by Blaire Dessent
– France –
For the 2008 Dak’Art Biennial, an international art exhibition held in Dakar, Senegal, a group of artists and thinkers associated with the Action Lab project of the Brooklyn-based freeDimensional (fD), collaborated on the production and distribution of Gorée Gazette. A one-time, free newspaper, the Gazette includes personal narratives, drawings and statistics related to the crisis of economic migration – specifically ocean crossings from Africa to Europe and the United States.
fD is an ambitious and unique non-profit organization whose mission is to link community art spaces to social justice movements on a global level. Among its many initiatives, fD conducts advocacy on behalf of vulnerable groups and produces tactical media to illustrate critical, contemporary issues. I met Todd Lester, the fD founder and director, at the 2006 Dak’Art Biennial.
When Americans think of immigration, often the first thing that comes to mind is the Mexican-American border, but in fact tens of thousands of people risk their lives each year crossing oceans on small boats with little or no food, water, or navigational systems. Hoping to arrive in America, they risk the dangers of the open waters, but even if they make it, they are generally either detained in prison-like conditions or immediately sent back to their country.
The figures are stunning. According to the Associated Press, in 2006 approximately 30,000 African immigrants were caught trying to reach the Canary Islands, a small island chain off the coast of Portugal considered the ‘gateway’ into Europe for thousands of asylum seekers. Though exact numbers are hard to determine, it is believed that nearly 40% of those who attempt the crossing die at sea.
The fD Action Lab project for economic migration began in 2006, and has offered presentations and workshops at such institutions as the Santa Fe Art Institute and the World Policy Institute. Because the coast of Senegal serves as a major departure point for people from all over Africa, fD wanted to design an intervention that would coincide with the 2008 Dak’Art Biennial in an effort to engage the art and culture crowds who pass through Dakar for the exhibition, as well as the locals and mainstream press.
“After acknowledging the danger and death rate at sea experienced by West Africans attempting nautical economic migration, it really became incumbent upon me and fD to take action at the Dak’Art Biennale,” explains Lester.
The Gorée Gazette, printed in English, French and Wolof (the language spoken in Senegal), was produced on Gorée Island, a tiny speck of land that lies less than two miles off the coast from Dakar. Historically known as one of the major points of departure for the slave trade, today Gorée Island is a tourist destination, but it still remains a site of departure for thousands of Africans hoping to find a better life. Local artist Gabriel Kemzo Malou partnered with the fD network and offered the studio he runs, Atelier Mustafa Dime, as the headquarters for the Gazette’s production.
The idea of using a free journal to spread messages harkens back to the invention of the printing press, when people began producing low-cost broadsides to announce everything from theatre productions to anti-government rallies. Broadsides typically included graphic imagery as well as text to appeal to the masses, including the illiterate, who could gather the story through visual imagery. They were cheap and easy to produce on a large scale and as such, they helped create a real voice of the people, or at least a greater awareness of events or ordinances that were often kept from public scrutiny.
During the opening weeks of the biennial, volunteers placed the Gazette at newsstands and hotels alongside the other journals. First perceived as a new newspaper, the Gorée Gazette soon achieved its objective once people gathered the real impact of what they were reading. The original run was 1,500 copies but the printers liked the project so much that they printed an additional 500 for free.
The overall theme of the Gazette is economic migration, but the content of the paper is very much informed by the story of the “Brooklyn 14,” a group of 14 Senegalese men who left from Gorée Island in 2007 on a GPS navigated boat. They sailed to within 100 miles of Brooklyn, New York, before the US Coast Guard picked them up. They were subsequently held at detention centers in New Jersey. Twelve of the fourteen were quickly deported and as of May 2008, one was still in prison and one was granted asylum.
With the aid of David Fraccaro, head of the Sojourner’s program at the Riverside Church in Harlem that works with African immigrants, Todd Lester and fD colleague Stefan Barbic were able to meet with the two remaining men in Spring 2008. Once in Senegal to produce the Gazette, they also had the opportunity to meet with their brothers to learn more about the consequences to those left behind. A family – indeed often a community – puts together all possible means to help their loved ones cross to America or Europe. There are a lot of hopes and promises attached to these migrations, which are rarely fulfilled. Full of pride and perhaps shame, the man who remained in prison insisted that Lester not report his situation to his family, asking instead that he tell them he was in America and doing fine.
It is both difficult and expensive for African citizens to obtain visas and plane tickets to France or other mainland European countries. Conversely boats, or pieces of boats, can be more easily cobbled together for transport with no official trace of departure or arrival into a new country. In the last few years, the governments of the Canary Islands and the EU have implemented severe measures to clamp down on immigration. But rather than deter crossings, many Africans now take the risk of voyaging further afield, particularly to the United States. With high unemployment and staple industries in near collapse in many African countries, the economic situation is so dire that many feel desperate to seek opportunities elsewhere. In other cases, some who attempt these crossings are fleeing repressive government regimes or war. Lester indicates that there is a 50% chance of surviving the crossing, but that even the 50% possibility of arriving and staying in the United States or Europe continues to serve as a powerful motivation for the perilous journey.
In addition to the story of the “Brooklyn 14,” the Gazette includes personal narratives from David Fraccaro and Diabel Faye, a student of Lester’s at the New School for Media Studies and of Senegalese heritage, about their experiences with immigration from Africa. Issa Nyaphaga, an artist who has lived in exile in France and the US since his imprisonment in Cameroon in the 1990s for political cartoons against his government, contributed cartoons and drawings. Senegalese artist Delphine Diallo contributed photographs, and other students of the New School for Media Studies’ online course, “Post Colonial African Media,” contributed statistics and graphic design.
The Gazette lives on, not only on the website, but as a tool with which members of the freeDimensional Action Lab Project can continue bringing the issues of economic migration to the forefront. It raised public awareness and sparked subsequent articles in magazines and newspapers, including a forthcoming op-ed piece in the online edition of The Guardian. The Gorée Gazette demonstrates that art can provide a platform for thoughtful and engaging political action. Lester agrees, “I thought it necessary to be a tack to burst the bubble of the art world, letting the reality of Senegal and West Africa spill into it.”
– For a free PDF of the Gorée Gazette, visit www.freeDimensional.org
About the Author
Blaire Dessent was born in La Jolla, California and recently settled in Paris after ten years in New York City where she worked in contemporary art. She was formerly the Director for the Art Omi International Artists’ Residency, a non-profit arts organization based in Columbia County, New York. She holds a Masters in Art History from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Writing has always been a passion and recently Blaire started developing a blog, deuxfrontieres, which centers on food, culture, politics and random thoughts about Parisian life.