Posted on July 22, 2019, 12:54 pm
27 mins

Artist Scott Andresen has used quilting and weaving techniques throughout his artistic career, but there is always so much more to learn. This is especially true with weaving, whose significance as a carrier of narrative and tradition cannot be overstated for countless cultures with unique techniques. Andresen is temporarily in Seattle—the city of his birth—studying weaving while on a sabbatical from teaching at Louisiana State University School of Art. But earlier this year, Andresen was in Dakar, Senegal, working with masters of the Manjak weaving tradition under the auspices of Black Rock Senegal, Kehinde Wiley‘s recently completed international artist-residency

Just today, Black Rock Senegal, announced the sixteen resident artists for its inaugural year, August 2019 to April 2020. These multidisciplinary artists will live and work at Black Rock on the Westernmost point of continental Africa. Among them are Nona Faustine and Zohra Opoku—to name a few personal favorites.

We asked Andresen to tell us more about Manjak, what it was like working with highly skilled and dedicated artists of the tradition, and his time at Black Rock. After our conversation, we’re excited to see how Andresen will use the results of his residency in the future and we’re even more thrilled for those heading to Black Rock next month.

Tell us first a bit about your background and your interest in weaving that took you to Dakar.

Scott Andresen: I am a mixed-media artist and a professor at LSU. During a yearlong sabbatical from teaching, I decided to focus on textiles for a new series of works. I have been learning to weave while living in Seattle from my teachers Linda and Carol at the SE Seattle Senior Center. I also wanted to use the sabbatical as an opportunity to research as artistic tradition that I might not otherwise have the opportunity to study.

Through my preliminary research I came across the Manjak weavers of Guinea Bissau, and their weaving traditions that stretch back over 500 years. Africa is so large and diverse that there are numerous traditions that I am unfamiliar with, but I was surprised to find few if any mentions of the Manjak in many books documenting African textiles. In many respects, it was the lack of information that intrigued me the most.

This is the first that I’ve heard about the Manjak tradition. Can you explain a little more about how it differs from more widely known weaving techniques from West Africa, like Kente cloth?

Scott Andresen: The Manjak are an ethnic group from Guinea Bissau, and traditionally weave thin strips of fabric that are then sewn together to make a full-size cloth, similar to many other West African styles. There are unique distinctions though, and their history, like much of West Africa, was drastically altered during slavery.

During the 16th century Portuguese colonialists took slaves from Guinea Bissau to the Cape Verde Islands, where the Manjak tradition came into contact with European weaving traditions. What resulted was a loom variation that greatly increased the complexity of the designs, and the weavers began working in tandem, with one weaver passing the shuttle from side to side, while another controlled the pattern by raising and lowering specific threads. This unique two-person practice is still seen today, and Manjak weavers can be found throughout West Africa. Their cloth also maintains an important cultural significance in the area, commonly found at births, weddings, and other period of change or transition for families.

You were planning to take a trip on your own to Senegal when Kehinde Wiley suggested that you come to Black Rock instead, right?

Scott Andresen: I decided to come to Senegal to do research into the Manjak weavers because their traditions were alive and well in the area. Being from New Orleans, I knew historically that the slaves that were brought to Louisiana predominantly came from the Senegambia region. This was a chance to learn firsthand about the people who so indelibly influenced the region I live in now. Just as my plans solidified, I was speaking with the painter, Kehinde Wiley, informing him of my upcoming travels. He mentioned that his new residency, Black Rock Senegal, was just completing construction and would be staffed right when I would be arriving. Kehinde asked me to be the first artist-in-residence, giving the space a trial-run of sorts. The timing could not have been more fortuitous.

Scott Andresen at a loom in Aissa Dione's workshop, Dakar, Senegal

Scott Andresen at a loom in Aissa Dione’s workshop, Dakar, Senegal. Image courtesy of Scott Andresen.

You’ve known Kehinde for a number of years, so you’ve heard about his plans for Black Rock over time. What was it like to see it finally complete?

Scott Andresen: Kehinde and I met during his residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 2001 and have been close ever since. During the last five years, he has talked about the planning, construction, and vision of Black Rock, but nothing prepares you to walk through the gates the first time. It is jaw dropping.

Black Rock is not simply a functional workspace; it is architecture meant to celebrate the importance of artists and inspire their pursuits. The courtyard is a lush paradise flanked on one side by Kehinde’s private home, and on the other the complex housing the residents and studios. The studios are large and spacious. There is an open artist lounge, and each resident lives in a stunning three-story townhouse. The compound itself, in the Yoff neighborhood of Dakar, is perched on the Atlantic with waves crashing against large volcanic rocks that stud the coast and give Black Rock its name.

Tell us a little more about how the residency is set up, and your first few days there.

Scott Andresen: It’s interesting. For five years Black Rock was a construction project, and then with the arrival of artist Bec Stupak and myself, it became an art residency, so there was a little bit of a feeling-out period about how the day-to-day should function. The staff is extraordinary. There were chefs and a waitstaff, gardeners, security, people to clean and do laundry, a driver, and the manager Didi overseeing everything. Three months later they were family.

