The National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) consists of an alliance of different peoples inhabiting the Sahel and Sahara regions—namely, the Tuareg, Songhai, Fula, and Arabs—who collectively demand two-thirds of the northern part of Mali as their own independent, multiethnic, and multireligious state of Azawad. The historic base of the Azawadian revolutionary movement can be traced to the colonization and partitioning of the Sahel and Sahara under French-Sudanese rule, when many of the nomadic Berber tribes living in a fragile system of confederations were divided throughout a territory that until then had existed without borders. Following the disruption of their nomadic way of life by the imposition of the colonial state and its boundaries, the Tuareg (known amongst themselves as Kel Tamasheq, “those who speak the language of Tamasheq”) took up arms. But the swords of the Tuareg were easily defeated by the French army, who fought with more sophisticated weaponry in the form of firearms.
During the process of decolonization in the years between 1950–1960, the Tuareg demanded an independent state of their own. With the French denying them their autonomy and the creation of the Malian state in 1960, the Tuareg of Azawad took up arms again in 1963, and later in 1990 and 2006. In 2011, the MNLA was founded as the first multiethnic coalition for independence in the region, and when the Muammar Gaddafi regime crumbled during that same year, highly trained Tuareg fighters joined the ranks of the MNLA with military supplies brought over from Libya. This time, the MNLA successfully defeated the Malian army. However, it still continues to struggle to maintain control over the territory in the face of jihadist groups, the return of the French army, as well as the presence of an international United Nations mission on their territory.
The role of art and culture has been ever-present in the movement of Tuareg revolutionaries and today, it is most evident in the multiethnic coalition of the MNLA. While the scriptures of the Tuareg are one of the oldest in the world, the Tuareg themselves are paradoxically bearers of an oral tradition. This renders the elements of storytelling, poetry, and music of great important cultural heritage, one that is archived within the knowledge and collective memory of a living people, and is perhaps a reason why writer and MNLA representative Moussa Ag Assarid often cites the famous saying that “when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Throughout the new state of Azawad, one also sees the emergence of visual arts in the form of murals covering the territory in control of the MNLA. Arts and crafts are used to develop the new imagery of Azawadian independence in the form of insignias, bracelets, flags, and carpets. The flag of Azawad is far from sacred: it is appropriated in endless variations by revolutionaries and their supporters amongst the population, functioning thus as a collective canvas of insurgence.
The stateless state of Azawad exists as a cultural expression—one that precedes any official, administrative, political, and military structure. It is in this context that the concept of the artist-soldier has emerged, a notion of cultural representation that stands alongside the peasants and shepherds who form the voluntary and unpaid people’s army of the MNLA. To visually represent the new state or fight for it with arms are both considered creative gestures that act in defense of a state that, in the current moment, exists first of all as a cultural construct.
Azawadian history is carried through culture and art. Songs of insurgency first travelled from mouth-to-mouth, and later from hand-to-hand through cassette tapes, and today they travel through the mobile phones of soldiers—a mode of circulation that my colleague, Younes Bouadi, instantly referred to as the “Bluetooth revolution.” Indeed, there is not a single soldier who does not know the band Tinariwen [Deserts], the militant Tuareg musicians who travel throughout the world, and whose enormous success forms the main diplomatic entity of the Azawadian state. Azawad exists first as art, and then as politics, hence this reader’s title, The Art of Creating a New State.
