'I AM NOT handicapped, either in the mind, or in the heart,' says the Malian artist, Kader Keita, who over the last eight years has been helping young and old people to develop artistic passions. Having had polio as a child, the artist is physically disabled, but he says, 'I have never felt like that. I am grateful for having being brought up in the capital of Mali, Bamako, where people with physical disabilities live with their families and are not considered a burden.'
Keita has trained over 300 children as well as teenagers in the traditional Malian art of bogolan or mudcloth. It involves a lengthy procedure in which river mud is left to ferment for about a year until it becomes black. In the past, the earth - and rust-coloured motifs painted over cotton cloth used to have names that recalled domestic life, as it was an art passed from mother to daughter. At the age of eight, Keita began to learn bogolan from his mother, who is a versatile artist herself. Although he creates his own designs, they keep a feminine essence; his most important themes are fertility, change, maternity and elegance.
This last theme is actually practised by the artist, who wears clothes that he has designed and painted. Bogolan started to be popular in the Eighties, and it is now part of what the fashion world calls Afro-chic. This has led to the development of new techniques, which Keita finds highly stimulating.
As a son of one of Mali's aristocratic families, Keita believes it is not lineage that allows him to communicate, but the inspiration of bogolan: 'With my art, I can speak with a hundred voices. My message is that despite setbacks, the future always brings something good.'
He graduated from the National School of Arts in Mali and he believes artists should contribute to the development of society. Keita has a strong sense of community; this is proved by the fact that his motorized wheelchair, which he calls the Kadermobile, has a seat on the back to carry as many passengers as possible.
Many of the children he has worked with are refugees or handicapped. Others are young offenders, but, he says, 'I don't think of them as criminals, for me they're just children.'
Last September he gave a workshop at a young offenders' centre in England where two policemen and one policewoman accompanied him. He asked them to leave the room in order to create a more intimate feeling, but they refused, as they considered it dangerous for him to be alone with the kids. He insisted and finally the two men left, leaving only the policewoman in the room. 'The atmosphere was peaceful and the boys didn't fight, they didn't raise their voices; they didn't even curse!' says Keita.
One of the boys looked different and alienated; and when Keita looked him in the eyes he realized there was something very painful inside his heart. He did not know how to ask him about it without using words. When the boys started designing what they wanted to paint on bogolan, this boy made a drawing of his own face covered with tears above a map of Africa, under which there was a flower and some people in chains. Keita asked the boy if he was crying for the past years of slavery. He replied that he was crying for every good thing, every flower blooming after something bad. The boy, who had been imprisoned for murder, wrote under his drawing: 'Thank you, God'.
Keita's advice to young children is to reflect before they act, 'If you think impulsively with the heart you may afterwards think with the head and feel regret.'
He also works with old people and finds this especially rewarding, since so much of his work is based on storytelling. In fact, many of his designs are inspired by elders' legends: 'In the West old people are put in special homes, whereas in Africa they remain with their families. They play an important role because they give advice to the youth.' There is a saying in Mali that goes: 'When an old person dies it is as if a library was burnt.'
Keita has worked both in Mali and Europe; this summer, he ran several workshops throughout France and concluded his visit with a residency at the British Museum. In the future, he aims to set up his own centre of bogolan in Bamako, 'where children and adults can learn this beautiful art and find inspiration in it.' The curriculum will also include marionettes, drama and clothes design. He wants to call this project 'Let's Think About Tomorrow'; though he is starting to think about it today.
by Andrea Cabrera Luna and Jose Carlos Leon Vargas