Upper Volta was a colony of low strategic importance to France in economic terms, yet she subjected its people to harsh colonial rule. Growing up surrounded by stark inequalities, even after its independence from France in 1960, a young man was moved to pursue social justice: Thomas Sankara. His all-too-short life story remains an inspiration, both across Africa and in his own country, which he renamed Burkina Faso in 1984: “the land of the upright people”.
Sankara’s remarkable life story and his transformation of Burkina Faso during his four short years (1983–1987) as Prime Minister is brought to vivid life in the works of Pierre-Christophe Gam. The Cameroonian-Chadian artist’s mixed media installation, “The Upright Man”, offers a body of work that functions at the crossroads of the political, the personal and the spiritual. It encapsulates Sankara the man, the myth, and the visionary Pan-Africanist. The artist, who was 4 years old when Sankara was assassinated, captures in his works both the perspective of a child seeking the trail of his idol, and that of many contemporary Africans today seeking the truth of a shared past. Gam’s pieces feature certain milestones in Sankara’s time in power, expressed through both Christian iconography and visual symbolism specific to twentieth-century political history, such as the three colours (red, green and yellow) of pan-Africanism. It is an intriguing approach than befits Gam’s own definition of his art practice as that of a modern griot: a West African oral historian and storyteller.
In his representations of this towering political figure, Gam takes inspiration from a widely spread aesthetic practice in West Africa: commemorative cloths, which are printed textiles often featuring patterns, scenes, and memorial portraits. These colourful textiles, printed for commemorating everything from political campaigns to royal anniversaries, tell stories about people, movements, culture and society. Gam’s techniques include pencil colour drawing, pixel art, photography and digital manipulation; the results of this experimental mix are unique, yet somehow familiar to anyone who sees images mostly through a screen in their day-to-day lives. But to understand the story that these pieces visually narrate, it helps to grasp the significance of Sankara in post-colonial African history.
Some said Sankara’s visions were too grand, for he was impatient with those who insisted that a poor country should not set their sights too high.
Unlike the country’s previous military interventions, Sankara came to power in 1983 in a takeover that was conducted with the direct collaboration of several leftist civilian groups, resulting in a hybrid military–civilian formation at the helm of the country. From 1983 to 1987, Sankara transformed the institutions of the state fundamentally, so that they would cease to protect the interests of the few political elite. His aspirations for his fellow Burkinabé were rooted in social mobilisation and Pan-Africanist aspirations, but took direction from the needs of the majority of people. These included ecologically sustainable development, women’s emancipation, free education, accessible healthcare and community self-help projects. Some said Sankara’s visions were too grand, for he was impatient with those who insisted that a poor country should not set their sights too high. Yet Sankara’s quest was not impossibly utopian. In four years, he demonstrated repeatedly through initiatives that much social, political and economic progress could be made. His assassination in 1987 is widely confirmed by historians as having direct support from France, and other foreign powers alarmed by the Sankara’s policies.
Sankara’s strong stance against neocolonial dependency reflected in his programs for agricultural self-reliance, healthcare, and anti-corruption campaigns. From the outset, he also emphasised the emancipation of women as one of his central social and political goals – a rarity for any president in Africa at the time. These social and economic leaps are visualised with strong symbolism and joyful colours in several pieces of Gam’s series: Agricultural Reform, Battle of the Railway, The Emancipation of Women, Education for All and Self-Reliance (all 2017). Each concept is explored in two prints: one featuring Sankara initiating or demonstrating the task at hand, and the second featuring the people of Burkina Faso putting it into action together. A nod, perhaps, to the Sankarist approach to development, which was notable for its reliance on social mobilisation and community self-help.
Although Gam’s works illustrate key points throughout Sankara’s life and political career, there is also a strikingly original interpretative exercise at play: the religious and spiritual undertones to his art. Gam’s framing of Sankara as a Christ-like figure — both prophet and martyr — blurs the lines between the material and the spiritual world, as it does between the political and the personal. This acknowledges the contemporary relevance of West African traditional religions to social and political life, in which the spiritual world is widely accepted to exist in tandem with the physical one, and events in either are able to influence those in the other. Interpreting social and political changes not only for their implications in material reality, but also for their spiritual consequences, is part and parcel of community interactions and day-to-day life in many West African societies. The La Patrie triptych (2017), for instance, includes one mixed media collage featuring the dead Sankara, surrounding by six angelic female figures gesturing to his body, lying Christ-like in the arms of his widow, Myriam Sankara, who radiates a maternal and otherworldly persona reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. The third print in the triptych cements this biblical iconography by presenting the dead Sankara crucified on the cross. The two final works on the other hand, both titled La Resurrection (2017), bring the story full circle; one shows Sankara reawakened, draped in cloth like a prophet emerging from the desert, and the final one features the flag of Burkina Faso — a community of “believers” in symbolic unity under the pan-African colours.
The artworks’ formal qualities mirror this synthesis of traditional spirituality and modern political experience. Gam’s bright patterns in digital print, with their game-like aesthetic in certain places, make them unmistakably contemporary in their visual language. Sankara is represented in photorealistic style amidst geometric and repeating patterns that at times appear pixelated. All are composed of the same minuscule pattern, printed over and over again: an almost emoji-like head of a smiling African woman holding an abundance of colourful produce atop her headdress. When fused with the political content of the work — which is celebratory of the thoroughly secular, developmental goals of pan-African socialist thought — this Christian religiosity to the works do not remain static. They evolve into another kind of conceit: one that makes use of the familiar connotations of biblical iconography for much of Gam’s audience in West Africa and the world, but implies that this was the short-lived birth of a new “religion” in the form of pan-Africanism and a certain Sankarist humanism.
Gam’s synthesis of a digital aesthetic, biblical imagery and twentieth-century history is singular, and the result is a retelling of Sankara’s story through visuals that feel universal, youthful and dynamic. This story becomes, quite literally, anything but dead history. Gam paints Sankara garbed in spiritual mythologies to striking effect, but perhaps it is all the more remarkable that in doing so the artist reminds us Sankara was no saint or angel, but an ordinary man — albeit an exceptionally upright one.
Written by Sarah Jilani
Contributor - London