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OLATS/VIRTUAL AFRICA1, in collaboration with the RIVER FESTIVAL announce the realization of a multicultural and interdisciplinary three-year project focused on the cultural and scientific contexts of water : " The Spirit and Power of Water ".

1/ Virtual Africa in a few words (

Virtual Africa is a multimedia project organized under the aegis of LEONARD/OLATS. Its primary objective is to develop and encourage exchanges between intellectuals and artists from Africa and from the other continents. Designed as a large patchwork of images and texts, with several scenarios put together and presented by experts from the scientific and artistic fields, Virtual Africa proposes to reflect on the following themes :

  • The relations between arts and sciences.
  • The relations between ancient and contemporary arts.
  • The relations between Africa and the other continents.

2/ The River Festival (

The River Festival is a project organized by Camel Zekri and Dominique Chevaucher. Their scope is to engage a cultural and artistic dialogue while traveling down the biggest rivers of Africa. The Niger and Mouhoun River were parts of their last journeys. The " River Festival " will be on tour in France in the autumn and spring of 2001.

OLATS/VIRTUAL AFRICA in collaboration with the RIVER FESTIVAL announce the realization of a multicultural and interdisciplinary three-year project focused on the cultural and scientific contexts of water : " The Spirit and Power of Water ". This project will have its source in the African continent, a land known as the cradle of the universe but also as one of the first victims to suffer from highly critical problems of shortage and purification of water. Starting with artistic and scientific studies proper to the African context, we will then extend some ramifications in the direction of the other continents in order to examine - in the largest possible perspective - the role and signification of water in the artistic and cultural activities of human societies. Water, a linking substance per se, will be used in a symbolic mode to create links between different cultures, and to open up spaces of encounter and reflections between artists and scientists.

" The Spirit and Power of Water " will give rive to a seminar in Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy (France), the 8th and 9th of November 2001. This encounter will gather artists, scientists, engineers, and will allow them to present the outcomes of their research on how water and water networks do structure cultural, economic and political lives of African peoples and human beings in general. In prolongation of the seminar, a series of publications and workshops will be made accessible on the Virtual Africa's web site. Later on, a selection of artworks and articles will be equally published in the American arts and sciences journal LEONARDO (published by MIT Press).



(by Jocelyne Rotily and Roger Malina)

This interdisciplinary and multicultural project hinges on two sections. The first one, entitled " The Spirit of Water " will be the place of artistic studies and art exhibitions. The second one, " The Power of Water ", will include experimentation and projects tackling the water issue within scientific, economic, and political contexts.


The Spirit of Water :

The Natives of Mali say that water is inhabited by " Nommo ", this spirit endowed with mysterious and extraordinary powers - at times fearful - to whom human beings owe a total veneration, for Nommo may bring the rain and guaranty men's prosperity, as he may also cause drought and misery, if men and women happen to neglect its worship.

Water has always been, in the whole world, a crucial political and socioeconomic stake but the question is : at the threshold of the 21st century, will this stake grow to a catastrophic level such as to make us fear a world war for water ? Appeared on the Earth, some 3, 5000 billions of years ago, water is for sure a primordial element, just like fire, air, and soil. Water ruled over the creation of the universe and remains the pre-condition for the blossoming of all living creatures. According to the Bwaba African myths, Dofini, God, first created a world made of earth and water defined as a block of homogeneous matter. Then Dofini added a little bit of water and cast the woman, the first one who was to be called " Moon ".

It is because water is a precious substance that it has quickly taken a privileged place in the history of men's imagination and artistic creation. In Africa, like anywhere else in the world, water is very often seen like a living substance inhabited by spirits, by supernatural beings (sometimes good sometimes harmful) that men have imagined to explain natural phenomena and some aspects of the human condition. Around this ambivalent and extraordinary world inherent in water, some myths, legends, fairy tales, ritual practices have crystallized. It's on the basis of these quasi-universal cultural representations, associating water with spirituality, water with wonder, water with imagination, that a body of studies and workshops (on-line and off-line) will be proposed. They will allow to examine in their complexities and diversities the cultural and artistic representations linked to water, in Africa as well as on the other continents.

