Our next appointment is with Aissa Dione at her textile factory. The search for her place takes our bus to an hour of wandering through the streets of Rufusque, once a town of its own, now a suburb of the expanding Dakar. The ride shows us Senegal that is much less painted by its colonial past than Dakar, and much more mad and hectic in the autonomous world of its own. In a way, it reminds us of Bamako with its disorganised architectural and social shapes, but still with the aggressive Senegalese dynamism of the street that is right the opposite of the serene atmosphere of the Malian capital.
When we get to the factory, the location suddenly makes sense – it would obviously be very difficult to have that amount of space in Dakar. The factory is very large, it appears that it could have around 3000 m2, with the looms positioned all around the hall, most of which, surprisingly, without an operator in that particular moment. The building is massive and very impressive, and Aissa tells us that it once used to be a French military barracks, then a peanuts storage, then a Lebanese ice-cream factory, and now she has been extensively investing in its renovation for the last 2 years.
We met Aissa the night before, during the introduction dinner at Le Kadjinol. From the first encounter it was obvious that she was a professional, competent and firm, very much experienced in international communication. Beside the plan to visit her the day after, Aissa kindly, but authoritatively, suggests interventions in our programme, advising whom should we meet from the Senegalese art scene, that she has been part of as a painter and gallerist for 15 years.
So only a day later we are at her space and she guides us through it, interrupting the history of her work with occasional explanations of the origin and purposes of certain machines.
Aissa has been in the textile business for 25 years. Before she got involved in the weaving work, she was interested in presenting traditional textile techniques, first on a small scale and now on a large scale level. Today her work does not end with textile, as she is looking into opportunities for its application in furniture, clothes, accessories and home décor with hired workers such as carpenters, embroiderers and similar. Her idea is trying to adapt traditional motives to contemporary spirits in many ways. The work is based on traditional know-how, but she is trying to professionalise the production by integrating mechanical crafts with her hand made objects. Furthermore, she is striving to adapt the traditional technique to the needs of contemporary markets – the first looms she got were from Guinea Bissau and were only 90 cm wide, but she has now replaced them for 140 cm looms that she herself developed in cooperation with the Dakar Technology.
Trying to raise the professional level of her work, she developed a company for production and export. The company is operating according to European standards, with a 40 hour work week for more than a 100 of her employees, who have got the benefits such as social insurance. Aissa thinks that it would be essential to be able to complete all phases of the work locally, and start from scratch from the locally grown organic cotton, purchased from the South Senegal.
However, there are two major problems. The biggest problem and a paradox is that almost entire production of cotton in Senegal is exported, leaving nothing for local textile entrepreneurs. And now when government announced that they would leave a certain amount for local producers, the second problem occurs – and that is the almost disappeared spinning industry. Apparently, with the lack of distribution of organic cotton locally, there was a lack of interest for its direct processing. The spinning industry was once related to French craftsmen, and then Lebanese, but now in Senegal it is only sporadic. Trying to find a solution, Aissa says that there is also an idea of creating a regional network with her colleagues who need similar services, such as Aida Duplessis and Aboubakar Fofana from Bamako we met a few days earlier, and try to set up spinning industry and similar challenging parts of the process together. The textile she produces is made for different purposes, from clothes and accessories, to home décor. It is rooted in the traditional work as it is in different ways trying to promote African traditional visual identity. The patterns are often taken from the tradition and stylised, but are also developed originally when she gets commissions from various designers.
Her work is highly appreciated and that was proved but her collaboration with highly renowned international designers and decorators. A great achievement was a commission from Hermès in 1996, but then also Fendi casa and numerous designers including Jacques Grange, Christian Liaigre, Peter Marino. Her latest commission was of 1500 m2 of materials for the World Festival of Black Arts held in Dakar, but she is waiting still for the government to pay for the work done which is obviously causing a great distress to her and her workers.
Leaving Aissa’s factory initiates our conversation about excellence under difficult conditions. It is obvious that the levels of work are showing that great professional and inspiring ventures can be done anywhere if there are competent and motivated individuals such as Aissa to pursue the idea. However, the price of working on such level in the environment, that has still not grown in a way to fully embrace these achievements and accept it as its organic and precious part, is high. Aida is working under a lot of pressure, the economic stability of her work if in disproportion with the its quality, and in order to do what she does, she has to struggle and not give up. The clash of these two realities of Senegal makes us thoughtful, but the appreciation for Aissa’s work leaves several of us who are working with textiles with a determination to work and establishing new contact and opportunities for collaboration of Aissa with professionals and vendors in their countries.