Red, white, blue, Pénélope of modern times, Ramatoulaye Sall, 37, chooses her wool and combs the rows she has just lined, following the canvas installed under her loom to the millimeter; a model that tells him which drawing to follow. Private order or diplomatic gift which will be offered by his country to a foreign Head of State, the licière knows that his work, like that of the thirty other liciers of the Senegalese Manufacture of Decorative Arts (MSAD) is a showcase of knowledge – make it national.
The tapestries that come out of the national workshop in Thiès can be found on five continents, hung in highly symbolic places, such as the large conference room at the United Nations headquarters in New York, or the headquarters of the IMF. During his last official visit to his Senegalese counterpart, at the end of 2022, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, received one as a gift.
70 kilometers away, in the industrial district of Dakar, the hundred weavers who work behind the manual or motorized looms of Aïssa Dione do not know either which house will be dressed in the exceptional fabrics they compose there. , thread after thread. Aïssa Dione’s furnishing textiles have decorated the house where Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé lived in Tangier, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, but also the yachts of a few prominent billionaires. In the chic boutiques of Paris, Tokyo or Zurich, at Hermès, Fendi, or Rose Tarlow, an international, wealthy and refined public chooses them for their color harmonies and the beauty of traditional weavings.
The work of threads and wools is as if written in the DNA of Senegal. When, on December 4, 1966, Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor inaugurated the National Tapestry Factory – which later became the Senegalese Decorative Arts Factory (MSDA) –, the first president of the post-independence era, insisted on the need to “to find a national style and modern techniques in tune with our time” ; a way of remembering that “the origin of the tapestry is in Africa, in Egypt, 3000 years before Christ”as he recalls that day.
The cotton is missing
Back to“Mother Africa” with modernized craftsmanship, it is the spirit that presided over the birth of the Senegalese Manufacture of Decorative Arts and it is, all things considered, the one that drives Aïssa Dione and encourages her, since 1985, to fight so that her country does not lose this ancestral know-how and develops a high-end textile sector. This is what prompted her to think of upholstery fabrics made with cotton grown on site, woven with a contemporary design.
Others like them are leading this fight on a smaller scale, in the backyards of Dakar or Saint-Louis, the historic city in the north of the country. As in the heyday when each well-to-do family had its loom in its garden and brought a weaver to their home for a few months to manufacture the items necessary for the life of the household.
But, today, the raw material is lacking. In this country where the colonial administration had nevertheless pushed the peasants to plant cotton and where this ” White gold “had once structured the agricultural economies, cotton is now exported in fiber form to China and the last industrial spinning mill in Senegal has been put on hold partly for this reason.
If there are still some artisanal productions, here and there, Aïssa Dione must import her spun cotton to supply her workshops and that the ancestral gesture of the weavers does not vanish forever. The situation is all the more serious since there is no official place for the transmission of this profession, no school. When it is still done, the teaching of this man’s trade passes from father to son, in the secrecy of the families.
Like between Hassan Diop and his 23-year-old son Wallis, in a courtyard in Saint-Louis. “In this city, in 1990, we were 150 weavers. Today, we are only two and I am 57 years old, I will not be eternal “, warns Hassan, barefoot in the sand to activate the pedals of the loom on which he weaves a loincloth. His son, he separates the threads so that the chosen pattern is well respected, line after line, without errors on the color changes. Tomorrow perhaps Wallis will succeed his father as weaver, at the end of the loom, “but he’s not ready yet”says Hassan, cautious.
This profession, he tries to transmit it, aware that it is a hidden wealth, one of the lost treasures of Senegal. Hassan Diop is also aware of being an exception. He is of the Toucouleur ethnic group, whereas in general it is the men of the Manjacke ethnic group who possess and exercise this know-how; a people from Guinea-Bissau and Casamance, in the south of Senegal, who have been cultivating this gesture since the 19e century and sold in the XXe his skills, moving from one bourgeois house to another for part of the year, in Dakar and even further north.
Because here, the woven loincloth punctuates the life of families. It is offered at marriage and each woman must have several, neatly folded and stored at the bottom of cupboards or trunks. It is used to wrap the baby just born and also the body of the deceased. It is a precious piece woven in narrow strips which are sewn together to form a large, rigid and warm fabric.
“The Africa World”
Every Saturday, find a week of news and debates, by the editorial staff of “Monde Afrique”
To bring this know-how into modernity, Aïssa Dione has transformed traditional trades and increased the width of woven strips from 15 cm to 90 cm, then beyond for furnishings. She had indeed imagined a project to create a place of training, but the head of the company did not find funding. Under the aegis of 19M, a place for promoting fine crafts which brings together twelve houses working for the Chanel collections, four weeks of joint workshops between French and Senegalese craftsmen were organized in February and March to launch exchanges within of this professional community, including one on weaving.
An operation extended by financial sponsorship (composed of scholarships offered to 150 Senegalese students to follow a course in fashion crafts in Dakar and equipment installed in associations, solidarity workshops and even craftsmen). A way to help inscribe the approach in the landscape and in time without encroaching on the prerogatives of local actors; to shine the spotlight on weaving, as embroidery had benefited from it during the creation of the Thiès workshops in the 1960s. and a weapon.
This article was written as part of a partnership with the Galerie du 19M Dakar.