Mali: Crafting a Recovery for Mali’s Artisans?

Ouagadougou — Burkina Faso’s arts and crafts fair is providing a crucial lifeline for struggling Malian artisans.

It’s 3pm and things are hotting up at Ouagadougou’s biennial International Arts and Crafts Fair (SIAO), and not just because of the temperature: mornings at the fair are reserved for professional buyers but the doors open to the general public at midday, and visitors have arrived in droves.

People shuffle past the stalls, casting a cursory glance at some, lingering at others. Artisans beckon visitors to take a closer look at their wares; the loudspeakers drone with endless announcements. In a couple of stalls, prospective buyers and artisans are deep in conversation, hunched over chairs at the back of the stall. For many craftspeople, this is make-or-break week for the two years ahead.

The SIAO is now in its 13th edition and has become a key date in the diary of West African artisans (leather, jewellery, textile, woodcarving, metal works, pottery, furniture etc) and international buyers (textile/fashion designers, shop or gallery owners from Europe, Asia and North America). The week-long fair attracts about 300,000 visitors and the 550 stalls sell out well ahead of the event, despite the hefty price tag: a stall in the fan-cooled pavilions costs CFA300,000 ($600) and a whopping CFA700,000 ($1400) in the air-conditioned pavilions.

Mali’s crafts

SIAO aspires to be a pan-African event but its location in Burkina Faso means that the bulk of exhibitors hail from West Africa: you can tick every country on the map from Mauritania to Cameroon. What is striking about this year’s event however is the sheer number of Malian artisans: more than 300 have taken part, many desperate to address in a week what the poor security situation has done to their business over the past couple of years.

For although the situation in Mali took a turn for the worse with the coup this year, Astan Traoré, President of the National Federation of Malian Artisans (FNAM), says that security in northern Mali started deteriorating in 2010 and that visitors have long stopped coming. “In Kidal [one of Mali’s three northern regions], all crafts businesses have closed”, she tells Think Africa Press, “and in Timbuktu and Gao…around 90% [closed]”. Attrition is particularly high amongst women, who have turned to petty trading to make a living.

And it is not just visitors with souvenir cash who have deserted Mali because of security concerns but professional buyers too. Harper Poe is an American textile designer; her company, Proud Mary, specialises in home furnishings using textiles from Guatemala and Mali. She hasn’t been able to go to Mali this year so she has come to SIAO instead. “All my suppliers are here, it’s an opportunity to meet them all in one sweep”, she says.