Among the Dogon, a people from Mali, for example, the spirit of water is called " Nommo ". According to them, there are good and malicious Nommos, the malicious ones being sometimes responsible for a man's death. As the anthropologist Jacky Bouju points out 2, water plays a major part in the founding myths of villages. " It's an object of worship that has a high patrimonial value of which the local people chosen to worship the " Spirit of Water " are made the guardians and protectors 3. " The people must make offerings and go through all kinds of rituals so that rain may fall and bring fertility to their lands. Actually, The Dogon sculpture testifies, in a magnificent way, to the relevant role played by the spirit of water in the religious and cultural life of the Malians. Indeed, Dogon art offers a few samples of statues named " the dege ". The " dege " were human like figures represented with their arms up and were used to celebrate rain rituals which were so important in this region of Sahel very often affected by the drought.

Somewhere else, in Burkina Faso, men and women celebrate the return of the rains, by wearing over their faces large colored and butterfly-like masks, because butterflies always swarm out just after the first rains.

Again in Africa, in the Soninke empire of Wagadu - considered as the most ancient one in Black Africa - men and women, who are Moslem, still celebrate the " Wagadu's Myth " recalling the glorious times of the Soninke empire, when the river water ran in profusion and when cities were prosperous. According to the myth, the Soninke used to worship Bida, the serpent, to guarantee the fertility of their lands, but one day, because they had transgressed the ritual, drought and misery devastated the Soninke territory, and forced men and women out of their country and constrained them to emigrate for a better life.

At last, in Nigeria, the Igbos honor their spirits of water, called owu, by performing ritual dances in which the dancers have to were some specific facial masks.

In contemporary African arts, the water theme remains very powerful. Water is an inspiring theme to musicians such as Camel Zekri, who created the River Festival, and the Burkinabe Lassina Coulibaly who performed a music and dance show untitled " The Legend of Water " in which he goes to explore the fairy tales and legends of the Soninke Empire. In the 1970s, the well-known Senegalese painter, Iba Ndiaye, made a series of wash paintings describing the terrible effects of the drought which struck Mali at the time. All these works will hold a privileged place within the project.

In the Western world, myths, legends, extraordinary stories and other expressions of the men's sensitivity related to the life of water are all the more numerous, and prove again that water knows how to stimulate " the imaginative forces " of our mind : In the Greek ancient world, water gave birth to the monstrous image of the Hydra, a serpent with seven or nine heads which grow back instantly - if cut off -, and which can be compared to the deltas of the great rivers. The hydra symbolizes man's vices. Mysterious, magic, fascinating, water is going to benefit from an exceptional fortune in all the branches of artistic creation : In Shakespeare's work - Hamlet - up to Arthur Rimbaud's and Mallarmé's poetry where water is defined as the motherland of nymphs, and associated with the theme of death and suicide. In the visual arts, water was in the 19th century the favorite support and material in Turner's art, and later on in the Impressionist art works. In the course of the 20th century, water was one of the most treasured themes by the Surrealists, who defined themselves as the water diviners of the unconscious, represented women under the guise of a naiad or siren, and saw in the abyssal depths of the sea the locus of the unconscious.

We will attempt to analyze these cultural representations and artistic expressions, and will examine the characteristics of these works of art inspired by the water element since water, as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, has its own aesthetics : an aesthetics which is different from that of the three other vital elements : earth, air, and fire 4. Water inspires dreams, melancholia, and nostalgia. In the Baroque arts, and in particular in the designing of formal gardens, water was linked to the notion of ephemera ; its whimsical, unpredictable nature was used to offset the mastered harmony of formal gardens and to contrast with the solid and durable material of the sculpted marble. Reflecting on the earth the image of the sky, it was also considered as God's eye on the earth 5.

Finally, it is this moment when the imagination of the water substance is seized by the artist that will be studied : when water, after stirring the " imagining forces " of the mind, becomes, depending on the artistic medium used : pictorial/cinema images, sculpture, literary metaphor, symphony/threnody, danced movement....

