“Painting helps to restore their dignity”
The visual artist Saleh Lô portrays freed slaves and is engaging in the fight against slavery in Mauritania.
Saleh Lô grew up in a slum in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. As a young boy he played with children from different ethnic communities, among them “Haratin” kids—children from modern-day slaves in Mauritania. Today, visual artist portrays freed slaves and people who take action against it. On the occasion of the world day against trafficking in persons on July 30, the CrossCulture Programme Country Representative gives an insight in modern-day slavery in his country and explains, what he wants to achieve with his work.
ifa: On July 30, the United Nations brings the problem of trafficking in persons to the attention of the world. To what extent is human trafficking an issue in Mauritania?
Saleh Lô: To me, the definition of human trafficking by the United Nations includes slavery-related practices which still exist in Mauritania. Modern-day slaves in Mauritania are called “Haratin”, a word whose origin is unclear but it probably comes from the Berber word for dark or black—referring to their skin colour—or the Arab term for “second class people”. The slavery-related practices are rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships and manifest themselves today in work without pay as cattle herders, for instance, or as household help for mostly “White Moorish” or “beidani” (“white”) master families. Even if it is less well known, the traditional cast systems and slavery also persist within the Black Mauritanian communities called peul, soninké and wolof. Although slavery has been officially abolished by the Mauritanian government in 1981 and is prohibited by the law since 2007, the slavery-like conditions persist. The perpetrators are hardly ever persecuted. “Haratin” that have been freed was well as their descendants struggle to make a living, as their level of education is low. They suffer from racial discrimination and the dire economic situation in Mauritania.
ifa: In your artistic work you have portrayed some freed slaves. How did you meet them?
Lô: I have been working closely with freed slaves and activists since 2014. At the beginning of my research, I got in touch with the Mauritanian radical anti-slavery organisation IRA—the “Initiative for the resurgence of the abolitionist movement”—and accompanied their demonstrations in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott. I met around ten activists who put me in touch with more than 25 freed slaves. Those former slaves allowed me to visit and interview them and to take portrait pictures of them in their homes. Afterwards, I used those photographs to paint their portraits. The look in their eyes shows both their sadness and their pride in being free at last.
“Political activism can be expressed through art”
ifa: How do the people you portray react to your work?
Lô: In 2016, I exhibited my series “Libre ou esclave”, which means “Free or Slave”, at the French Cultural Institute of Nouakchott. For this work I portrayed eight freed slaves and several IRA activists during demonstrations. I invited all the former slaves I portrayed as well as 150 activists I met during my research to the exhibition opening. It was a very emotional moment for them and also for me. They were proud that their story was finally told to a larger public in Mauritania. It was the first time they attended an art exhibition. For me, painting those people means valuing them. It helps to restore their dignity. I also wanted to show them as well as the people attending the exhibition that political activism can be expressed through art and dialogue. Protest does not have to be violent to be successful.
ifa: How did you come up with the idea of addressing the issue of slavery in your art?
Lô: I grew up in a slum in Nouakchott. My playmates were children from different ethnic communities and social backgrounds; among them were “Haratin” children as well. Therefore, I started asking questions about the existence of slavery at a very young age. And there was also one particular event that triggered my interest in working on slavery: I must have been four years old when my family moved to a new part of the neighbourhood. While playing with my brother, we got lost and asked a white Moorish, a woman from the ruling cast in Mauritania, for the way. Instead of helping us find our home, the woman asked us whether we would like to live with her as her sons. My brother and me were very scared and ran away. When we got home and told my mother that story, she got very angry with us. She knew that this woman wanted to keep us with her until we were old enough to work for her as slaves. This particular experience is etched into my memory. It showed me that slavery is very real and concerns all of us. It motivated me to continue working on the issue despite all difficulties and threats I encountered.
ifa: Human rights activists estimate that about 100,000 people live as slaves in Mauritania. Is there any organised resistance in the Mauritanian society against slave trade?
Lô: First of all, it is very difficult to estimate the actual number of people living under conditions of slavery in Mauritania. The government's position is that the time of slavery is over and that only some aftermath needs to be dealt with. Many scholars, activists and international organisations such as the United Nations disagree with that. They have repeatedly called upon the Mauritanian government to implement existing legislation to protect victims of slavery and punish perpetrators. The two major Mauritanian antislavery organisations are SOS Esclaves and IRA. The difference between the two is that only SOS Esclaves is a registered NGO (nongovernmental organisation). IRA defines themselves as a political movement which favours direct action to reach its goals of obtaining justice for victims of slavery.
“I try to make people look at the former slaves and activists”
ifa: What do you want to achieve with your work?
Lô: The former slaves and activists I portrayed suffer from discrimination and neglect. No upper-class Mauritanian will ever set a foot in their neighbourhoods; when they pass a former slave or even a demonstration in the streets they will show disrespect or simply look away. By exhibiting their portraits in public spaces, I try to make people look at the former slaves and activists. You look at a portrait in a different way than you look at someone you meet on the street. Therefore I consider my work to be successful when I can restore some of the dignity of the neglected people—be they former slaves or street children—by telling their stories through my art.