Interview with Mauritanian artist Saleh Lo

"If I can restore some of their dignity, my work will have been a success"

Self-taught artist Saleh Lo grew up in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, playing with children from different ethnic communities, among them "Haratin" kids – the children of modern-day slaves in Mauritania. Today, the visual artist portrays freed slaves and anti-slavery activists. Interview by Siri Gogelmann and Wolfgang Kuhnle

Mr Lo, on 30 July, the United Nations brought the problem of trafficking in persons to the attention of the world. To what extent is human trafficking an issue in Mauritania?

Saleh Lo: 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. Somewhat less well known is the fact that traditional cast systems and slavery also persist within the black Mauritanian communities of peul, soninke and wolof. Although slavery was officially abolished by the Mauritanian government in 1981 and has been illegal since 2007, conditions similar to slavery still exist. The perpetrators are hardly ever persecuted. Since they have had little or no education, "Haratin" that have been freed – not to mention their dependants – often struggle to make a living. They suffer from both racial discrimination and the dire economic situation in Mauritania.

In your artistic work you have portrayed some freed slaves. How did you meet them?

Lo: I have worked closely with freed slaves and activists since 2014. At the beginning of my research, I got in touch with the radical Mauritanian 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 photos of them in their homes. Afterwards, I used those images to paint their portraits. The look in their eyes shows both their sadness and their pride in being free at last.

Montage of portrait paintings by Saleh Lo (photo: Saleh Lo)
Officially abolished, unofficially still rife: on paper, the era of slavery in Mauritania ended nearly forty years ago, yet modern-day slaves – Haratin – continue to be part of the countryʹs social fabric. Rooted in ancestral master-slave relationships, todayʹs slavery-related practices generally manifest themselves as manual agricultural labour or menial household work, for mostly "White Moorish" or "beidani" ("white") families – with no rights or remuneration

How do the people you portray react to your work?

Lo: 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 being told to a wider audience in Mauritania. It was the first time they had attended an art exhibition. For me, painting those people means valuing them. It helps to restore their dignity. I also wanted to show both them and 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.

How did you come up with the idea of addressing the issue of slavery in your art?

Lo: I grew up in a slum in Nouakchott. My playmates were children from different ethnic communities and social backgrounds; among them were also "Haratin" children. I therefore 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 the difficulties and threats I encountered.

Human rights activists estimate that about 100,000 people live as slaves in Mauritania. Is there any organised resistance in the Mauritanian society against the slave trade?

Lo: Firstly, it is very difficult to estimate the actual number of people living in slavery in Mauritania. The government's stance is that the era of slavery is past and that there is only some fallout to be dealt with. 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 the perpetrators. The two major Mauritanian anti-slavery organisations are SOS Esclaves and IRA. The difference between the two is that only SOS Esclaves is a registered NGO. The IRA define themselves as a political movement which favours direct action to reach its goals of obtaining justice for victims of slavery.

What do you want to achieve with your work?

Lo: The former slaves and activists I portray 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 differently to the way you look at someone in the street. If I can restore some of the dignity of these neglected people – be they former slaves or street children – by telling their stories through my art, I will consider my work to have been a success.

Interview conducted by Siri Gogelmann and Wolfgang Kuhnle

© Institut fur Auslandsbeziehungen e.V. 2018

Born in Mauritania in 1984, Saleh Lo is a self-taught visual artist using hyper-realistic painting techniques. His work tackles societal issues such as street children, mixed-race unions and slavery. He has exhibited and taken part in projects in – among others – Nouakchott, Dakar, Barcelona, Berlin and Mumbai. During an ifa CrossCulture Programme scholarship in 2017, he studied with the German art and education platform "Schlesische 27" in Berlin.

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