Street Art And Activism

Graffitti artist Manoos in his studio

We have arranged to meet at 11 am, but it takes us longer than expected to find Guigma Osman’s studio. Popularly known as Manoos, Guigma became famous during the uprising because of his cryptic and critical graffiti works that clandestinely appeared on walls across Ouagadougo. ‘Manoos’ was how he signed his work, hiding his real name to avoid the attentions of the police and the military intelligence.

Deep fear, suspicion and caution still marks the lives of the people who live here, and their reluctance and caution in helping us find his study reminds me of this. The elections are done, the national day has been celebrated, and there is an air of normalcy in the city. But with Campaoré’s old guard now vying for power as ‘democratic candidates’–a 20th century neologism fast losing its credibility but one that helps whitewash their history and makes them more acceptable to the ‘international community’, people are still cautious. The revolution may have achieved its goal, but suspicion and caution remain deeply embedded reaction. And especially towards foreigner going around asking questions and searching for someone.

After about an hour of driving around the small alleys, and speaking to a number of different people to introduce ourselves, and explain our intentions, we are finally led to his studio and asked to wait. I peer inside through the small window covered with metal bars; it is a small room, with a work table and stool on the far wall. Samples of Manoos’ work–portraits and generic landscapes, are scattered about. Paint supplies are piled on top of the table, and paint stains and spills are everywhere.

“I am a messenger. That is all I am.” Manoos is young, energetic and very talkative. The difficulty in locating him now feels distant as we sit on the steps of his studio and talk about recent events and his activism. Earlier he had shown me his ‘work’–the pieces he creates to make money. “I have no training as an artist. It was a gift from God,” he says, as he clears things from the worktable and lays out some recent pieces. “These are personal pieces, the ones I keep here so that the authorities could not connect me to the graffiti I painted on the walls,” He laughs as he says this. “To them, I was just some local painter, so they ignored me.” Some children have gathered outside his studio door, undoubtably attracted by the car, and the presence of foreigners with camera equipment. He asks one of them, handing him some money, to run across to the kiosk and bring us from soda. I see at least six of them rush towards the kiosk.

“If you live here,” he says turning to me “You will not have to ask me why I became a political activist.” We are walking through the neighbourhood–small children run ahead, creating clouds of dust and shouting at us to follow them, as Manoos explains the world that he grew up in. “My words, my graffiti speaks about what exists around here,” He says gravely. “I am no intellectual, but someone merely protesting my reality.” Later, as we sit at a cafe and share a beer, he looks me in the eye. “Come and live here with me. You will not have to ask any more questions about why we are fighting.” His eyes laugh mischievously. “You will know the answers by simply living the questions.”

But would I?

Manoos had assumed a direct link between his material reality, and his personal political and artistic dissent. But I could not help but wonder if it was that simple. It wasn’t clear to me that dissent naturally and in an unmediated fashion arose from communities of suffering and deprivation. After all, not every poverty stricken, exploited and marginal community was organising itself, and forcing its exploiters from power. The direct link between material realities and political activism were not obvious–tens of millions lived accepting their lot.

So where had Manoos’ faith in action, his desire to speak back, come from? What created his consciousness of the necessity, impact and meaning of dissent to even exist? How much was he a child of a culture of protest and agitation that had been the real legacy of Burkinabé history? How much of his courage was a result of a complex political and national inheritance?

The following day I travel to a remote part of the city to meet with him. Manoos has invited me to watch him paint a new Thomas Sankara mural. A large crowd has gathered around him as he prepares to work. A couple of boys are wiping down the wall, removing excess dust and mud, as Manoos prepares his paints and pencils. A few moments later, as I prepare to set up my own equipment, I find myself surrounded by a crowd as well–the boys pepper me with questions about the equipment, about why I am making the pictures that I am. Soon, conversations between them turn to discussing other Thomas Sankara murals that they think I should go and see and make photographs of.