Art exhibit spotlights West African culture

Senegal is more than a country within Africa.

It's a place filled with national pride, optimistic people and a rich cultural heritage.

The exhibit "Senegal: A Window into Francophone West Africa" in the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University is designed to raise awareness among public school and university students as well as the local community about the history, culture and misconceptions about the West African republic.

Don't expect to find only framed paintings—this exhibit also includes items created from "found objects," such as cast-off fabric scraps, aluminum cans and even computer circuit boards.

"While a painting is nice, it doesn't reveal a whole lot about cultural practices the way that some of the carved games, hand-tailored clothing and household items in the exhibit can," said Dr. Michael Lane, an associate professor of French and francophone studies at Appalachian.

"The items are pretty, unique and functional at the same time. That's what a lot of Senegalese art really is—finding ways to be sustainable in a developing country where resources are quite limited," Lane said.

The exhibit, which runs through March 31 in the Turchin Center's Community Gallery, is the culminating project developed from a month-long study trip for 12 N.C. public school teachers to Senegal in July 2011.

The trip was coordinated by the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, which received a U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Program award to improve the teaching of French and increase teachers' knowledge about the French-speaking country. Lane co-led the trip with Associate Professor Martial Frindéthié. The grant was co-written by Lane and Dr. Beverly Moser, also from the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

As part of the grant, the teachers were required to produce teaching units about West Africa and Senegal to incorporate into their classroom instruction based on a theme that fits into their curriculum. They also have developed outreach projects to present at state or regional conferences based on what they learned about the culture, history and life ways of Senegal.

Art with a sustainable focus

Gallery visitors will see bugs created from a discarded drink can, tiny figures crafted from circuit boards, and decoupage-like art created from fabric scraps from a tailor's shop.

"I think it's a statement really about where Senegal is," Lane said. "The people there recognize the need to not pollute the country further than it already is. If they can use some of these items, it keeps them out of landfills."

The exhibit, which includes artisanal items purchased by the teachers and videos they have produced, is one example of ways the teachers are sharing what they learned with their students.

About Senegal

Located on Africa's west coast, Senegal was formed by the merger of the French colonies of Senegal and the French Sudan in 1959. It was granted independence in 1960. While French is the country's official language, citizens also speak one or more indigenous languages, such as Wolof, Pulaar, Serer and Mandinka. The country's population is just over 12 million people and is predominately Muslim. Life expectancy at birth for women is 61.7 years and 57.8 years for men. The average yearly income is less than $2,000.

Fishery products account for 22 percent of Senegal's export earnings with tourism representing 4.6 - 6.8 percent of annual gross domestic product. The country relies heavily on foreign aid, including almost $99 million from the United States in 2010-11. The government passed a renewable energy law in 2010 with the goal of increasing renewable energy use to 60 percent of the country's total energy needs through the use of solar and wind energy, reducing the country's dependence on fossil fuel.