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Contemplari: a conversation
Mame-Diarra Niang with Bettina Malcomess

Bettina Malcomess: You talk about working with the 'plasticity of territory' in your practice. Each body of work grows into the next; we can see how Sahel Gris progresses to At the Wall. Can you talk about the new series Metropolis?


Mame-Diarra Niang: My work is a kind of enigma that finds its keys in the ways I use words. By playing with language I set up a concept, the plasticity of territory, which considers the landscape, urban and natural, as a biological being, organic and embodied, with its cycles of life and death. By choosing the title Metropolis in the next series, which means mother city in ancient Greek, I give information about this 'place': a framework which gives rise to a body, mine. In ancient Greece there was no word for body unity. The word 'body' appears only to designate the corpse. This is also a utopian body where the body of flesh is denied as the absolute definition of what I am.


BM: So the idea of territory is very personal; in a way it can be seen as a kind of self-portrait.


MDN: Yes, because I start from the postulate that what I see is inexorably defined by who I am. It is important to me to address the representation of the self as a body that does not reduce itself to flesh, but possesses many places 'without place'. It is where I have a body without a body: a transfigured body, a body incorporated, like the idea of the citadel that takes form through Metropolis and At the Wall. In a sense it's about projecting myself onto the landscape, but I don't see the same territories as you, or the same form. It's just a kind of proposition, a conceptual way to see the self.


BM: How important is it that the work At the Wall is made in Dakar, and Metropolis in Johannesburg?


MDN: It's not important - I can make this work anywhere. I am treating the territory as a material - it's not about 'Africa'. The citadel is a place by which I refer to a fragment of a dream of an immense body. In it, I want to express a simple idea that my body is always somewhere else; it is always connected to somewhere else in the world. I see identity as a monument that convokes memory and this memory resides in everything; my memory is not only in Africa.


BM: Your images are produced by a kind of fragmentation of the space. In a way we can compare your framing to collage, or even montage in film. Can you talk about the way you employ the device of the frame in the process of shooting?


MDN: This mechanism depends on speed, on position; it's a demonstration of how a moment evolves, a question of point of view, of movement, of the moment. It's a combination of these things - the image is there, it exists in this constellation, and then it's gone. It's always about motion. For At the Wall, I shot from a taxi, and for Metropolis, from a car, again always in movement. I never stay or linger; in this I accept to miss some things, lose some - it's always about the first look, the first image. In these moments we encounter the wall or the metropolis.


BM: In a sense you are building a kind of mythology; a series of imaginary, imagined places appear within these existing cities and spaces. You often refer to what you call the 'citadel' as a framing concept across your series. 


MDN: The citadel is a utopic place; it's like a storage or library for my thoughts. My body is a place in which I am condemned to feel myself as a presence, it is to escape it that the citadel exists. It is a body without body.


BM: Your images are often encoded with a kind of absence, not only of people but also of strong signifiers of the context. You choose instead points of view that make these 'territories' difficult to locate. However, occasionally a figure appears in your images. Can you talk about this play between absence and presence?


MDN: I invite you into this empty space - to enter. It's like the frame is a rectangle on the wall, a surface for projection. How you see the landscape is how you see yourself - it's your form, your representation of yourself, like a mirror. My images are mostly deserted, empty - there are a few silent characters, like ghosts, shadows, alter-egos, who are listed by name:sentinelle, vigilia, satellite.


BM: Perhaps here it's important to reflect on the titling of images in the series.


MDN: The titles are important: the satellite and the sentinelle refer to some of the figures in Metropolis, for example. I make references to mythology and etymology, it becomes a way to name my territories, my body, to map and name relations between images, almost like masks that would communicate a spiritual space.


BM: These titles all refer in some way to the act of watching, listening, waiting - this is interesting because you also use the word 'masks'. In a sense these titles reveal at the same time as they conceal, so making meaning is like following a trail; an interweaving of traces and references.


MDN: My will is not to give away the understanding of my work; the viewer who approaches my work has to do this research by their own wandering. I see them as a kind of adventurer, because what is hidden there, waiting, has to be found. The titles are a silent narration. By revealing one of the two texts hidden in my Metropolis series, I open up the potential for the viewer to produce their own etymology. The reference VI,679-901 is a reference to book VI of The Aeneid. Here Virgil presents the river Lethe as a river of forgetting: by drinking the water of oblivion and so forgetting everything, these souls are granted a new body. This is only a dream that allows one to glimpse what nobody can see; the forgetting of experience allows one to be reborn again.


BM: Can you talk a bit more about these figures and how they function in At the Wall and Metropolis? 


MDN: I don't really know - I am also blind to what I'm doing - but it seems that these figures are always framed on the wall, or rest on something - for me it's like the grave. They are recumbent statues, effigies; they are made by the wall of the citadel, on its frame, trapped and resting on the wall.


BM: Can we return to the idea of the frame and the citadel and how this place, both real and imaginary, appears within the work, as I understand it, between the images in the series?


MDN: The citadel is in-between two territories, at the heart of the city, and these territories are produced by my intuition. It comes back to the idea that reality is just a superposition of all the possible imaginaries; it's really about the territory of self. For me what's interesting is the way an image can appear between images. It's a prediction, a meditation, a premeditation of something, something before, something after. This is because of the movement and the idea of the missing image inside an image. The flatness of my images makes them into a surface for projection - a space where the image can appear. There's a quote in one of my notebooks: 'The image that is seen appears in front of what should be seen.'

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