How does the traveller see it?
(Fragment of a post from a Facebook page)
I bought this painting in the city of San, Mali. It wasn’t for sale, mind you – it was hanging peacefully in a roadside cafe. I wanted it because I always buy paintings in which something is happening. The more confusing the scene is, the more interesting it is to understand. I was also struck by the woman’s face. Beginning to make guesses – it’s a process. Not a verb so much as a process. I’d call her the “African Mona Lisa”. Surprisingly, the owner of the cafe spoke English, which is a rarity for Mali. I always try to ascertain the name of the artist, as this allows one to dive deeper into the scene on the canvas. The cafe owner didn’t know the artist’s name, but the painting is over 20 years old, and its author died on a bus that got blown up by a mine. Al-Qaeda apologized, it should be said – after all, they were trying to blow up French people. But this, naturally, is little help to the dead artist. To get an understanding of what is going on in the painting, I had to not only torment our guide – a slaveholder named Mohammad – but all the guides I knew in West Africa. Summing up what I learned: the woman came to find out the cause of her problems. The Soma (“sorcerer” in the Bambara language) lays down two cowry shells, which represent people who have caused the woman trouble. These shells don’t speak; they are closed. The other “opened” shells symbolize the mouth of spirits, and they’ve been talking about the closed shells. Now the woman begins to understand who wishes her ill. The chicken was brought in as a sacrifice, and the Soma releases genies into action. The payment for this service is generally not large. However, if it ends up helping, the woman will come back once more and will then have to give thanks in a more substantial way. Battle of the psychics, anyone?