Mirror-conversation with Francis Offman

Igiaba Scego

We are two artists.

I, Igiaba Scego, write literary texts of different forms and origins.

Francis Offman is a visual artist who uses salvaged or donated materials for his works.

We both carry two countries on our shoulders, two continents. We are Europe, but we are, although in a different way, Africa.

Francis was born in Rwanda, while I was born in Rome to Somali parents who fled Siad Barre’s dictatorship.

But when we start talking, we don’t start the conversation with Rwanda or Somalia. We start with our art, our third homeland, the craft we so desired, the path we have taken.

Francis’s voice is tinged with enthusiasm when he talks about the coffee he uses in his work, mixing it with glue and water. Coffee that acts as a counterpoint to plaster and the European tradition that partly shaped him. The coffee has the closest of ties with Rwanda. It was brought by his mother after a much-awaited return to his homeland; it took Francis by surprise to be consuming a coffee produced in his own land. Before the genocide, Rwandan coffee, he explains, was not a popular drink, it was exported and almost never consumed in loco. There was more of the French influence of tea with milk, and up till the nineties Rwanda was not a land of coffee drinkers. But then, after the genocide, it did become a major consumer. This novelty – one that his mother had almost accidentally brought back from her trip, in her baggage – encouraged Francis not only to drink, with real gusto, the coffee produced in his homeland, but also to think of coffee as a material he could possibly use in his works, in which he has developed a real obsession with this drink. . He began to study coffee grounds, including from a chemical point of view, and to collect them in a painstaking way. In so doing he has come into contact with many people, many lives. Coffee’s ability to absorb water was, fundamentally, also its ability to absorb thoughts, life, events. What is more, coffee brought him conceptually closer to Rwanda and to a whole series of issues linked to the African continent: from the exploitation of the planet to the idea of recycling. As he speaks, in his calm and precise tone, wholly different thoughts crowd into my head. First and foremost, the importance, in an artist’s work, of the raw material used to give form to their art. A material made of tactile concreteness, even of dirty hands.

