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Art Moves Africa – Retracing Roots and Tracing New Routes: Mobility and Touring in North Africa

A study by Lara Bourdin for Art Moves Africa, October 2019

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70<br />

Country-Specific Information<br />

—<br />

GENERAL INFORMATION<br />

—<br />

Mauritania is located at the h<strong>in</strong>ge of <strong>North</strong> <strong>and</strong><br />

West <strong>Africa</strong>. With 90 % of the territory ly<strong>in</strong>g with<strong>in</strong><br />

the desert, the vast majority of the population<br />

lives along the southern coast. The capital <strong>and</strong><br />

largest city is Nouakchott, home to one-third of<br />

the country’s population.<br />

Mauritania is an em<strong>in</strong>ently multiethnic<br />

country, although strife has ta<strong>in</strong>ted the formation<br />

of a peacefully pluralistic society. The country’s<br />

demographics today are made up of three<br />

ma<strong>in</strong> groups: Bidhans of Arab-Berber orig<strong>in</strong>; the<br />

Harat<strong>in</strong>, descendants of former slaves, also<br />

Arabic speakers; <strong>and</strong> people of West <strong>Africa</strong>n<br />

descent, among them Son<strong>in</strong>ke, Bambara <strong>and</strong><br />

Wolof. Arabic is the official language of Mauritania,<br />

with Hassaniya the local spoken dialect.<br />

French is used <strong>in</strong> the media <strong>and</strong> educated classes.<br />

English is mak<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>roads. Social hierarchization<br />

based on sk<strong>in</strong> colour <strong>and</strong> ethnicity is strong,<br />

with black Harat<strong>in</strong> assigned to the lowest caste.<br />

While Mauritania abolished slavery <strong>in</strong> 1981 (the<br />

last country <strong>in</strong> the world to do so), the practice<br />

is still <strong>in</strong> place. Ethnic discord <strong>and</strong> slavery were<br />

at the heart of the Mauritania-Senegal Border<br />

War of 1989 <strong>and</strong> cont<strong>in</strong>ue to permeate political<br />

discourse <strong>in</strong> the country.<br />

Mauritania has been rocked by a series of<br />

coups or attempted coups s<strong>in</strong>ce <strong>in</strong>dependence<br />

from France <strong>in</strong> 1960. A series of military rulers<br />

succeeded one another between 1978 <strong>and</strong> 2005.<br />

After a transitional government was <strong>in</strong>stituted <strong>in</strong><br />

2007, General Abdel Aziz seized power <strong>in</strong> 2008.<br />

He was elected <strong>in</strong> 2009 through an irregular<br />

election process. He is currently president.<br />

Mauritania is one of the poorest countries<br />

<strong>in</strong> the world, despite important natural resources.<br />

Droughts, most notably the Great Sahel droughts<br />

of the early 1970s, have devastated the country.<br />

Accord<strong>in</strong>g to Freedom House, the country is not<br />

free. While the government has adopted laws to<br />

address the problem of <strong>in</strong>stitutionalized slavery<br />

<strong>and</strong> discrim<strong>in</strong>ation, it cont<strong>in</strong>ues to arrest antislavery<br />

activists.<br />

—<br />

M<br />

A<br />

U<br />

R<br />

I<br />

T<br />

A<br />

N<br />

I<br />

A<br />

—<br />

In February 2011, the Arab Spr<strong>in</strong>g spread to<br />

Mauritania, with thous<strong>and</strong>s of people tak<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to the streets to denounce slavery, corruption<br />

<strong>and</strong> human rights abuses. The protests did not<br />

generate full-scale revolution or reform.<br />

—<br />

ARTS AND CULTURE SECTOR<br />

—<br />

The arts <strong>and</strong> culture sector <strong>in</strong> Mauritania is precarious<br />

but dynamic, borne by dedicated artists<br />

<strong>and</strong> activists work<strong>in</strong>g without official support.<br />

The M<strong>in</strong>istry of Culture has the capacity to offer<br />

project support. However, most of the budget<br />

is allocated to festivals, which respondents say<br />

are essentially showcases for the M<strong>in</strong>istry. The<br />

modern-traditional divide still figures strongly <strong>in</strong><br />

discussions of art <strong>and</strong> culture, but cultural actors<br />

are work<strong>in</strong>g to bridge art forms <strong>and</strong> audiences.<br />

Dom<strong>in</strong>ated by oral cultures, Mauritania<br />

is most closely associated with the music of the<br />

Amazigh griots. As nomadic memory-keepers,<br />

they traditionally traveled through the desert to<br />

share their music <strong>and</strong> stories. The droughts <strong>and</strong><br />

political upheavals of the 1970s irremediably impacted<br />

these traditional modes of creation <strong>and</strong><br />

transmission, forc<strong>in</strong>g nomadic peoples <strong>in</strong>to the<br />

cities <strong>and</strong> subsequently repress<strong>in</strong>g their forms of<br />

expression. Today, traditional musicians belong to<br />

the lowest social caste <strong>and</strong> are only able to monetize<br />

their creative work through performances<br />

at wedd<strong>in</strong>gs. Organized by Mauritanian-Canadian<br />

Atigh Ould <strong>and</strong> hosted annually or bi-annually<br />

outside Nouakchott, the Festival Nomade creates<br />

a platform for traditional musicians to share their<br />

music with local <strong>and</strong> <strong>in</strong>ternational audiences,<br />

who come from Europe, Canada <strong>and</strong> across<br />

<strong>Africa</strong>. Moreover, the <strong>in</strong>ternationally known s<strong>in</strong>ger<br />

Maalouma has recently opened a foundation,<br />

funded by AFAC <strong>and</strong> the M<strong>in</strong>istry of Culture,<br />

which offers a studio <strong>and</strong> record<strong>in</strong>g space.<br />

Nouakchott is home to a dynamic hiphop<br />

scene. It is celebrated every year at the<br />

massive Festival Assalamalekoum, which has<br />

been known to draw audiences of up to 15.000.<br />

Performance spaces <strong>in</strong> Nouakchott are rare,

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