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  • Writer's picturePaul G. Chandler

Baba’s Art School – 101: #13

“You can’t begin too soon to encourage an appreciation of art! And each artwork has a story.”


Baba showing his grandkids the "reverse-glass" painting of Amadou Bamba


You have heard of walking on water, but what about praying on the water?


It was most enjoyable for this Baba to introduce his grandchildren to this artwork in the collection using a fascinating technique from Senegal, West Africa, where I grew up, called “sous-verre,” which in French means “under-glass.” It is often called “reverse-glass” painting, a traditional art form that was brought to Senegal in the early 20th century by Muslim traders from North Africa. Although the artworks may seem to be under a sheet of glass, they are actually painted on the reverse of the glass. The first step is to draw the outlines in ink on the glass. Everything needs to be done backwards so it will be visible from the front. The artist needs to think in reverse, literally painting details and foreground first, then middle ground, then background.


In Senegal, “reverse painting” more often than not depicts images of Islamic saints. This particular work highlights the inspiring life of Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese Sufi Muslim mystic born in 1853. An enormously popular religious figure, he opposed colonial oppression in West Africa through nonviolent resistance. He also produced a vast body of works emphasizing spiritual development, charity, peaceful coexistence, humility, civic responsibility, and hard work. He founded the Mouride Brotherhood, now the largest Sufi movement in Senegal, with millions of followers. He also founded the city of Touba, where the largest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa is found. Considered a Sufi saint, millions make a pilgrimage to his burial place in Touba each year.


MAM Gueye, "Sheikh Amadou Bamba’s Miracle of Prayer,” 2017


As Bamba’s influence grew, the French colonial government saw him as a potential threat to their power. From early in the 19th century, the French policy consisted of Christianization and assimilation to the French culture. French authorities imprisoned Bamba, and exiled him to the country of Gabon in Central Africa for over 7 years, then to Mauritania for 5 years, and then kept him under house arrest for the next 15 years, until the end of his life, albeit allowing him to continue to establish his community.


There are several surviving photographs of him, in which he wears a flowing white robe and his face is mostly covered by a scarf. These pictures are venerated and reproduced in paintings on walls, buses, taxis, boats, and all manner of public and private spaces around Senegal (see below photos). The images are seen as bestowing Bamba’s active blessing and protection, not just his memory.


Bamba’s exile inspired folk tales about him. When the captain of the French ship hauling him into exile refused to allow him to perform his prayers aboard the ship, it is said that Bamba broke through his chains, threw his prayer mat into the water, jumped overboard, said his prayers on the waves, and then returned to the ship.


It is this miracle of praying on the water that is evoked in this “sous-verre” painting.


Sheikh Amadou Bamba’s motto was: “Pray to God but plow your fields.” He is known for his simple creed, “My religion is the love of God.”

 

“Bamba is the ocean,” goes a Senegalese saying - a sea of wisdom available to all.


PS: My grandson was deeply concerned about the dangerous looking fish in the water, surrounding Bamba in the painting! For adults, it is quite interesting to try to discern the order of the various layers of color that were put down after the initial black outlines.

 

About the artwork:

MAM Gueye, "Sheikh Amadou Bamba’s Miracle of Prayer,” 2017

Sous-verre painting, 35x50cm




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