My work material, of course, is less palpable than Francis Offman’s coffee. I use words, the Italian language, but in my hands I feel the same concreteness that he feels when he is handling his work tool. I write in a language that is not that of my parents, it is neither my mother’s Somali nor my father’s Bravanese, but the language of those who colonised Somalia, a European language that imposed its alphabet, its rhythm, its watchwords on a distant, equatorial people, who were forced to bow their heads and unwillingly submit. The Italian which I use is the beautiful language of Dante Alighieri, Giacomo Leopardi, Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg, yet it also bears many toxic elements. But in my writing, Italian becomes something different, it sheds its colonialist trappings and puts on the more intimate clothes of those, like me, who were born in this land. It is a decolonised Italian, which has allowed me to recount the historically and generationally repressed, family memories and spiritual constellations. In this concreteness of the material I am using, I feel very close to Francis. And I feel even closer to him when I think that he had to live through a genocide, one of the bloodiest and most senseless of the twentieth century. At first, I am very cautious about asking him about this Rwandan tragedy. . But even though he bears the scars on his skin, he tells me “I remember everything, like if it happened yesterday”. And he begins to explain to me the hate-propaganda that run through radios throughout Rwanda, of men and women who killed neighbours they had known all their lives, of lists of people dating back to the era of Belgian colonisation, catalogues of names, which facilitated the extermination. Then he adds a phrase: “it was like people were drunk!” This sentence makes my blood run cold. I recognise it. The same thing happened to Somalia. A general drunkenness, almost in the same period as the Rwandan genocide, born of the distortions brought by colonialism and postcolonialism, by an outsized number of incapable leaders and the extreme availability of AK-47s. A tragedy was thus served up to the Somali people, and it was no gala dinner. Thirty years of civil war, a perpetual war that turned from high intensity into a medium-intensity drip-feed of corruption, terrorism and absence of policy. Here, I think back to the works of Francis Offman’s that I saw before I set up my conversation with him. In those signs, mixed with coffee, water, plaster, colour, there is a part of his own autobiography and that of the country he left behind. They look like scratches in the cartography of the world. Abstract signs that perhaps speak of the past or – who knows – of the future. I won’t go so far as to over-interpret his works. But I do press him with other questions. I want to get down to his choice to become an artist. I have always been curious to know how many difficulties an Afro-descendant must overcome to become an artist and then be recognised as one. There are difficulties, both within and outside of one’s family unit. “When did you begin to understand?”, I ask him. And I begin to follow his biographical trajectory that led him, after the genocide he lived through in Rwanda, first to Uganda and then to Italy, or more precisely to Bergamo. It was here that he discovered what he euphemistically terms “the invention of racism” in what he casts as a “challenging” Bergamo. The genocide had already devoured his childhood, and the racism could only harden his already cemented determination. It was during this parenthesis, between Uganda and Italy, that he first discovered animated cartoons and then figures and drawing. A small flame of passion arose, which his parents at first seemed to encourage. In his middle-class family, education was never lacking, or indeed a certain routine of watching the news (he confesses that he still follows news channels, from CNN to the BBC). This family environment was, in fact, highly conducive to discoveries and spiritual adventures. But no one in the family ever had any clue that his passion could turn into a vocation he ought to pursue. It was there that the first fallings-out, the first “No”s, and the first impositions began. Francis pursued university studies far-removed from his artistic vocation, because his father wanted it to be that way, because art was not considered a profession; the figure of the artist was praised, but with little to back it up in terms of money or imagination. To follow his path, Francis had to break a few bridges, rely on his inner resources and embark on a late journey toward the academy. On this bumpy path, he got good advice. He made his home in a “workshop” with an artist from Bergamo who had told him never to lose sight of Africa, and the academy gave him a safe space in which to experiment, to meet people, to really enter into an artistic circuit with his body and his works. To that end, he left Bergamo for Bologna. And the phrase he repeats to me, with a certain regret inflected with pride, is “it took me a long time to do all this”. I ndeed, he fought hard to do the craft he does. In this sense, too, I feel that Francis is very close to my experience. I didn’t break any bridges. But I constantly had to translate my work as an artist for my family, reassuring them that I wasn’t going to starve to death. My parents, and not only them, would have preferred me to be a doctor, an engineer, an architect. At first, they found it incomprehensible to see me glued to a computer, tapping away at the keys from the kitchen of a Lilliputian house (such as my living standards allowed), or running to the newsstand or the bookshop when some of my writings were published. The turning point came with a text, La mia casa è dove sono (My home is where I am), where I shed light on their experience; that book allowed my family to understand that mine was no passing trade. That my intention was to endure, or at least to try to do so. . Moreover, challenges also came from the outside world. Literature is about content and form. I spend a lot of my time figuring out how to structure sensitive content such as war, racism, and colonialism. This is not a work of personal testimony, but of historical and artistic excavation. But I have had to defend my work from labels that tend to delegitimise the basis of my art or, worse, to reduce its intentions to an inferior level. I have fought to be defined as an artist. They kept calling me a “witness” – it lasted for years. This isn’t only something that has happened to me. For two hundred years – I’m going to give a concrete example here – the publishing industry that matters denied art to the books of Afro-descendant Americans, calling it testimony and often denying authorship to black people, loudly demanding that they reveal what white person it was who composed that work. Their imagination was denied – and even two hundred years later, that’s happened, in part, to me and many others. On this point, too, Francis Offman has found a strategy. He isn’t called Francis Offman (and note that it’s Offman without an H). He has another name that only he and, of course, the close circle around him knows. But he signs his works under this name; it would perhaps be wrong to call a “neutral” name, but in any case, it’s not one that immediately makes us think of Africa. People don’t know anything about its history at first. They enjoy the work without knowing anything about its journey. In a way, his name is already part of his artistic work. It is not a name that conceals identity, it is not a name to be confused with a whitening process, but it is a name that plays with others’ pre-judgement, that works on their imagination. Works and names play on a minefield and manage, with great deftness, to make the viewer into part of an artistic operation.

When the conversation with Francis Offman ends, I feel that I have a thousand more things to ask. But I impose a silence on myself. The time has come to let the works speak for themselves. To let the art flutter in the wind.