closed officially by July 2006 and the Gandoul site opened; however, I have no further word whether or not it has come to pass.
As the Mbeubeuss case demonstrates, there are no easy solutions to the environmental problems facing West African cities. In searching for solutions to such problems, it is important that stakeholders such as artisanal recuperators and artists not be overlooked. Many of the artisanal recuperators whom I at first assumed to be environmentalist in one way or another, turned out to be unconcerned or uninformed about environmental issues. This was not the case for all artisans however, and it was certainly not the case for artists. Although artisanal or artistic recuperation are never going to make a significant dent in the increasing trash piles of urban West Africa, artists and artisans working with recuperation raise important issues. One issue that is important to examine is the sustainability of artisanal recycling, as well as the West’s impacts on the artisanal market. Overall I have come to strongly agree with many of the artists I interviewed as well as with Professor Mbow: Africa needs industrial recycling. Will artisanal recuperation continue exist alongside industrial recycling? Is artisanal recuperation sustainable? How will artists and artisans play into the discourse of environmental issues? These are questions I did not even know to ask myself before commencing this research project, and they are questions that I will not be able to definitively answer any time soon. L'avenir nous le dira (only time will tell).
Copyright (C) 2006 by Leena Miller
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