“Art has an incredibly important role in the revolution”

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad
 Moussa Ag Assarid & Mazou Ibrahim Touré, Photo by Lidia Rossner
 The Flag of Azawad, Photo by Mazou Ibrahim Touré
 Logo of the artist's association of Azawad, Photo by Mazou Ibrahim Touré

They speak with calm, soft voices; their lectures are lessons in clarity. One senses that their talks are more grounded in actual concerns than those given by their European colleagues. To participate in the “Artists Organisations International” conference at Berlin’s HAU theatre, calligrapher Mazou Ibrahim Touré had to take a four-day car trip through the desert to Ouagadougou in neighbouring Burkina Faso, where he waited for a month and a half to get his German visa. He couldn’t go to the public authorities in Mali, since he fights against the Malian state as a member of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Kolja Reichert sat down with Touré and the poet Moussa Ag Assarid to talk about the role of art in nation-building.



What is the legal status of the state of Azawad?

Moussa: The state was declared on April 6th 2012. For a state, you need three things: land, people, and international recognition. We have got the first two. We now control 80% of the territory. What we still need is international recognition.

What are your political roles within the state?

I'm the diplomatic representative of the MNLA, its ambassador to Europe. I'm based in France and spend about half of my time in Azawad. Mazou heads the commission for communications. And we’re both founders of the Artist’s Association of Azawad.

What role does art play in the construction of your state?

Mazou: Art has an incredibly important role in the revolution. I’m a calligrapher and do a little bit of painting. I’m also an actor. My task is to create instruments that symbolize the state and show what it can be – I work, for example, on the flag. And for every political event, I write slogans in French, Arabic, and Tamazight (our language, which has never really been accepted by Mali). For an illiterate population that hasn’t had much education, slogans are very important; they are the poetry of the demonstration. Our most popular one is: “Azawad, Mali no!”

Moussa, I first heard you speak during the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012. The Dutch artist Jonas Staal had organized the first New World Summit, a conference at Sophiensaele Berlin featuring representatives from organisations on international terror lists. That was the only time I’ve heard the MNLA’s perspective. What was the MNLA’s experience of the subsequent takeover by jihadists, the introduction of Sharia law, and the interventions of the French army?

Moussa: Just after the declaration of independence, I came to Berlin to communicate the message that the people of Azawad are independent and that we want international recognition. We need to work together with the West to fight international terrorism, which has massive ramifications on our lives. Just after we declared independence, Al-Qaeda and other associated groups started to fight us. In June 2013 we took up the battle against Al-Qaeda without any outside support. We worked together with the French army when they intervened, although the French state doesn’t officially recognize its support for the MNLA. In January of 2013, the French army brought the Malian troops back onto our territory. So we’re not happy with the course of events.

Is there still fighting going on in your territory?

Moussa: Yes, the Malian army is still active, together with Malian militias. And within these militias there are members of Al-Qaeda. Right now they’re face to face with our people, while the French army and the United Nations Peacekeepers stand by and watch.


Is the MNLA still on international terror lists?

Mazou: No, it never was. Of course the Malian government presents the MNLA as terrorists to the international community. Whether in the Malian media or international media, you always hear about “the MNLA and their terrorist friends”. We’re not terrorists. We’re in our homeland. And Mali knows that they have no business in our homeland. I’m very emotional about this because a lot of my friends have died at the hands of terrorists. Many of them were artists. Think of the attack on Charlie Hebdo: in Azawad we experience these sorts of attacks every day, and no one talks about it.

Are artists special targets for terrorists?

Mazou: Everyone in the MNLA is a target.

Your territory is one-and-a-half times the size of France and is populated by 1.3 million people. How do you cope with such diverse backgrounds and interests?

Moussa: We started from nothing and have to build everything new. We’ve established a military and political coordination with allied movements. Bit by bit, the MNLA is gaining control of each municipality. Administration is built on three things that need to be ensured first, especially in times of war: water, health, and education. At the same time, we conduct negotiations with the government of Mali; these began in May 2013 and are still ongoing. We have a ceasefire now.

What is Azawad’s economic foundation?

Moussa: At the moment, the population pools money together. Not everyone contributes, but those who can do; especially members of the diaspora. Another form of revenue is what we take from our enemy, the Malian army. For example, when we drove them back in 2012, we seized possession of everything in the barracks. We also form cooperatives with the population, so that civilians can practice resistance and ensure the means to survive. The Malian state has always enforced boundaries – especially between tribes – as a legacy of colonisation, pitting us against each other. There are four ethnic groups in Azawad: the Songhay, the Tuareg, the Moors and the Fula. Mazou is Songhay, for example, and I am Tuareg. We want to bring all the tribes together so that we can enrich and learn from one another; so that we can find solutions together.

What are the natural resources in the territory, and what are the biggest challenges in controlling them?

Moussa: There are two resources that are exploited by Malian and foreign companies: phosphate and manganese. But we know that there’s also nickel, gold, uranium, petrol, gas, and salt. At the moment, people are sustained through farming, herding, fishing, and trade. We want to avoid the problems that other African states have fallen into. We’d like to try to use sustainable energy like solar power and wind to see how technology can help us safeguard our traditional economies.


All nations are based on collective narratives. Which fundamental narratives help to unify your population?

Mazou: Our generation is continuing a war that began many, many years ago. We have inherited Azawad. That’s why when I speak on the radio, it’s easy for people to understand. The state is already built: it’s in our heads. We’re independent. You can put us in prison, you can shoot us, you can starve us, but you can never take away our love for our state. You can refuse to recognize it internationally, but the state is there; it’s a reality

What’s the connection between your artistic and political practice? How can art contribute to building a state?

Mazou: We follow a very simple participative strategy: When we plan for a project, we publicize it and ask for contributions. Once the project is implemented, everyone is satisfied because they see themselves in it.

Can you think of one experience in your projects that especially surprised or touched you?

Mazou: There’s a square we call the “Square of the Freedom of Azawad”, where mothers come with their children, and where we like to sit in the shade of a tree. The airport runway is right next to it. I had this idea to put up a huge wood plaque  that could be seen from planes and would naturally decompose over time. Where we live, we don’t use dates; we don’t say: “in November 2013”. Time is based on events: “The time when we drove back the Malian army”; “the time an old man died”. I wanted to create “the time of the plaque”. When I announced the project and requested assistance, the reactions totally surprised me. An old woman came by with a plank of wood, someone else brought a big board, someone else brought the paint. The materials appeared from all over the place. I built the plaque and we set it up. It lasted a few months, until wind and rain destroyed it. 

You’re taking part in various conferences organized by Jonas Staal at art spaces around Europe. Are these discussions productive for you?

Moussa: Our impression is that people talk a lot and like to pat each other on the back. Form is a big topic here; for me, on the other hand, the most important thing is humanity. An artist should attempt to make other people happy. We need to see what we can do for those who are suffering. Of the world’s five continents, Africa suffers the most. At the same time, the African continent has the largest imagination. We’re inventive because we’re still in contact with nature. Everyone else has flown to the moon and fallen under the sway of technology and individualism. In Africa there’s still a sense of togetherness. Everyone there is an artist without knowing it. How could we create an exchange that helps African artists on a material, technological level, and how could their deeply ingrained imagination in turn help us? That would be more concrete.

Mazou: It’s my first time in Europe. For someone who lives in a place of conflict, Europe is very strange. When I look around here, I think that we’re incredibly rich. Here, you have to pay for everything you want to do. We have solidarity. And that is such great wealth.

Many thanks to John Jordan for interpreting.