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Malian Storyteller in Oregon - 2003-05-06

English Feature #7-37409 Broadcast May 5, 2003

A many-faceted artist who grew up on the grasslands of Mali in West Africa continues to foster his native cultural tradition in the American Northwest. Today on New American Voices Baba Wague Diakite talks about his art, and about the differences in the creative processes as experienced in Africa and in the United States.

Baba Wague Diakite sings and explains, "So this is a song in a story. It's a story about the hyena and the monkey. I mean, I remember the story clearly because of the song. It's sort of like my connection to the story."

Baba Wague Diakite is a storyteller, which he believes is a natural component of his calling as an artist. Growing up in Africa, he says, he and the other children were constantly told stories by their elders, which they knew to be messages on how to walk down the path of life. It was expected that they would pass these stories on to other generations. But what really turned him into a storyteller was coming to the United States, and finding that stories could serve an important bonding function.

“People seem to be so disconnected, and there is no human spirit that really bound us together here. Everyone seems to be running to places where they don’t really want to be, and they seem to isolate themselves more and more from themselves, their children, their family, their friends, so it’s a place really that is desperate to find, you know, a way of learning the skill of social life. It's something we miss here.”

Baba Wague Diakite says he came to the United States “because of a woman”. As an artist living in Bamako, the capital of Mali, he met a visiting American artist conducting research on the role of animals in warfare. When she returned home to Oregon in the American Northwest, Mr. Diakite came to visit her – as he thought, for a month.

That was eighteen years ago. They married, and are raising two daughters. And in the meantime Mr. Diakite has built an American life for himself as an artist working in many media. He paints, sculpts, creates ceramic art and designs traditional Mali mud cloth. However, he says the conditions of being an artist here are very different from what he was used to in Africa.

“Boy, I gotta tell you, it was so easy there. It’s empty, you got so much space, you got places to make your things, and you do it for the love and the excitement of how other people will respond to it. Comparing to here, I can’t even find a one-meter by one-meter studio space, it’s so expensive, so I don’t know, it is totally different. I do struggle here, despite having all the materials and stuff. Because, first of all, I’m not used to being alone, you know, kind of isolated in my little corner, painting. We used to stand outside and do our painting, a crowd would come around us, it’s people that is our inspiration. And I notice many western artists run away from the crowd, because they want a peaceful moment to paint. I’m sorry, but if you can’t paint in crowds, you’re not an African artist.”

As an artist and a storyteller, Mr. Diakite draws heavily on his experiences growing up as a goatherd on the grassy plains of West Africa.

“I spent so much time in the grassland with my animals that it really did give me space during daytime to think through these stories, and also I was so exposed to so many birds, monkeys and insects, you know, and I started really interpreting stories again by seeing all this wild life around me. And I realized that we human beings just never spend a long time with any thing else, to appreciate it enough, except our own kind. And that is such a big foolishness.”

In his work, Baba Wague Diakite tries to open that world of nature, and of his native Mali, to his audience. He has just published a vibrantly colored children's book entitled “The Magic Gourd”, about a rabbit who rescues a chameleon from a thorn bush, and for his kindness is rewarded with a magic gourd that fills itself with anything its owner desires. The book is illustrated by Mr. Diakite’s vivid drawings of African people, animals and plants, as well as pictures of his jewel-tone ceramic bowls and plates decorated with animals, insects, vegetables, and geometric African designs. As is usual in African stories he says – the book includes a song, which, like the story, carries a message.

Baba Wague Diakite sings and explains, "I mean, a person might have a beautiful hat but still he may be unworthy. A person may wear beautiful clothes, yet he may be unworthy. A person may have a pocketful of money yet he has no wealth and therefore it's best if we open our eyes wide to choose those we trust very carefully."

Baba Wague Diakite visits Mali, the wellspring of his inspiration, almost every year. His newest project is to open a cultural center there where visiting Americans could learn more about the African culture that they glimpse through his art, stories and books.

VOA Photos by Rachel Birtha Eitches