Down below is a list of themes that may be analyzed. All artists wishing to intervene on the subject are invited to make contact and submit their works. We insist on the fact that all artists (musicians, painters, sculptors, writers....) are encouraged to participate in the project. This section is also opened to art historians. The final objective will be to celebrate water as a material and source of inspiration and as one of the arts' spirits. The following themes may be considered :

the dreamlike forces of water : water : melancholia and death ; water as a linking symbol; musics and sounds of water 6. In literature, studies on African epics and legends inspired by water will be brought to the fore. One example is : " The Legend of Wagadu " performed by the Burkinabe musician and dancer Lassina Coulibaly. We will also focus on diluvian images in the arts in general and on all catastrophic images linked to water, and will consider other themes such as : water and the myth of eternal youth ; water and the notion of ephemera ; the relationships between liquidity and solidity, water and fire ; water and the origin of creation ; water and its relationship with writing and speaking ; water and the unconscious; water and the image of Narcissus, etc.



Water is universally associated with the concept of strength and power. The natives of Mali say in an explicit way : " It's water that holds men ". They also consider that " all waters are moved by the same force ! The well may be wicked, as well as the pond... In the water held back by barrages, there is also a force, so Nommos (* Spirits of water) live in there."  It is water that rules domestic and agricultural activities of human beings, and most of their economic activities. It is water that allows them to pursue their migration inside the continents and around the planet. It's when water is the cause of natural disasters (floods, droughts, epidemics...) that it makes the most cruel demonstration of its power over the life and destiny of the Earth.


For all the reasons indicated above, and because it is moreover unequally distributed on the surface of the earth, water bestows on its owners an incontestable degree of superiority at all levels - political, economic, and social. In Mali, for example, " access to water represents (...), always and everywhere in the region, a major stake that stands - as one of the conditions of rivalry (which brings opposition) and of solidarity (which brings unity) among the people regarding the problem of local resources management 7.  " Fearing a shortage of water, certain countries run across by the widest rivers 8 do attempt to take over the resources of fresh water that are still available. One of the most violent hydropolitical conflicts is indubitably that which is dividing Palestine and Israel. In the whole history of humanity, access to water has been recurrently the cause of terrible quarrels and wars.


Risks of tensions and conflicts about the water issue, and more specifically about fresh water, are all the more important as these resources, as we said previously, are unequally distributed, and as the growth of the world population is superior to the amount of fresh water available on the earth. In Burkina Faso, one example among Sahelian countries, it is stated that the " population of the under-region, estimated at 200 millions of people, reached a growth rate superior to 6% 9." At such a pace, we will have no other option than sharing these resources between the populations. But the question is : will human beings come to agree on the terms of the sharing ? Won't the geopolitical tensions threaten to worsen ?

On the top of this, one can observe - everywhere in the world - a great number of aggravating elements which every time take on a different aspect :

Threats of pollution and deterioration of water grounds are a main concern for all the industrialized countries which, as for them, don't suffer from water shortages but may highly endanger the fresh water resources by a policy of overindustrialization.

In Africa and in the Southern countries, more generally speaking, water management and techniques of purification are crucial issues that demand to be resolved imminently. For a large number of diseases and cases of child mortality are tightly connected to the bad quality of water. On this matter, the issue of the magazine " Sciences et Vie " focusing on the water problem 10, gives an alarming review of the situation in Africa as well as in India. The statistic investigations conducted by the F.A.O. (Food Administration Organization) are also frightening 11.

Finally, in certain Southern countries, where economics is thriving, (in Saudi Arabia), attempts to remedy the drought issue are made by pumping fresh water from water grounds, but at such a quick pace that the risk to endanger these resources is now very high.

This section focused on scientific issues will be opened to studies conducted by anthropologists, ethnologists, historians, sociologists, engineers, scientists working on environment issues, biologists, astronomers, chemists, economists, agronomists, hydrogeologists. A body of studies will present the various works imagined and achieved by men to master the strength of water, to preserve their natural resources of water, to struggle against risks of pollution and epidemics, and to distribute these resources in a more equitable manner on the whole planet.

In some parts of Latin America, for example, were villages are affected by water shortages, some special net screens have been erected to capture fog banks and collect their water after condensation. This was actually a technique used in the past by the Native Americans, though at a much smaller level.

In Africa and in most countries of the South, groups of anthropologists meditates over the best strategies to adopt to remedy problems of insalubrious water in taking into account the African sociocultural context. The question is the following one : What measures can be taken, knowing that the population increase is far superior to the fresh water resource available ? Knowing also that some poor houses barely equipped spread all around the big cities and remain, for economic reasons, unconnected to the city water supply. Real clandestine water markets do multiply along with problems of epidemics.