This fourth reader of the New World Academy (NWA) explores the meaning of the artist-soldier in this art of creating a new state. The interview I conducted with Moussa Ag Assarid, “We Inhabit the Horizon,” introduces the reader to the history of the Azawadian revolution from the period of French colonization to Malian independence, as well as the results of the ongoing revolution that began in 2012, all the while engaging in an exploration of the role of art, music, and literature in revolutionary practice. The MNLA’s own “Declaration of the Independence of Azawad” forms the foundational document of the new state, articulating its principles and claim to existence. Banning Eyre’s interview with Abdallah Ag Alhousseini, one of the leading members of Tinariwen, speaks of the entanglement between Tinariwen’s music and history of Tuareg uprisings, one narrating the other, and is followed by a selection of lyrics from Tinariwen’s album Tassili. The selection of poetry from Sennhauser Keltoum Maïga’s Blue Women accounts for the importance of women in the revolutionary movement, within the Tuareg in particular (who are often referred to as the “blue men of the desert”), bringing to memory its matriarchal tradition. The interview I conducted with visual artist Mazou Ibrahim Touré, “I Was Needed, so I Became an Artist,” discusses Touré’s formation as an artist-soldier through the Azawadian revolutionary movement and the importance of art at the center of political struggle. The selection of texts from Moussa Ag Assarid’s publication Chronicles of a Tuareg in France discusses the historical pact between the territories of the Sahel and Sahara and the Tuareg people, as well as the historical roots of the subsequent revolutions since colonial times. Berny Sèbe, a historian who grew up in the Sahara and is now based in the United Kingdom, discusses in his essay “A Fragmented and Forgotten Decolonization: The End of European Empires in the Sahara and Their Legacy” the consequences of the partitioning of the territory of the Sahara and Sahel and its relation to the different revolutionary movements that have defined the history of the region ever since. Last but not least, the photo essay “The Revolution is without Frontiers” consists of a selection of images that Ag Assarid made in Kidal between 17–21 May 2014, during the last armed fights between the Malian army and the MNLA that resulted in the MNLA regaining control over the city. These images further illustrate how art and political struggle are deeply intertwined in the daily life of the state of Azawad.
On behalf of NWA, I would like to thank all of the contributors to this reader and for the generosity and patience with which they have introduced my team and I to the complex history of their movement and region—without their combined enthusiasm and support, this reader would not have taken shape. I would like to thank Moussa Ag Assarid in particular, a fellow artist who has taken great risks by becoming a central figure in the MNLA, for which I respect and admire him deeply. Ag Assarid was also responsible for the travel I made to Azawad, right up to the city of Kidal, together with producer Younes Bouadi and documentary filmmakers Gabriëlle Provaas and Rob Schröder. This time in the region enabled me to gather further insights into the Azawadian movement and conduct several interviews, such as the interview with Touré included in this reader. I further wish to thank the military command of the MNLA for securing our travel with as many as 18 soldiers, all of whom helped us to conduct our research and displayed outstanding behavior, discipline, and an overall sense of humor. My special thanks goes out to Commander Ali, who was responsible for our security from beginning to end, and whose village of birth we had the honor of visiting. We have come to know him as a humble man who carries great pride and relentless dedication to the cause of his people.
Last but certainly not least, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Maria Hlavajova and her team at BAK—Niek van der Meer and Arjan van Meeuwen—for their incredible commitment in co-establishing NWA. Today, more than ever, we lack progressive art institutions that dare to question the rigidity of Western art history and its depoliticized presence in the form of the so-called “creative industry,” which presents art as propaganda, as brainless design, for capitalist democracy. BAK has, now for the fourth time in a row, opened its doors to stateless political movements, each of whom have proposed a fundamentally new understanding of the place of art and culture at the heart of political struggle. Further, my special gratitude goes out to BAK’s editor, Seyma Bayram, for her tireless and precise work.
It’s an honor for NWA to host the political and cultural representatives of the Azawadian revolution, who provide us insights into the very origins of the concept of the state. The state is conceived not as a structure forcibly imposed onto the social body, as many so-called Western democracies have attempted to do in the past decades in order to secure their own military and economic interest, but as the result of a people’s movement, a people’s revolution, and a people’s army—which includes the artist-soldier—that are collectively redefining the art of creating a state.
Introduction to the fourth publication in the New World Academy Reader series, which accompanies the 2014 edition of the New World Academy (NWA), titled The Art of Creating a State.