Game changers – Felwine Sarr, Touria El Glaoui, Acha Leke… Idea shaker-uppers

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Game Changers

By Christophe Le Bec, Nicolas Michel and Pauline Le Troquier
Posted on Thursday, 23 December 2021 15:49, updated on Monday, 27 December 2021 00:44

Publishing, contemporary art, education... From Senegal to Cameroon via Morocco, portraits of the Africans helping the continent’s artistic and intellectual achievements shine on the world stage.

This is part 4 of an 8-part series

Publishing in bright lights

Felwine Sarr. © Stéphanie Scholz/Colagène

The spotlight was on the author, but not the publisher. Jimsaan has become the first foreign publisher to have published a Goncourt-winning novel: the one awarded on November 3 to Mohamed Mbougar Sarr for La Plus Secrète Mémoire des hommes, a work published between two continents by French publishing house Philippe Rey and the Senegalese publisher Jimsaan.

It was in 2013 that intellectuals Boubacar Boris Diop, Nafissatou Dia and Felwine Sarr founded Jimsaan. A “small” independent publishing house that is “very demanding on the text”. “We don’t publish much. Some people even reproach us for it,” says Felwine Sarr. To launch their business, they chose Saint-Louis, in Senegal, before moving to Dakar. As if more than mere coincidence, Saint-Louis was also where Mbougar began his adventures, with studies at the prestigious military academy in the city.

The partners, all who were writers before becoming publishers, had launched a risky “venture”, says Felwine Sarr: to encourage African authors to be published in Africa by an African publishing house. Felwine Sarr shot to fame in 2009 when his first text, Dahij, was picked up by the publishing giant Gallimard. “Sometimes, when you get published abroad, there is a negotiation issue between what you want to write and what is perceived as acceptable by an African author. We felt that we could remedy this in part by creating this project ourselves,” says Felwine Sarr.

Through his growing success, Felwine Sarr – now head of Jimsaan, alongside Nafissatou Dia – also worked with Philippe Rey, his own publisher, who became a friend and “partner in literary adventures”. Together, they co-edited their first text in 2014, Comment philosopher en Islam?, by Souleymane Bachir Diagne.

As Mbougar Sarr advanced with the writing of his latest novel, the co-editors, from a distance, began reading and editing. At first, the remarks were objective, then formulated according to the subjectivity of each reader. “We can’t put this in, we’ll cut this out,” Felwine Sarr says he suggested this several times. On the financial side, for both production costs and revenues, the co-publishing contract provided for an equal share for the two publishers. It is “50-50”, says Philippe Rey, “a true co-publishing arrangement, where everything is shared.”

He [Mohamed Mbougar Sarr] has gone beyond this face-off between Africa and the West. He places himself elsewhere, in this third continent that is literature.

In practice, manufacturing and distribution was largely managed by the French publisher. Jimsaan was able to rely on Philippe Rey’s “well-established” network of bookstores. “When the text is released, it will be found in Dakar, Nouakchott, Bamako, but also in Lille and Bordeaux,” says Felwine Sarr. The co-publishers are now exploring the possibility of printing directly in Dakar, where copies, sold at 40% to 50% less than in France, are still in bookstores. Finally, each house has supported the book’s promotional efforts, both in Africa and France.

The “small” Jimsaan publishing house and the independent publisher Phillipe Rey have accomplished something great together. Their 31-year-old author became the first Sub-Saharan to receive the Goncourt Prize. “He [Mohamed Mbougar Sarr] has gone beyond this face-off between Africa and the West. He places himself elsewhere, in this third continent that is literature,” says Philippe Rey.

Pauline Le Troquier

The Brains Trust

Acha Leke. © Stéphanie Scholz/Colagène

Ghanaian Fred Swaniker and Cameroonian Acha Leke, who met on the benches of the prestigious Californian University of Stanford, can boast of having developed an innovative, pan-African and entrepreneurial approach to higher education, on a continent where no university appears in the main world rankings, except a handful of South African institutions.

In 2005, they founded the African Leadership Academy (ALA), an American-style prep school, which, since its creation, has enabled more than 1,100 young Africans – including 194 Francophones – from 52 countries to enter the best international universities – in particular, those of the American Ivy League that include Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton.

Even so, they were not content and thus, 10 years later, they founded the African Leadership University (ALU). With two campuses, one in Mauritius, the other in Kigali, which opened in 2015 and 2017 respectively, this new-style university, whose faculty is more than 75% African, aims to train nearly 1,400 innovative entrepreneurs active on the continent each year. Currently, about 100 start-ups have emerged from their initiatives.

At both ALA and ALU, students are handpicked – only 5% of applicants are selected – based on academic criteria, but also on their involvement in social, environmental or artistic projects that demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit. Those who come from modest backgrounds – a large majority of them – benefit from a system of scholarships financed by major companies and individual donors, including many alumni. ALA and ALU have created effective support networks that allow older alumni to help recent graduates. The Ghanaian-Cameroonian duo has no intention of stopping there: the African Leadership Group, which oversees ALA and ALU, aims to develop three million ethical leaders and entrepreneurs by 2035.

Christophe Le Bec

Touria El Glaoui, creators’ guide

Touria El Glaoui. © Stéphanie Scholz/Colagène

In the early 2010s, the young Moroccan Touria El Glaoui travelled widely in Africa, due to the demands of her work in telecoms. Close to the artistic world – she is in charge of the works and exhibitions of her father, the painter Hassan El Glaoui – she has had the opportunity to discover many unknown art scenes. “I was always surprised to see the contrast between what I discovered on the continent and the low profile of contemporary African artists,” she says. “Even the most established artists did not enjoy international recognition. That’s why I thought of a fair, which could serve as a gateway to the art market. At that time, it was very complicated for them to travel and sell their works.”

Thus, the 1-54 African Contemporary Art Fair (then called 1:54) was born. The name refers to the 54 countries of the continent. The first edition took place in London, in October 2013, at Somerset House, at the same time as the Frieze Art Fair. Touria El Glaoui had the idea to attach his fair to a larger event attracting collectors, journalists, critics and art enthusiasts.

Since then, 1-54 has taken place every year on the banks of the River Thames, has grown with editions in Marrakech, New York and Paris… and has led to greater recognition of African artists. “Many people have worked in this direction, we are not the only ones, nor the first, but 1-54 was the trigger! Art critics, the press, professionals, collectors finally had access to creations they did not know. The fair put an end to an unacceptable situation.”

If the idea seems simple, it was no easy task in retrospect: to group up diverse contemporary artists under the same geographical “ghetto” could even make people cringe, many artists do not want to wear the African label. “We took this point of view very seriously, we discussed it in the various forums of the fair, we did not avoid it,” says Touria El Glaoui. “I […] do not think we should categorise an artist by his geography, but […] for Africa, it is good to join forces to have more visibility, be better integrated and more effective on the global market.”

The Covid-19 years could have been fatal for 1-54 – the fair canceled events twice in New York and once in Marrakech – but thanks to their reactiveness and flexibility, the team has been able to adapt. “We have set up various collaborations, notably with the auction house Christie’s, and we have adapted to the health context with online platforms.”

During its last London edition, 1-54 also showed that it was totally in tune with the contemporary art world by organising a first for an African visual artist: the sale of the NFT series Different Shades of Water, by Nigerian crypto-artist Osinachi. NFTs, Non-fungible tokens, a technology that allows you to become the proud owner of an immaterial work available only online…

Nicolas Michel

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