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Baba Wagué Diakité's Vivid Black-And-White Ceramics Tell The Rich Stories Of Mali

Portland Artist Baba Wagué Diakité brings his grandmother’s rich stories to life in his exhibit Calm in Chaos. He draws from the mud cloth art form that he learned from his mother in Mali to create bold black-and-white artwork on ceramics.

When Baba Wagué Diakité creates his vibrant West African art, he’s also telling stories.

“I always say without stories there is no art,” says Diakité.

His exhibit at Eutectic Gallery in Northeast Portland tells stories that he learned from his grandmother in Mali.

“I am reflecting to when I was a small boy back in the village listening to stories. Some of them are comedies. Some of them are really scary. Some of them are very educational life lessons.”

Diakité’s exhibit showcases ceramic discs and bowls painted only in black and white.

Diakité is known for his colorful artwork, murals and award-winning children’s books. Eutectic Gallery Curator Jeffrey Thomas had asked Diakité to withhold colors for this show.

“The challenge here is to grow and to try to push him past where he is comfortable,” says Thomas, who exhibited Diakité’s artwork at the Jamison/Thomas Galleries in Portland and New York in the 1980s and 1990s. Thomas has watched Diakité’s artistry grow since moving to Portland from Mali almost three decades ago.

“When you remove color, you’re talking about high-contrast, graphic images. And when you combine that with the political instability of Mali and the chaos that Wagué is trying to address in these pieces, this is a much more adult, mature show than his past exhibits. We’ve all gotten older and it’s reflected in the work we’re showing.”

For the show, Diakité paints ceramics in black-and-white mud cloth designs — an art  form he learned from his mother in Mali. Mud cloth is handmade cotton fabric painted with a special dark clay from the riverbanks of Mali, says Diakité. People of Mali customarily wear mud cloth with certain patterns to convey wealth, status or cultural significance.

“I am going to choose ideas from two women in my life — my mother who taught me to do the black-and-white mud cloth and my grandmother who was the engine of everything, the greatest storyteller on Earth to me,” says Diakité.

He believes his black-and-white artwork will appeal to our first-born instincts.

“It’s our first vision. The very first way we lay our eye on the world is black and white.”

Diakité brings humans, animals, trees and objects to life in his paintings. He wants the viewers to appreciate that “we are a part of everything” and that we have a connection to fish, spiders, frogs and other things that share the planet with us.

“It shows our human connection, our relationship with the environment. One of the things that my grandmother always talked about is the importance of living in harmony in nature and the necessity of placing man among, not above, all living things,” says Diakité.

“If you look at my paintings that I’m exhibiting in the gallery, they’re absolutely crazy. There’s no empty spaces. Everything is filled up. Like my mother always said, ‘Everything is so empty without that interconnection.’ Even though you see yourself as a single person, the lines that link to others is there, even though you can’t see it. It’s like a spider web.”

The title of Diakité’s exhibit is Calm in Chaos.  

Calm in Chaos symbolizes bearing with life, because life is not perfect,” he says.

“Like my mother always said, ‘You always find positiveness out of the most negative things. So don’t discard things. Always try to find the best side of them.’”

Eutectic Gallery: Contemporary Ceramics will present Calm in Chaos Thursdays through Sundays from August 2 through September 29.


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