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A Conversation with Nomai

April 2020

On April 16th 2020, at the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic, I interviewed Artist and performer Nomai. They live and work in Paris. We have met a couple of times in Brussels and Paris and I invited him to join me in the audience of a conference at La Sorbonne, presenting  Guillaume Vial's book about Signares women. Signares were important figures of the Senegalese trading counters during the 18th and 19th centuries. Nomai was born and raised in Senegal, their performances are inspired by African dress. We exchanged vocal messages via the application WhatsApp.

 

Pierre-Antoine

Hello Nomai, thanks for accepting to answer a few questions, could you introduce yourself ?

 

Nomai

I am Nomai, Im 30 years old. As of today, I am an artistic concept maker, this is the terminology I am using to describe myself. Some would say Artistic director, but I feel I am not fully accomplished to say this. I am working on it. I do Artistic performances. I am coming from Senegal, West Africa and I live in Paris.

 

Pierre-Antoine

Could you tell me what inspires you in Paris ? Are there some specific places you like to go to ? Are there some museums or people you have met that nourished your practice?

 

Nomai

There are so many. It is such a multicultural city, a great place with so many people and so many places for Art and meet-ups to get inspired by. I will be very bold and talk about an area called Barbès. It inspires me so much. Barbès keeps this authentic side of Paris. Specifically, this Paris that has welcomed our African ancestors. So many immigrants came through here. I find this melting pot beautiful. It is a market. Regarding museums, I am very picky. I like Palais de Tokyo, The Pompidou Center, Le musée du Quai Branly. I like to see performances in Art galleries. Performances are for me a way to enjoy watching a work that took so long to elaborate. I am always touched when I see how it comes from the heart. My eyes see everything. I worked at David Lynch’s private club called Silencio for four years. The night in Paris inspires me a lot. If I want to escape from Paris, I go to Bois de Vincennes, it is just sublime. The wild beauty of Nature reminds me somehow a part of Africa.

 

Pierre-Antoine

And about this link to Africa, how do you maintain this link?

 

Nomai

I grew up in a multicultural society, I was lucky to be already in an artistic community. Despite the fact my parents wanted me to study finance, I was always attracted to studying culture and traditions. I organized some events in Africa, I traveled to different countries. Now it has been four years since I did not come back. I think I will be back soon. My work involves a lot of research I dig into what our ancestors have done. I look at books and archives, movies and youtube videos. You can find archives everywhere. A lot of this cultural references in Africa can be found through testimonies which is not easy to find. I was lucky to find some people in Paris that guided me through cultural references and how various cultural backgrounds are linked. I try to modernize and add my own interpretation. Sometimes, I find it very raw so I find it necessary to mix things in order to update aesthetics to my contemporary taste.   

 

Pierre-Antoine

I am interested in these testimonies that you are collecting and their importance in the transmission of cultural energies. After the presentation of the book by Guillaume Vial, we discussed this lack of oral testimonies to fill his research and how it was missing. What kind of stories are you collecting?

Nomai

In our culture, everything is important, every decision, which is transmitted from generation to generation was done by the Griot. They are wise people. This is why Amadou Hampâte Bâ said when a griot dies, it's a library that burns down. The older generations knew how Africa was before it got divided when cultures were linked. After it got cut, some cultures got divided. This process was very hard for African communities. These vocal testimonies stayed in a lot of cultures, there are many things transmitted from grand-parents such as secrets. We are a culture that praises family, love. Everything is shared in groups of people. This is the reason why we like to live together and not alone. These traditions are strengthening this cultural heritage.

 

Pierre-Antoine

In the cultural tradition of Senegal, women have such an important role, as well politically. For instance Mame Modior Boye was prime minister in 2001. What can you tell me about their role?

 

Nomai

Women have an important status in society, within the community and the family. Behind every man, there is a woman. They sometimes deal with finances, contracts, the administration. Even though there is this sexism around, women keep their status.

Women are everywhere and in almost every functions. They are as well the key to broadcast and share traditions in the Senegalese cultural scene.

