In 1997, when 30-year-old artist Muhsana Ali showed up at “the Chateau” in downtown Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the young men who confronted her at the entrance thought she looked like just another fly-by-night tourist.They were accustomed to visits from people who found the abandoned, half-finished hospital building exotic; with its vast spaces and opened-out walls, it was an artist’s dream space.
But it was also claimed as shelter by a homeless band of kids. Just a few months earlierwhile the teens were outAli had gone to the building for a large fashion show and decided she wanted to have an exhibition there. The teens eyed her with skepticism when she returned and told them of her plans. The fashion designers, after all, had stripped the space bare, leaving them with hardly anything.
But Ali intended to stay with the Chateau for the long term. With money from a Fulbright fellowship, she already had spent more than a year traveling in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, and South Africa to study traditional and contemporary art. The final stage of her fellowship required that she put on her own exhibition. Inspired by visits to the “Doors of No Return” in Senegal and Ghanathrough which slaves departed onto shipsAli created Doors and Passageways of Return, an installation, sculpture, and painting exhibit focusing on slavery and the possibility of reconnecting Africans and African-Americans. For two years, the show was installed at the Chateau. And so was Ali’s studio.
Slavery was an issue that had haunted Ali during her studies at the Moore College of Art and Design, the Parsons School of Design, and Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, from which Ali earned a master’s degree in 1993. Ali had gone to Africa hoping to be embraced like a long-lost daughter, but she found instead that most of the people she met didn’t see their connection to African-Americans. Some even called her white. When she explained the history of blacks in America, people were shocked. “Slavery was like a vague place in their mind, and African-Americans were just like a new breed of people,” she says.
During the years Ali spent at the Chateau, she did a lot of nurturing herself. Most of the young men living there had been homeless since they were children and were wrapped up in lives of poverty, drugs, and violence. In addition to enlisting them to help work on her show, she often found herself playing mother and trying to intervene with the police on their behalf. She took one to the doctor when he was stabbed and consoled others in the face of a peer’s death.
Along the way, Ali gained admirers and students, such as 20-year-old Gilbert Medeton, who became her apprentice. Under her tutelage, he progressed from drawing crude, childlike figures to painting 16 beautifully mastered works, which are now on view at the Ramee Gallery, near the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, alongside two paintings by Ali.
Today, Ali splits her time between Philadelphia and Abidjan and runs the Doors and Passageways of Return Foundation, located in Capitol Hill, to finance art programs for the street youth in Abidjan.
The scale of the D.C. version of Doors and Passageways of Return is much smaller than that of the Abidjan show. None of Ali’s installations were able to be brought to the United States, and Medeton remains in Ivory Coast. But the spirit of the show endures. And, by the look of Medeton’s Mask Series II, it seems that Ali’s preoccupation has rubbed off. Two profiles on either side of the canvas seem in constant dialogue across a green-blue ocean. Perhaps Ali did create an artistic passageway between Africa and America, after all. Ayesha Morris