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
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.