Guest Voices: Joanna Grabski

Today’s guest post comes to us from Joanna Grabski, Professor of Art History at Denison University.  Her documentary film, Market Imaginary, was screened in conjunction with programming for Earth Matters and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital in March 2013.

I recently directed and produced Market Imaginary, a documentary film about Colobane Market, the best-known market for second hand goods in Dakar, Senegal. As a local saying tells us, “you can find anything in the world at Colobane Market.” Market stalls are filled with colorful arrangements of clothing and shoes, handbags, watches, electronic chargers, belt buckles, cell phones, dolls, plush toys, radios, books, and assorted plastic household wares. These items come from all over the world: the United States, France and Italy as well as China, South Africa and Nigeria. Most of the market’s items are used, although some are new. These items connect the market’s environment and its consumers to other countries in Asia, Europe, North America, and Africa. The used items also remind us that what we weed from our closets, basements, and playrooms goes somewhere.


Colobane Market

Several tons of used items from the United States are processed and shipped to Africa every month. At Colobane Market, I have seen t-shirts with logos from American high school athletic teams, jackets with designer labels, brand name jeans, jogging suits, and yesterday’s trendiest shoe styles. Seeing these items so far from home raises the question: do we know what happens to our belongings when we cast them aside? Do they go into a landfill? Do they travel across miles of ocean? Might they still be useful in ways we haven’t anticipated? Have we considered that these material items transform spaces and connect us to places that might seem far away?


Traffic in Colobane


Colobane Market and its neighborhood offer a powerful example of how the processes of urbanization and the global economy of second hand goods transform a particular environment over time. Just a century ago, the neighborhood of Colobane was uninhabited swampland on Dakar’s outskirts. Today, the neighborhood is a major hub for public transportation. It is a crossroads where trains, buses, and highways bring together people from various parts of the city and country.


Colobane resident Aminata Diop talks about the changing neighborhood


The market has been an important force in the neighborhood’s growth and in shaping the neighborhood’s built environment. Residents living close to the market rent or sell rooms in their homes to vendors to use as commercial space and to travellers seeking lodging. Parts of homes facing the market have become shops and are gradually absorbed into the market’s space. With the market stretching down adjacent streets to the edges of the highway, some say that it is difficult to know where the market begins and ends.


Clothing businessman Vieux Cissé describes altering and reselling garments from Colobane Market


Some of the items sold at Colobane are purchased and used “as is” and some are remade or repurposed as “resources” or “parts.” For instance, clothing businessman Vieux Cissé selects garments from Colobane Market and alters them before re-selling them to clients in Senegal and France. Likewise, city residents take their broken cell phones to Colobane Market where they can be repaired with second hand parts.

Artist Ndary Lo talks about used objects as materials for making art


Many artists in Dakar work with used and repurposed objects from Colobane Market. Artist Ndary Lo makes sculptures and installations from discarded dolls’ heads and plastic lids, thereby extending the original purpose of these objects.


Artist Cheikh Ndiaye discusses his installation Going Places


Another artist, Cheikh Ndiaye, uses shoes from Colobane that “already have been danced in” to create installations about mobility. These artists experiment with the sustainable utility of these objects. By putting used objects into new situations and creative possibilities, they give them another chance to be useful. They also make us question our definitions of used, useless, usable, or useful.  How might we learn from this space and these individuals to be more thoughtful about living in a time when consumer items are made to be updated, replaced, and cast off? How might our relationship to our local and global environments change if we shifted our thinking?

Joanna Grabski is the John and Christine Warner Professor of Art History at Denison University. In 2012, she directed and produced the feature length documentary film, Market Imaginary, in collaboration with Jacques Daniel Ly, Fanta Diamanka, El Hadji Sarr, Aissata Barry and Christian Faur. The DVD will be available from Indiana University Press in 2014. For more information visit the film’s webpage



One thought on “Guest Voices: Joanna Grabski

  1. I was amazed by the art in Dakar and Senegal. Joanne’s documentary does a great job of capturing a sliver of what life is like there for the artists. The people of Dakar are remarkably innovative with reused materials. It makes me wish I was back there.

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