The Shadowed People: Preserving humanity as the ultimate act of heroism

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Saidou Dicko, Happyness
Saidou Dicko, Happyness

At almost 40 years of age, artist Saidou Dicko has retained some of his childhood characteristics that are serving him well today, including a vivid imagination that fuelled his love of storytelling. Saidou Dicko has always told stories. As a young Fulani shepherd, the characters of his stories were forged by the elements. When wind and air conspired to give clouds a memorable shape, they would be dissected from afar by the young shepherd who turned them into characters in his stories. He wasn’t crying over spilled water but instead perusing it carefully to detect a shape, a potential imaginary character. He went on to “outline the shadows of his sheep,” an early inkling of his love of silhouette and shadow so prevalent on his work today.

Now, Dicko has swapped water and cloud, light and shadow, for photography, drawing and collage to create the background and the protagonists of the stories he narrates as a fully-fledged artist. In this last body of work, Saidou Dicko chronicles the daily lives of “The Shadowed People,” depicted only as silhouettes, reminiscent of Auguste Edouard’s 19th-century portraits. However, contrary to Edouard who portrayed high society during the industrial revolution, Dicko turns the spotlight on people operating most often at the margins of societies, and whose lives are either hidden or misrepresented in one-dimensional narratives of poverty and hardship designed to erase their humanity.

Saidou Dicko, Velib Ouaga
Saidou Dicko, Velib Ouaga

Dicko’s composite images, which “pay homage to African studio photography” don’t eschew hardship and poverty. They are ever-present, either explicitly in the large dumpsite and dusty environment or implicitly in the clothing and other props of the characters. The photographs display all that and more, and that’s the crucial element here. About the waste, he says “There is poverty, but alongside it, there is life, there is beauty. What is lacking is the infrastructure.” Life, love, and care continue to flourish, behind the fences that we keep erecting to protect the status quo and keep “The Shadowed People” at bay. A mother remains a caring mother even on the poorer side of the wall. In “Velib Ouaga,” (a title that echoes the cycling scheme in Paris) a mother is cycling along a dividing wall, on a dusty road with her infant kid tenderly wrapped on her back. Atop the second wheel, an empty makeshift baby seat signals that there is a space for another child on this worn version of the trendy western city’s bikes.

In a further challenge to popular one-sided stories, other photographs in the series prove that walls aren’t prevalent only in the west, and equally, waste is not the specialty of developing countries alone.

Affluent people whether they are in a western country or in Dicko’s native Burkina-Faso, appear united in resorting to walls to protect themselves against social and political threats. Since the bombing in the country, security walls with barbed wire have been on the rise. They further fragment the communal space and more importantly become the new norms for growing young children.

As for one of the most famous symbols of sophistication and refinement, the Eiffel tower, it has become a recurring landmark in the photography series, towering over the shadowed children standing in a sea of waste.

Saidou Dicko, Le cerf-volant d'Oum Kalthoum
Saidou Dicko, Le cerf-volant d’Oum Kalthoum

The flagrant juxtaposition of wealth, its status symbols of gold and high-rises, with extreme poverty may make you feel pity, rage or horror. Whatever our sentiments as viewers, the children are playing, almost oblivious to the increasingly socio-economically fragmented world they have inherited. “The Shadowed People” may have been rendered invisible in life, but their resilience shines through the series. Battered by life? Certainly. Pushed away, and isolated? Absolutely. Defeated? Assuredly, not. For, life, love, and care continue to blossom even on the dustier side of the fence.

There lies the last stereotype-busting element in Dicko’s story. Acts of heroism are often described as grandstand gestures. Maybe the most fundamental act of heroism of all is to preserve your humanity, your playfulness on a daily basis, in a world that defines you at best as a problem and, as such, would rather you didn’t exist on their shores.

New Year give away: we are giving away Saidou Dicko’s Photo book “The Shadowed People.” (with the text available in English, French and German). Head to our Instagram, Facebook or Twitter on March 28th for more.

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