In a Remote Senegalese Village, International Artists Are Learning from Local Creatives
A few hours after New York-based music producer Milo McBride arrived in the small, rural village of Sinthian, Senegal, last week, his jaw hurt from smiling.
He had just made the long journey from New York City to the Senegalese countryside—an eight-hour flight to Dakar, followed by a seven-hour drive to Sinthian. There, on a plot of land covered in bright-white buildings topped with thatched roofs, he found his destination: Thread, an artist residency and cultural center where he’d be living and working for the next month.
McBride spent his first few hours watching a local soccer tournament, followed by several days drawing with local children, collecting field recordings for an album he’s composing, and preparing for the music production courses he’ll teach in the neighboring city of Tambacounda.
Though he was far from home, he immediately felt at ease. “I was greeted with a warmness I have never experienced,” he tells me, three days into the residency. “It was a shockingly easy adjustment. Speaking French helps, but it’s irrelevant to how compassionate and welcoming Senegalese people are.”
McBride is one of 35 artists from around the globe and working in a vast array of mediums—from music and performance to painting and sculpture to writing and design—who have come to Thread since the residency began in 2015. He was drawn to the program, like most of its participating artists, for its collaborative relationship with the surrounding community.
“I was eager to do the residency because it is based around a symbiotic exchange between the artists and the local community, with hopes of creating bridges between this region and the various artists who come to collaborate,” he says.
The concept for Thread, which operates as both an artist residency and socio-cultural center, was hatched in 2013 by the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Nicholas Fox Weber, and local Sinthian community leader and doctor, Dr. Magueye Ba. Inspiration for the project came from legendary Bauhaus and Black Mountain College artists Josef and Anni Albers, who believed that art is everywhere—not just in Western, urban capitals, as the art-historical canon of the mid-20th century (when the Albers lived and worked) suggested.
During their lives, the Albers traveled over 14 times to Mexico and Latin America. “When they got there, they were immediately taken by the art and culture,” Nick Murphy, Thread’s director since 2015, tells me. “They didn’t claim it to be primitive. Instead, they really appreciated it for its sophistication; they learned from it.”
Building on this ethos, Fox Weber and Ba developed an ambitious mission for Thread: “To allow artists access to the raw materials of inspiration found in this rarely-visited area of the world; and to use art as a means of developing linkages between rural Senegal and other parts of the globe.” Now, just three years in, they’ve already made good on their goals.
Funded by the sale of a single Josef Albers painting from the Foundation’s collection, construction for Thread began in 2013. The firm Toshiko Mori Architect, with the help of a local team of contractors, designed the campus and its buildings as living quarters, art studios, and communal spaces where artists and the community can socialize and participate in agricultural and artistic workshops. The grounds include space for gardens, and the thatched, pitched roofs double as devices for collecting rainwater, which supplies the local community with 40 percent of its domestic water needs today.
After two years of planning and building, a lively party launched Thread in March 2015. Tambacounda-based rapper and producer Negger Dou Tamba, among Thread’s first few residents, remembers performing at the inauguration ceremony, surrounded by an large, enthusiastic crowd, “from children to the elderly,” he tells me. The set kicked off a month-long stay for Tamba, during which time he worked on an upcoming album, completed a music video with British production company ZOYA Films, and helped a group of local women set up a soap-making business by translating instructional texts from French to Pulaar, the local language.
One of his proudest accomplishments during the residency, though, was a pulsing, euphoric track he wrote and rapped in Pulaar to “pay homage to Thread and the village of Sinthian,” he says. “Now the song has become a hymn to Sinthian, and every time you cross the village, you hear it on people’s radios.”
While participating artists aren’t required to interact with the community or the local landscape during their stay, most do. Belgian, Antwerp-based sculptor Elise Eeraerts came to Thread in 2016 with a specific goal: to collaborate with local ceramicists and learn their techniques. “In Sinthian, these techniques are essential to their daily lives and culture,” she tells me. “All the material resources we used came directly from nature, and it was very interesting for me to be able to directly trace everything back to the surroundings where the project happened.”
Together with local artisans, Eeraerts developed a series of vessels using methods gleaned from her new teachers—like making clay from hard gravel and employing centuries-old firing techniques—and resources provided by the surrounding landscape. The process was humbling and transformative, Eeraerts explains: “I saw it is possible to make things from only what is provided directly by nature, through very specific processes.”
American video artist and sculptor Ariel Jackson was also inspired to engage with local traditions while at Thread. During her residency in early 2017, Jackson set out to research the history of rice cultivation in West Africa—and how West African agricultural traditions, brought to the U.S. through the slave trade, informed the prosperous rice economy in the Carolinas. Across Sinthian and Tambacounda, Jackson interviewed local gardeners and metal workers about the region’s agricultural traditions and tools. Her findings informed her newest body of work, which explores these practices and their relationship to the African diaspora. She also taught a stop-motion animation course to a group of Sinthian school children.
Jackson found that the experiences she gained and the relationships she formed with the community at Thread not only informed her practice, but also her sense of self. “I experienced an intense realization of my own privilege of a light-skinned American artist,” she explains. “In America, I am black first and American second, whereas in Senegal I am American first and questionably black. This realization came about because I let myself be challenged by locals and people I still consider to this day as close friends.”
As Thread welcomes McBride this month, along with performance artist Andrew Ondrejcak and writer and journalist Adrian LeBlanc, there is a sense that these connections between visiting artists and the community of Sinthian, based in mutual respect and exchange, will only continue to strengthen.
For his part, McBride will teach music production courses at local community centers. “Over coffee this afternoon, I talked with the main producers and rappers in town, and they have asked me to make beats for them and give their sound engineers techniques in mixing their music,” he tells me. “And tomorrow morning, I’ll teach my first production class.” In return, he’ll spend a week with local musicians, learning to play the djembe and the kora, two instruments native to Senegal.
This kind of creative exchange embodies Thread’s essence. “It is at its heart a project that seeks to expand the heinously narrow appreciation that much of the world has of West Africa and Senegal,” Murphy explains, “and to do so by expanding opportunities for artists to engage with what is one of the world’s most dynamic and diverse art and cultural practices.”