Burkinabé visual artist Koffi Mensah had his first contact with Brazil in 2020 through the Goethe-Institut Salvador-Bahia Vila Sul virtual residence. Born in 1982 in Lomé (Togo), Mensah is a longtime resident of Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). One of his projects, in which he portrays African public figures on canvas, prompted a multidisciplinary group of keen members of the public and experts in Brazil to analyze his works and dialogue (online) with the artist. Through a process of recognition and homage, regarded as an act of tribute, Mensah reaffirms the presence of African political and cultural figures who contributed to the shaping of his continent’s identities.
“I work to restore the memory of African politicians and musicians who did important and positive things for the continent, but who have simply been forgotten,” says the artist. His work, of significant metaphorical power, makes it possible to resist forgetting these figures whose images and narratives would normally have been erased from popular memory, something that renders them almost absent from the “official” version of African history. In other words, the characters portrayed by Mensah escape the limbo of collective memory, having been erased from the story routinely told with a hegemonic Eurocentric viewpoint.
By portraying only Black and African personalities, the artist visually reshapes the “official” history taught and propagated on the continent, since, “in African schools, for example, students learn little about our own history. Much more is taught about Western history and Western people, in a kind of upholding of colonialism. With my work, I want the viewer to remember African people and our own history,” suggests Mensah.
Rewriting pan-African historiography
Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia and a central figure in the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement), Amílcar Cabral (political leader of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) and musicians Manu Dibango (Cameroon/France) and Akon (United States/Senegal) are some examples of the figures to whom Mensah pays tribute. With these portraits, the artist takes the reins of African historical narratives that were—and still are—buried due to Eurocentrism and “coloniality”.
The artist rewrites pan-African historiography, starting from social bodies that become emblematic fragments of a new international cartography, thus challenging Western hegemonic historical writings on the African continent. Mensah also draws attention to figures from different countries, thus evoking a new way of looking at Africa, and distancing them from images of precariousness, expropriation, or exploitation, as are commonly reported.