One program that was very thoughtful on Kehinde’s part was language classes for the residents and staff. I studied French and Wolof, the staff English. The teacher was superb, and by seeing those around you working so hard to improve their language skills, and vice versa, engagement between everyone at Black Rock was seamless. It created a real sense of community. My butchered pronunciation of Wolof phrases was also a great source of humor to everyone there.

To give you an example, one night I was getting home from dinner and a concert when I saw Ndiaye, one of Black Rock’s first employees, working on his own in the lounge. He was at the whiteboard going over his English letters. Ndiaye was so good at soccer that his days were spent training before an injury derailed his career, thus he never learned to read or write, and these language classes were a true opportunity for him. For the next few hours we worked on his ABC’s, writing and sounding out simple words. When I left three months later, his improvement was astonishing. We could have whole conversations in English. His passion is one of the indelible memories from my time in Dakar.

Outside of meal times and language classes scheduled twice a week, artists are free to create their own schedules. For me, that changed drastically depending on where my focus was during the three months. One thing that was immensely helpful was having the expertise of the staff to help navigate Dakar. Three-fourths of the businesses in Dakar are informal shops or stalls, commonly right on the street, staffed by a single person and usually focused on a single kind of good. Finding materials, tools or a specific item can be truly difficult if you do not know where to look.

The people at Black Rock were essential in helping us track down the things we needed, and helping with the language barriers too. One challenging yet enjoyable aspect of any trip to the market is the negotiation of price. It is part of the culture, and the banter back and forth, sometimes for ten or more minutes, is a great way to have genuine interactions with people from all walks of life.

Did you keep up on those language classes throughout the stay?

Scott Andresen: Yes, the whole time. I got along so well with the teacher that later, when having conversations with the heads of the art and architecture schools in Dakar, talking about the possibility of an exchange between Dakar and LSU, the teacher accompanied me to the meetings to help translate. My French is getting better, but far from perfect.

Tell us about meeting Aissa Dione, and who she is for those who don’t know.

Scott Andresen: I went to Senegal hoping to study the Manjak traditions, obviously the scope of what I was hoping to do changed once Kehinde offered residency at Black Rock which included a studio, but nothing could prepare me for the opportunities I would encounter upon arrival.

On my first night in Dakar I was introduced to the Sengalese designer Aissa Dione. She worked closely with Kehinde on the interiors of Black Rock. We quickly got to talking and I explained my interest in Manjak weaving. She seemed surprised and excited, telling me that she has been working exclusively with Manjak weavers for over thirty years. She invited me to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar to see historic textiles that she had lent for their exhibits, and later to her workshops to meet the weavers and see their process. Little did I know, Kehinde had been working behind the scenes to create this opportunity for me. At Aissa’s workshops, where she has over 100 employees, she said it would be a shame if I only studied their traditions—would I rather propose a project and work with a weaver directly? In 48 hours after landing in Senegal, the whole focus of my trip had changed.

Artis Kehinde Wiley, Aissa Dione and Scott Andresen get close at the opening party for Black Rock Senegal

Left to right: Kehinde Wiley, Aissa Dione, Scott Andresen. Photo courtesy of Scott Andresen.

Your project ended up growing in scale considerably once you had access to the large loom in Dione’s workshop.

Scott Andresen: Along with the generous offer, Aissa also showed me a Swiss production loom at her workshop, one of the largest ever created, stretching over ten feet wide. It had not been used in over a year and we decided this would be the loom that I would work on. I spent the following week creating designs and coordinating when work would begin. A few weeks later, when schedule allowed, I began work with Mendi Amrozio, a Manjak weaver and true artisan. He worked with a grace and economy of motion that still astounds me.

Between bits of English, French, Wolof, and Portuguese, which is the language spoken in his home country of Guinea Bissau, we stumbled through the first few days. When Mendi would do something I had never seen before, he would patiently pause, undo his work, do it again, and then allow me the opportunity to try myself. Over the coming weeks we completed over 75 feet of handwoven textiles on one of the largest looms available. This will be the basis for at least one, most likely two new bodies of work.

Another weaver told me that he began weaving when he was six, but never went to a traditional school and had not learned to read and write, so he had plenty of extra space in his head to absorb the language of weaving.

It sounds like this was a collaboration and exchange of ideas on a much larger scale than what anyone expected.

Scott Andresen: The first day I worked at Aissa’s, there was a little surprise in the workshop to see a new face. The second day I got a few hellos, but once the weavers realized that I was going to be working there for weeks on end, they were excited to have someone so interested in their work. I also made sure to go to each loom in the workshop and try to engage with each weaver. Sometimes just to show appreciation for their work, other times to ask questions, and also to hear their family histories. It was a dream scenario for me.

On my last day in Senegal I went back to the workshop, my work there had finished three weeks prior, and stopped by to see Mendi again and thank each weaver for their hospitality. It was important to show appreciation for the kindness and generosity they showed me. The time in the workshop was so influential that I will try to model this experience for future bodies of work.

Is there a concern about these traditions and crafts dying out? Are younger people taking them up at all?

