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OLATS/VIRTUAL AFRICA1, in collaboration with the RIVER FESTIVAL, FLUIDARTS, and the CHARLES PERRAULT INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE 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 originate in the African continent, a land known as the cradle of the universe but also recognized as one of the first victims of highly critical problems of shortage and purification of water. Starting with artistic and scientific studies in the African context, we will extend some ramifications so that other continents can examine the role and signification of water in the artistic and cultural activities of human societies. Water, a linking substance per se, will be used symbolically to link different cultures and to initiate dialogue and reflection between artists and scientists.

" The Spirit and Power of Water " will give rive to a seminar in Marseilles, the 8th and 9th of November 2001. This encouter 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 events. The second one, " The Power of Water ", will include experimentation and projects tackling the water issue within some scientific, economic, and political contexts.


Water, the Dogon say, is animated by Nommo, this spirit endowed with mysterious and extraordinary powers - at times fearful - to whom human beings owe a total veneration, forNommo 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. It's 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 religious 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. Hence, the terms of an esthetic study on water will be posed ; water, as it will be verified, has its own esthetic characteristics, its own imagination, and proves to be an endless source of inspiration for all the artists in the world.


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 ". Water rules domestic and agricultural activities of human beings, and most of their economic activities. It also plays a major part in peoples' migration. It's when water is the cause of natural disasters (floods, drought, epidemics...) that it makes the most cruel demonstration of its power over the life and destiny of the Earth. For all these reasons, and because it is 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. Fearing a shortage of water, certain countries which are run across by the widest rivers do attempt to take over these resources of fresh water that are still available ( Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, India). 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 by scientists that the " population of the under-region, estimated at 200 millions of people, reached a growth rate superior to 6%." 2 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 (pollution, deterioration of ground waters by unrestricted pumping, bad water management, and the lack of appropriate purification techniques, in Africa and in the Southern countries which are at the origin of several epidemics and a real obstacle to the economic development, ...) 3 .

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. 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. 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 today 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 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:

3 On this matter, read in the magazine Sciences et Vie the issue of June 2000 which deals with the question of water in the world ; and the statistics investigations conducted by the FAO on their Internet site :






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