On October 13, 2016, the Tang screened two films by Senegalese artist and filmmaker Fatou Kandé Senghor, Giving Birth (2015) and The Other in Me (2012). The event was followed by an interview with the artist.
The video above shows Senghor talking about her work. A longer, edited version of the interview is below.
I’m a traveler. I’m the daughter of great travelers, and I’ve been traveling for forty-five years. I’ve been soul searching for twenty years. And I’m an artist. I didn’t really choose to be. I think art chose me. And, where we come from, art is not a career, it’s not a path of life, it’s not a practiced discipline. It’s more of a mission. It’s the kind of mission that really you bear with a lot of attention, because the community you are a part of identifies you as a person that is about them, with them, but on the margins at the same time. You point your finger at what’s not working in the community. It’s a very serious mission to me. I’m becoming a fabulous artist because I love it, because I am knowing more and more about humankind. I know we have more in common than differences.
I practice video and photography, probably because they are the mediums of my time. The digital tool has provided me with a voice, and it has allowed people to come into my life and give me their stories. And it has allowed me to have the decency of sharing their stories, and sharing them with the angle of listening and not judging, and not pointing, just to stir the inner conversation with the viewers. I need to be that person that can humbly take in important moments of people’s lives, because they are related to themes that run the world: identity, fertility, masculinity, environment.
The mission of artists is only to talk about history. That’s their main preoccupation. They’re part of a chain, but in this chain they have to deal with the past, with the present, and make projections for the future.
On Giving Birth
Giving Birth is the story of ceramist Seni Awa Camara, who’s in her late seventies. She grew up in a ceramist home, where people make pots and usual things to eat and drink from. And she tells the story about getting lost in the forest, when she was around seven, for a week, and coming back with clay and little figurines. She says something taught her. And then here she is, in her village, producing very odd figurines that nobody knows in that culture.
The reputation of being really something, a mystical creature, enhances, and her life becomes quite tough. She’s married when she’s fourteen, and as she describes, “I was married. I didn’t even have breasts.” And that body is forced to have children. Four times in a row she’s pregnant, and it breaks her body. She never has a child. In that culture it’s important to have children, to have male babies in particular. She becomes what is called a tree that cannot bear any fruit. You become part of a caste that cannot participate in most activities in the community.
It’s a story about hope. It’s a story about strength. And it’s a story about communication. These figurines, when I met her fifteen years ago, were pregnant. And then fifteen years down the line, the family is here. Things are crawling up these figurines. And they are half human, half animals, half what-nots, and it’s very impressive. It’s about her, but it’s also about another reality that is not of these times. The mix between mystic and personal despair, it’s all there.
I followed her rhythm. I wanted to listen to understand. I wanted to listen to feel and to see what had happened to her. I have three daughters that have gotten out of my own body, loved and raised, seen at all stages of their bodies. If she tells me at fourteen her body was already in womanhood, I can feel that. Every time I look at her, I can see that. I can see why her body said no, why her body never gave birth, and why somebody or something just shut down her life at an early stage. And I could be a window to talk about the subject. When I come back to my comprehension of what art or an artist is, it’s that position. It’s just shutting your mouth and listening and watching.
On The Other in Me
When I did The Other in Me, I really had to shut up because I’m married to one of the protagonists. It’s a film about family, about his, about mine. Etienne and Leopold [twin grandsons of Senegal’s first president, poet and philosopher Leopold Senghor] came to the States, they were seven years old, with diplomatic parents who were working for the embassy in Washington, DC. They were growing up as American boys in American schools.
Etienne comes back to Africa, he’s twenty-seven, and Leopold comes back to Africa, he’s forty. Etienne, when he comes back, he felt a calling. He came back home, struggled to capture language, culture. But I was there to help, so that went well for him, I think, in terms of getting back in balance. And because he saw his twin change, Leo figured, “Me, too. There’s something wrong with my life in the States.” Everybody’s back home but him in his family of six boys. So, here he is, coming back, struggling. He really struggles, and I can see that, I can feel that. We decided to do this film to exorcise this.
This film was very hard to edit, very hard to film, very hard to organize. It took some time, but in the end, we managed to make a classy film. I think a very powerful one. And it connected with very different people, people that were not necessarily from Africa. And I think it got the job done. It got the job done for Leo, for his twin, Etienne, and in particular for Leo’s children, who developed a better interest for their father and for the motherland, too.
The works I produce are honest, and they’re finding their niches a bit everywhere. I want them to survive time; I want them to be meaningful. And I suspect, in the future we’ll still be dealing with identity issues, and people are still going to be lost, because everybody’s going from one point to the other, and losing a lot in translation and in geography.
There’s a bird in Akan mythology from Ghana. It’s called the sankofa. It flies toward the future, but with its head turned to the past. And it does that so it can measure where it should land in the future. It’s a particular position, but I can understand it. You cannot do without that past. You have to process it in the present, because that’s when you have the energy, and that’s what your mission is, at that time. But you’re also trying to place it in a time, in the future, so nobody forgets the research you have done, the efforts you have put in. That’s why you need to treat it right, make it right, and contribute with generosity, and not just make it about you, about a career. I’m more like a warrior, a high- lander. The work will survive me, will definitely resist. I can’t control what is said and done before me, but I know that I come at a good moment, my moment.