Goree’s underwhelming House of Slaves
I liked the idea of Goree Island, just a few minutes off Dakar, even before I got there. Streets without cars, buildings frozen in time, just the kind of place I’d love to live in. Goree is famous for The House of Slaves, which I found a little bit underwhelming. Some people enjoyed visiting it. I saw a woman cry, overwhelmed by the place, but it did not move me. I expected to see shackles, chains, graphic reminders of the slave trade, but these were safely tucked away in a glass box, looking harmless…. An artist, born and raised on Goree, claimed that a French woman paid for the renovation of the house, and she did not want any painful reminders, so it was stripped of all graphic details, leaving nothing but bare rooms. I could not verify his claims, and read a different account of its restoration, but I like these ‘street opinions’ for they might hold a truth of how common people see things. I grew bored so quickly and spent only about ten minutes in this house.
I knew little else about Goree, and so stumbled about as I explored the rest of it. I enjoyed the colonial era houses, since I love old buildings. They had bright paints, some was peeling off or had faded, but still vivid, mostly in red and yellow. The old doors and windows were beautifully sculptured, unlike the current ugly doors that grace our houses. I sort of blindly followed the roads that wound around the buildings. Unlike the straight streets in modern urban areas, which favor vehicles over humans and animals, these were too narrow, almost like wide footpaths, and they twisted and turned and somehow led me to an avenue of baobab trees with an open air art gallery.
Dakar is a very arty city. There is art in almost every street, a gallery around every corner, and every third person you meet is an artist of some kind. I think. Seeing this avenue with bored artists waiting for tourists to take interest in their works was not unique. It was a bit of a steep climb, but I wanted to see where it led, hoping I’d get high enough to photograph the sea. At the end of the road, I saw a gallery whose name, Under the Cannon, made me frown.
a film noir scene under the cannon
A door opened into a dark corridor lined with paintings and sculptures and batiks. On a whim, I walked in, curious what ‘cannon’ meant. The corridor opened into a circular room with metals hanging overhead, like in a ruined factory, sunlight streaming in from little holes, barely enough for me to see artworks displayed all around. It was a gallery, but why was it in darkness?
Then a deep, male voice spoke, saying something in French. male and deep.
I nearly jumped. I noticed a figure seated in the darkness, like a scene in a ’70s noir movie. I took a few steps back, nearly dashing out of the dark place, my heart racing a little bit.
“English?” I said, in barely a whisper, my voice trembling a little.
“Oh,” he said, and switched to fluent English. “Welcome under the cannon.”
I tried to make out his face. I could not. Why was he just sitting there in the darkness?
“This gun was brought here in 1902,” he continued. “It required six thousand six hundred and forty two tons of metal and it could shoot targets fourteen kilometers away. Each bullet was ninety centimeters long, two forty in diameter, and weighed three hundred kilos.”
So all these metals were part of a gun? I’m mildly interested in steampunk technology, and I was happy to finally meet someone I could talk to. Everyone else spoke French or the local languages, which made it very difficult to interact.
“I’m lost,” I said. “I was just wandering around.”
I wanted to ask him many questions, why this was an art gallery, yet it had a military past. I expected men in uniform to be around, or for it to be some military museum, not dreadlocked men with the smell of paint and dust in the air.
“I’m happy to share stories with you,” he said.
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I sat, uninvited, and we talked. He told me how Goree got its name, from Dutch, who had taken the island from Portuguese, and eventually the French conquered it. He rattled a bit about the cannon, that they built a railway to ferry all that metal up the hill. The rails are still visible on the floor. In spite of all the energy that went into building it, it was fired only once during World War II. He told me they shot a British boat, but another artist later said it was a French boat since at that time France was divided. Both agreed on where the boat sunk. “You saw that red thing in the water as you approached the island? The boat is under there.” When Senegal got independence, the French stripped the cannon of all functional parts.
“Are you from Kenya?” he asked me.
“Why?” I asked, shocked.
“Your accent,” he said.
His guess was not far off. It could only mean that he had been in Kenya for a while.
“Oh yes,” he said, finally standing up to switch on a light. “Nairobi. In the 1980s.” He returned to his seat and now a bulb threw a reddish glow around him, the rest of the room remained in semi-darkness, and I still could not see his face, maintaining that mystic, film noir aura. “Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, I went there a lot. I have friends in Uganda. I travelled all over Africa. I had this business in Netherlands, selling African artworks, and I travelled all over the continent looking for stuff.”