Other analyses will examine the role of water in human societies, showing how men used and use water in their domestic life, how water can be closely associated with their spiritual life, and how it is tightly linked to the history of migrations and nomadism, and finally how human beings in general see their relationships with water and their natural environment.

We will also refer to the " virtues " of water. The healing and soothing virtue of the water is a concept that goes back at least to the Ancient Roman period. Then, we will look up beyond the terrestrial limits with some investigations and studies conducted by astronomers and space scientists. Some recent research indicate that water can be also found on Mars, and some new images of Europa collected by the Galileo spacecraft proved that water under a liquid form may have very possibly existed on this satellite, and that this water may still be present beneath Europa's cracked icy crust. Moreover, man's exploration of the interstellar space seems to be more and more motivated by the quest for water within the solar system and beyond.

(Text and translation by Jocelyne Rotily)

1 The URL address of Virtual Africa/OLATS is :

2 Cf. Jacky Bouju, Action de Recherche n°10 Approche anthropologique des stratégies d'acteurs et des jeux de pouvoirs locaux autour du service de l'eau à Bandiagara, Koro et Mopti (Mali Ministère de la Coopération Projet PS/Eau FAC-IG n° 94017700 "Eau et assainissement urbain dans les quartiers péri-urbains et les petits centres"

3 Ibidem, p. 3/35

4 Cf. Gaston Bachelard's study :L'Eau et les rêves, Paris, José Corti, 1942 ; and also Jules Michelet'work untitled : La Mer.

5 Cf. Erik Orsenna's latest essay on the gardener Le Notre : "André Le Notre, portrait d'un homme heureux", Paris, Fayard, 2000.

6 This part will be dedicated to contemporary and others forms of musics inspired by water : from the so called Impressionist music to the music experimentations using new technologies - electroacoustic music for example.

7 . Cf. Jacky Bouju, Action de Recherche n°10 Approche anthropologique des stratégies d'acteurs et des jeux de pouvoirs locaux autour du service de l'eau à Bandiagara, Koro et Mopti (Mali Ministère de la Coopération Projet PS/Eau FAC-IG n° 94017700 "Eau et assainissement urbain dans les quartiers péri-urbains et les petits centres".p. 4/35.

8 e.g. Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India.

9 See : " Afrique/Eau : Les Etats d'Afrique de l'ouest décident à mieux gérer et de façon intégrées les ressources en eau ", on the website of the Orstom:

10 " Menaces sur l'eau : comment éviter une crise mondiale ", Sciences et vie, N°211, juin 2000, hors série.

11 Visit the F.A.O. web site:




Water appears to be a pre-condition for the origin of life as we know it on this planet; water is also found on Mars, the Jovian moon Europa, comets and in the distant reaches of interstellar space. Human societies have lived in symbiosis with sources of fresh water for survival, for agriculture, and also migration throughout the interior of continents and around the planet. Current world population growth outstrips the availability of fresh water; sustainable development requires an equilibrium with the supply of water. Many natural disasters, and human wars, involve water. Water and our relationship to rivers and oceans has been throughout human history as source of artistic inspiration and creativity. Human exploration of outer space is now driven by the search for the search for water in the solar system and beyond, and the identification of planets around other stars in habitable zones where water is in liquid form. Water networks are in the human experience a prototypical kind of network that both provides modes of communication and structures the development of human settlements. The growth of the Internet, can by analogy, be seen to tap into deep human memory of the inter-relationship between our sustaining networks and our daily lives. The project " The Spirit and Power of Water " will be in inter-disciplinary multicultural project that will involve both physical and on line creation and dialogue. It will seek to establish new links between artists and musicians with scientist and engineers, to help communicate recent scientific understanding of the inter-relationships between human society and water, and spur new artistic creation that helps build a deep memory of water and its importance to human life.

Le " Génie et pouvoir de l'eau sera un projet multiculturel et interdisciplinaire qui engendrera un travail de création en ligne et hors ligne ainsi qu'un dialogue. Il cherchera à établir des liens entre artistes plasticiens, musiciens, et des scientifiques et ingénieurs, pour aider à la communication/diffusions de récentes études sur les relations entre les sociétés humaines et l'eau, et pour faire naître une nouvelle création artistique capable de construire une mémoire de l'eau profonde et montrer ainsi son importance pour la vie humaine. "

(Roger Malina)


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