Recent Acquisitions from the West African Calligraphy Institute, Dakar, Senegal

During a Global Experience Office site-visit to Dakar, Senegal in January (2024) Beloit College faculty members Gana Ndiaye and Joseph Derosier, along with Wright Museum of Art curator Christa Story visited the West African Calligraphy Institute in the Guédiawaye region of the city. 

The Institute, founded by Yelimane Fall in 2012, is dedicated to raising awareness of social issues and empowering youth in Senegal through art and cultural preservation. It is run by Artistic Director Fallou Fall, son of its founder who passed away in 2019. Fallou Fall continues to develop socially conscious work in the unique West African calligraphic style centered on Islamic texts and the poems of Cheikh Amadu Bamba (ca. 1853–1927), founder of the Muridiyya Sufi Brotherhood in Senegal. Fall generously invited Ndiaye, Derosier, and Story to the Institute and spoke about its mission, the art of his father, and how he is carrying on that work—artistically, spiritually, and impactfully in the community and beyond. During the visit, Fall detailed his practice, and the ways in which the institute disseminates teachings of the Qur’an and the wisdom of Bamba, especially to youth.

 Fi... Figs 1 & 2: Fallou Fall describing Yelimane's work at the West African Calligraphy Institute

As a Senegalese Murid, Yelimane Fall lives in a geographic and theological space considered peripheral to both Islamic and Western discourses. He experiments with artistic media not typically associated with the calligraphic arts and uses Arabic and Wolof Ajami to carry the Murid message. (Becker, Cynthia and Alex Zito. “Yelimane Fall: Senegalese Calligraphy in Action” African Arts, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Summer 2014), UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, pp. 28-39.)

Yelimane Fall, whose work Ndiaye brought to the group’s attention, was both an artist and community activist who signed his work MF, or Messenger of the Faith. Many of the messages shared through his art convey Muridiyya spiritual beliefs based on the teachings of Cheikh Amadu Bamba. Bamba’s poetry and teachings center on themes of education, community, universal peace, and the equation of hard work with blessing and dignity. Fall’s work, which derives from his dream encounters with Bamba, is important for situating West African Islam within the globalized Islamic message of peace and inclusion via a unique combination of local tradition and modified language.

Both Ndiaye and Derosier are interested in the ways that Fall’s work creates space for Beloit College students to engage with themes of identity, language, religion, and the movements and adaptations that occur within those themes. According to Ndiaye, Fall’s work showcases the innovative ways that this specific style—which Fall refers to as calligraphie negro africane—is an artistic product of Islam in West Africa, and establishes unique practice and identity separate from the Arab world and colonial French tradition.

Derosier will explore some of these ideas in his Fall 2024 Parker class-curated exhibition at the Wright Museum. His class will use Fall’s work, recently acquired by the Wright Museum, to ask questions such as How can an artist such as Yelimane Fall speak back to secular and/or religious art in France? Together with his class, Derosier intends to, “de-center France and open up our curriculum to the broader francophone world that critiques and interrogates positionality, politics, and poetics.”

&lt... Fig. 3 Derosier, Story, and Ndiaye looking at Fall's work
Credit: Courtesy Gana Ndiaye

The Wright Museum of Art has a long history of acquiring art based on its pedagogical potential. More recently, the Wright Museum has been acquiring art that can also serve to complement and critique the existing collection. For Beloit College faculty, the process of selecting works by Fall was rewarding, but also difficult given the wide range of styles and messages. A group of flag-style paintings from the Poot Mi - La ligne series were particularly interesting: these convey the social wisdom of Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba in three languages. Arabic is used to reach a wider audience in much of Fall’s work, but in this series interpretations of Bamba’s messages are depicted in Ajami, Wolof, and French. Ajami, a focus of Ndiaye’s scholarship, is a modified Arabic alphabet (i.e. non-Arabic languages like Wolof written in modified Arabic script). The flag format of Action with Intention (fig. 4) highlights its community-facing intent: messaging for the public (especially youth) in the streets. In an interview, Fall exclaimed:

Even if one knows nothing about Senegal, the Murids, or Islam, at some level everyone gains something from [my] art: Perhaps its the appeal of colors and designs that make you go deeper. Any single one of these works would take a book to explain it, but no one reads books anymore. Books would just sit in the shelves of the library without being of use to people and would not fulfill their mission to spread the message of the faith. I do art because it is a more effective way to spread the message. (The artist in conversation with Becker/Zito between November 10 and December 16, 2011)

The appeal of color and design is precisely what caught Story’s eye in the second work (fig. 5)—the vivid green and varied textures of the applied cloth pull the viewer in immediately. The work demonstrates Fall’s artistic practice, particularly his use of recycled materials and bold, graphic design. It was also important for Story to select a piece by Fall with a Qur’anic passage, particularly because contemporary Islamic art is not currently represented in the Wright’s collection. This piece comes from Al-Qalam (the Pen) chapter 68, verse 4: And indeed, you (Muhammad) are of a great moral character.

Fig. 4 Action with ... Fig. 4 Action with Intention Fig. 5 And indeed, you (Muhammad) are of a great moral character

These recent acquisitions will be included in Derosier’s exhibition at Wright Museum of Art opening at the end of November. As objects, they offer engaging content and access points for both Muslim and non-Muslim students, faculty, and staff. They will be the highlight of many curricular activities in CRIS, Modern Languages, Anthropology and more. The Wright Museum of Art is very pleased to bring these works to Beloit.

July 02, 2024


Christa Story

Academic Curator
Call: 608-363-2095
Office: Room 212B, Wright Museum

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