He did not say more, and I was polite not to press him, though I very much wanted to know how a curator who had the clout to travel all over the continent ended up living in the ruins of a military fort, under a rotting gun, barely making ends meet selling batik.
I think he had a bitter experience in Netherlands, and he equates it to the suffering black people all over the world go through. “That’s why I charge them very high prices,” he said, of white tourists. “That’s our money they are spending. We are just taking it back from them.”
artists turn a fort into an art space
After we parted, I met another artist, who also lives in the ruins of the fort, and he had an American-sounding accent. We did not have much time to talk because it was getting late and we had to catch the ferry back. If we were to miss the one at 8:30pm, we would have had to wait until 11pm, and I did not want that. Strangely, both artists told me they were called Modu, and for a moment I wondered if all Modu’s spoke good English.
The second Modu said this part of Goree was abandoned. It was a bush, with only dogs and cats living among the ruins of the fort. When they were young, they came up here to smoke weed and their parents complained. “But weed is inspiration for artists,” he said, laughing. “We would get high and make art.” About 25 or 30 years ago, he and two others decided to use the fort to sell their art to tourists who came to see the House of Slaves. They cleared out rooms that used to be French officers’ quarters and moved into them.
“No one was claiming the place,” both Modus said in more or less the same words. “They were more interested in the House of Slaves. We artists needed a space, to work, for galleries, and to live in, and here was a building no one wanted. So we took it over.”
Some might call them shacks, but I thought they had made pretty decent bohemian homes. They do not pay rent. They said no one pays rent in Goree, only a few who live in the big government houses, but the rest is family property, and the ruined fort is for artists.
Not all artists who live in Goree were born on the island. I met RFF, which translates to Revolution Feel Free de Goree. He named himself so because there is no paradise in the world. Feel Free is the paradise. His birth name is Musa Gomis, and he was very excited that I would share his story on the internet. “Tell them in Goree there is an artist called RFF!” He makes stuff out of recycled materials. A lot of electronic waste from Europe and America gets dumped in Senegal, and artists salvage them to create futuristic works, some merge traditional sculptures with tech-looking things.
The artists of Goree Island have big dreams. They plan to start a festival of the arts, which they hope will kick off in 2021. The first Modu is spearheading it. He wants to turn the space under the cannon into a cultural center to host the festival, which will involve many artists and performances. I sure will love to attend once it kicks off.
spiritual fights over heritage
The first Modu was born on Goree Island, though his father was not of the island. His uncle was a soldier in the colonial French army and was stationed in Goree. His mother had a sad story. “….heritage problems,” he said, “they used to have spiritual fights for heritage, and it would affect my mother.” Every time she got pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage. Four times. When she got pregnant with Modu, her husband decided to free her. He sent her away from the South and she came to her brother in Goree, to birth Modu. “I was meant to be the first,” he said. “The ancestors willed it that nobody was to come before me. That’s why I have this mind of resistance.”
He is full of anti-colonial rhetoric. He is angry with Africans for they allowed their minds to be distorted. “Goree’s history is one of selling slaves, but today we willingly sell ourselves,” he said. He has a mission to correct that, and has grand plans of teaching children so they grow up knowing their history, who they are, so they can challenge the status quo.
“Isn’t it ironical,” I asked, “You want to free the mind of the African, but you are keeping colonial history by retelling the story of this cannon and transforming it into a cultural center.”
“It is our history,” he said. “We are what we are today because they shaped us. Goree is what it is today because of slavery and colonialism. We can’t escape from that.”
I had to bring up Ousman Sembene. I could not find any museum, or anything, to commemorate him. We forget our own victories and continue celebrating that of those who conquered us, I told him. “Shouldn’t you work to build monuments for people like Sembene instead of colonial structures like this?”
“Sembene is not in my reality,” he said. “Writers or filmmakers should make a museum for him. They are closer to his reality.”
I pointed out that Sembene made films that talked about his reality, about him as a black person living in a post-colonial world, and he got a little heated up.
“My reality is in history,” he said. “In the slave trade, in colonialism. That is my reality.”
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