Scott Andresen: There is a real concern about these traditions dying out. Aissa mentioned candidly that few of the weavers in her workshop, or their families in Guinea Bissau, are teaching the younger generation. Their kids aren’t interested, and they don’t see a bright future. In another generation she may have trouble staffing her workshop. Luckily Manjak fabrics still play a role culturally in West Africa. This is countered by cheaper mass-produced fabrics continually flooding the market, and in a developing country such as Senegal, cost is a major factor in usage and popularity.

One bright spot is a model of engagement with traditional arts that Aissa helped pioneer thirty years ago, namely respecting the craft and heritage of a culture, while finding new markets and creating new designs that appeal to an international consumer. These days, be it rugs, baskets, or pottery, many designers are partnering with local artisans to create unique products. This is also supported by an ethical engagement on the part of the consumer that heretofore was hardly seen. People want to know where their products come from, who made them, and how it supports a community, so there is still hope that these practices won’t fade.

Is there a chance that interest in traditions like Manjak from outside might reinvigorate the practice?

Scott Andresen: Every mention and acknowledgement of their craft may be an opportunity to reinvigorate their practice, bring it to a broader context. There is a fine line though, as an outsider, a white outsider engagement with a culture not your own has numerous pitfalls, appropriation and exploitation at the forefront. There is no part of West Africa that was not plundered for the gains of others, and those scars are still present.

As an outsider I wanted to work with Manjak weavers, support these artisans, and hopefully bring greater awareness to a tradition that has been going on for half a millennium, and survived through the most difficult periods imaginable. The weavings we made are my unique designs, on a large-scale production loom, and carry none of the cultural touchstones you would associate with traditional Manjak weavings. Yet every thread of my project is indebted to their craftsmanship and the deft work of Mendi, and every time I speak of my work a huge amount of credit will go to those who helped me.

Back to the residency: There is such a push for artists to get into residencies to flesh out their CVs, but a lot of residencies don’t actually provide much opportunity for the artists involved, and not just because they don’t have the same level of resources. Where do you see a lot of residencies falling short, and what sets the Black Rock vision apart?

Scott Andresen: For many residencies the focus and appeal to artists is simply space and time, a place to make work for a certain duration. Black Rock also includes a stipend, programming, meals, and lodging. The residency is also broad in scope working with artists, and in the future with writers, fashion designers, chefs, and a broader range of the creative class. Additionally, Black Rock is open to artists around the world and uses its local connections to support these different agendas. Look at the effect their outreach had on my own work.

Kehinde was also adamant that Black Rock should have an equally profound impact on the people of Senegal as it does on the guests. The first step on this path is the language classes it is offering to its staff, but Kehinde is developing some extraordinarily ambitious programs for the people of Dakar to be announced in the future.

How do you think Black Rock might change the profile of Senegal and the region? People are already taking notice.

Scott Andresen: There are not a lot of art residencies in Africa and that is to the detriment of artists worldwide. Think of the impact that will be felt in five or ten years when dozens and dozens of Black Rock artists, in all mediums, are presenting their work around the world, but each project is directly tied to Senegal. The excitement is palpable for artists too. When Black Rock was announced they had a short three-week open call for applying artists, and without advertising or publicity they received over 700 applicants. Artist are ecstatic for such a unique opportunity.

Speaking of high profiles and lots of attention, we’d love to hear about your time at the big opening party. It was undoubtedly the coolest place to be on the planet that night.

Scott Andresen: The opening party was the truest sense of a celebration. News outlets from around the world covered the event. There was star power with the likes of Alicia Keys, Swizz Beats and Naomi Campbell in attendance. Bands, performers, DJs, a fashion show, and dance performances happened throughout the grounds. So much was happening that you couldn’t be a part of everything. There were congratulations to Kehinde for the completion of a five-year passion project. More so, people celebrated what this meant for Senegal.

Far too often, the stories of Africa have been relegated to war, disease and famine, while more important narratives surrounding the people and culture fell by the wayside. Attendees recognized that this residency, in a commonly overlooked area of the world, might help correct this.

Interestingly what followed the party shows the level of interest in Black Rock. A few weeks prior to Black Rock’s opening was the Met Gala in NYC, which dominates the news cycle, but after a 24-hour period mentions of the gala all but disappeared. Mentions of the Black Rock opening party actually increased day by day over the course of the following week. Interest grew as more people heard about it.

What is the next step with the work you produced at the residency?

Scott Andresen: As for my project I came across an unexpected challenge, the weaving we produced, and the subsequent artworks that will be made from them, are so large my studio in Seattle cannot accommodate them. A great problem to have. You have worked so ambitiously that it creates logistical challenges. When my sabbatical concludes at the end of July and I return to my home studio in New Orleans. I will then work on the next steps of the project. The woven fabric will be stretched like the canvas of a painting, then three-dimensional woven structures made out pounded copper wire will integrate itself into these large woven structures. The results should be spectacular.

A view of the Atlantic from the coast of Dakar, Senegal. Image courtesy of Scott Andresen.

Featured image courtesy of Scott Andresen.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.