On Wednesday, I attended a lecture at Columbia University by Mary Jo Arnoldi from the Smithsonian Institution. She is considered one of the most eminent scholars and curators of African art and monuments, and was discussing the recent surge in monument building in Bamako, Mali between 1995 and 2002 and its relationship with postcolonial urban space and modernity. I find it pertinent to my study of Brazil because of the ways in which after independence, Bamako attempted to render the cacophany of the city into a neat, cosmopolitan modernity. This backfired in the 2005 soccer riots, when protesters turned on the monuments, damaging and destroying them. As Rio de Janeiro amps up its infrastructure and its image as a perfect modern metropolis, it will be interesting to see how public reaction unfolds during the World Cup and Olympics.
One of her most salient points was the way in which these monuments (45 of which were built in that seven year time span) reinscribe and re-imagine public space in Bamako. At independence in 1960, the city had a population of 160,000. Since then, it has become the fastest growing city in Africa, ballooning in size to a population of over 1.8 million. Giving a spatial history of the city, she described how Bamako moved from the traditional colonial dual city model, to a model in which the African neighborhoods began to adapt characteristics of the colonial city (grid-like planning as opposed to circular/winding streets). She claimed that the rise of monuments was a way of “rationalizing the visual cacophony” of the urban space. The rationalization of space played out in many ways as a mode of social control. Most monuments were strategically placed in traffic circles, reworking street patterns, rendering it necessary to cross the street at specific junctures and playing a key role in controlling how people are able to move about the city. The majority of monuments are strategically placed along what is known as the “ceremonial way” that works its way from the international airport to the presidential palace.
The placement of the monuments, their construction, and their political content highlight their role in creating an image of a unified Mali, and also as symbolic of a cosmopolitan Bamako that is deeply connected to global economic and cultural flows. It is interesting to note that most of the monuments praising Mali were actually constructed by factories based in North Korea. One of the most striking monuments features a famed photograph of a Palestinian child under Israeli fire, a sign of Mali, a predominantly Muslim nation, aligning with the global conversation about Israel-Palestine relations.
Arnoldi argues that there are two primary types of monuments, a first group that commemorate the independence movement (a “living history museum,”) and a second group that speak to nationalist Pan-Africanism. The style of the monuments is considered neo-Sehelian, which Arnoldi argues is often described as an “authentic African architecture, linking the colonial struggle onto a nationalist geography” and transferring ownership of that authenticity to all Malians.
I was most interested in the ways in which Bamako’s monuments create a narrative of an idealized past and future for postcolonial Mali. Ignoring many of the contestations and trials of postcolonial history and contemporary political strife, the monuments control not only the ways in which city residents are able to move about the city but also the ways in which national identity is absorbed and understood. Arnoldi finished her lecture by describing the soccer riots that rocked Bamako in 2005, during which many monuments were heavily damaged or destroyed. In an unstable economic climate (in many ways due to SAPs, as seen in the film Bamako), these symbols of fictive Malian stability often become targets. Overall, Arnoldi’s vivid description of the relationship between Bamako’s monuments, urbanism, and modernity was fascinating and speaks to a very influential aspect of urban space that I have not spent much time considering.
Hello! My name is John Kwiatkowski, and I am a senior at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Primarily a venue for me to post my thoughts related to urbanism, city planning, and architecture, this blog will also be a space for me to link to interesting articles/photos/videos that I find relevant to those broad themes.
While I plan on posting a fair amount about NYC and the world at large, there will be a relatively heavy focus on issues of relevance to Brazil. In January, I visited Brazil and am currently doing an independent study with architect Mitchell Joachim about the implications of the urban interventions planned for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This will serve as a place to organize and process the things I encounter in this process, and also a way for me to share that process with anyone who might be interested.
I doubt this will garner a huge following, but if you’re here, welcome, and enjoy.