 

Pierre-Antoine

I discovered this research done by Aissata Kane Lo creating links between the Signares and the Diryanke, could you tell me more about who they are?

 

Nomai

Signares are so important in the history of Senegal. They were women of influence and merchants during the colonial era of the comptoirs. They were taking care of businesses and were married sometimes to some men of power. They were taking of some parts in diplomacy because they were able to deal with some issues men could not solve. Nowadays, we can compare a President’s wife to a Signare. Signares have disappeared. Some of their daughters kept some traditions, however, we can notice a certain consistency in the aesthetic of the Signare: she is a very elegant woman, sophisticated, coquette, she has a very specific way to hold herself. Which is exactly the same as the Diriyanke nowadays. She is a coquette woman who is active, she is a very influential merchant. The concept of a Diriyanke holds this way of being as well as this physical aspect. She takes care of herself, she has manners, she is influential, she travels a lot and is on point regarding all the new trends. She is very avant-garde. If she is not a Drag Queen, she is like a Queen.

 

Pierre-Antoine

Could we say she is an influencer? You said she is avant-garde, is she a trendsetter?

As well, I would like to ask you who is influencing Senegalese women on what to wear?

 

Nomai

A lot is broadcasted through video clips which are trendy now, dancers. It is not the same as here. An influencer is essentially related to fashion and lifestyle, whereas Diriyanké is essentially related to lifestyle. She can be married or single. As influencers, I love Adama Paris and Selly Raby Kane for instance. She is very Artistic. Whereas the Diriyanké is more the Madame, a powerful woman. She is more related to trends which will help her assure her powerful image. She loves traveling to Dubai, buys refined fabrics in markets. She holds a more local influence. 

 

Pierre-Antoine

Selly Rabi Kane is very impressive, she works with all these different influences, with an eclectic aesthetic, playing with shapes and colors blending cultures. What would be the difficulties for women issued from the diaspora to leave their imprint in the global history of Fashion?

 

Nomai

I think it changed a lot, especially since the launch of Dakar Fashion Week and Lagos Fashion Week. Since then Designers have fewer difficulties to access and integrate the game. As of today, there are so many African designers showing in Europe, Africa and the Americas. The issue would be that when African inspirations are taken by European designers and present in their work, labels do not credit where these inspirations are from, there is a lack of recognition of ownership. I find it very difficult. For instance, I don’t consider Wax as the essence of African textiles, there is the Bogolan, which is far more local. You have other fabrics from Peuls culture. I hope these fabrics will gain more value for their craftmanship. This is part of my work, where I like to show this heritage.

 

Pierre-Antoine

You said that there is a lack of recognition of ownership of the cultural heritage. When we walked in Paris you were wearing some Bogolan and Indigo textiles. Is there in your process of creating any referencing to specific designers from the past, local creatives who left a legacy?

 

Nomai

I am thinking of Oumou Sy is one of the best designers, who works in costume design and films. But we did not have plenty of fashion designers that have left their imprints in our local history of fashion. Religion, particularly Islam did not agree with any representation of human figures, masks and visual arts. Crafts were reserved for a specific level of society. This is why it stayed static for years, in my opinion. We lost a lot of cultural soul because of these tensions with religion. When religion has gained so much power, this African cultural energy has faded. Today, it is important to recognize that some artists are trying to work for cultural enlightenment but they face some obstacles.  In Arabic countries, Art is essential to the community because Artists hold a status. Unfortunately, in West Africa, they tried to wipe out a local culture to replace it with an overwhelming Arabic one which does not give any social status to local craftsmanship.

 

 

Nomai

Instagram: @nomaikmr

Bibliography:

Vial, Guillaume. Femmes d'Influence, Les Signares de Saint-Louis et de Gorée XVIIIe - XIXe siècle, Paris: Hemispheres, May 2019.

Kane Lo, Aissata. De la Signare à la Dirihanké Sénégalaise, Trajectoires féminines et visions partagées. L'Harmattan Sénégal, July 2014.