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Assane Dione was born and brought up in Dakar, where he still resides. He attended high school and after further training in mechanical and graphic arts, he began what looked to be a very promising visual arts career, with additional interest in furniture design. At one time he shared a studio with the internationally acclaimed painter Fodé Camara. Sports have long been important to him as well, and he has excelled at Greco-Roman wrestling. As a member and coach for the Senegalese national wrestling team, Dione has competed in many African and European countries, and his tiny room is festooned with medals and trophies. He has taken advantage of his trips abroad to purchase art supplies that are difficult or impossible to obtain in Senegal. Assane Dione and his identical twin brother have remained bachelors, and both have become ardent followers of a marabout holy man named Serigne Modou Faye. Assane Dione has given up most of his professional aspirations to live the life of a talibé-a role not unlike that of a monk-of Serigne Faye, and he now paints for the holy project of his teacher. Assane Dione's large portraits of Amadu Bamba, Lamp Fall, and Bamba's most noteworthy sons cover the walls of Serigne Faye's reception room and bedroom, making it a most unusual devotional space.

 

a. Assane Dione (foreground) seated to the left of his marabout, Serigne Modou Faye, in Serigne Faye's reception room in Dakar. Photo 1999. Assane Dione paints portraits of Mouride saints for his teacher, the marabout Serigne Modou Faye of Dakar. These may appear to be of photo-realist style, but Dione would contend that in actuality, they are composed of numerical formulae and other secrets, some of which he has learned from Serigne Faye. The walls of Faye's reception room are covered with sacred images, and Dione has painted its ceiling as a trompe l'oeil paradisiacal sky, offering promise and release. The images hold and convey baraka, or blessed energy, and the room's visual piety is so potent that it is an "imagorium"--a neologism we have coined to suggest the degree to which such sacred imagery actively structures religious experience (see David Morgan's book, Visual Piety, 1998, University of California Press). Serigne Faye occupies his customary seat beneath the portrait of Serigne Saliou Mbacké, the current caliph (spiritual leader) of the Mourides, and one of two surviving sons of Amadu Bamba. Serigne Faye looks toward the open door of the imagorium, where his talibés congregate in the late afternoon to listen to his sermons and sing ecstatic zikr "songs of remembrance" and khassaid odes written by or about Amadu Bamba.

b. Serigne Modou Faye's bedroom in Dakar. Photo 1999. Serigne Faye's bedroom is also graced by Assane Dione's paintings, and its ceiling has been painted as a trompe l'oeil tarp that opens to a sky full of flying birds. An enormous painting (5x7') of Sheikh Ibra Fall fills the end of the small room. Dione has embellished the best known but oddly distorted and blurred photographic image of Fall, making him a handsome and powerful presence. Fall is shown seated on a throne instead of in the more usual active poses he assumes in Mouride arts, such as in a smaller work by Assane Dione in the corner of the room, in which he is seen cutting trees in the clearing that will become the holy city of Touba. Ibra Fall is better known as "Lamp" Fall, because he is the light of Mouridism. In another departure from ordinary depiction, Amadu Bamba is seen in profile rather than in frontal pose in this same painting. The saint is writing, as he was wont to do--indeed, Mourides say he left "seven metric tons" of verse, and that even more is hidden beneath the ocean.

c. Assane Dione hanging a large portrait in an outdoor tent pitched for celebration of the Prophet's birthday, Dakar. Photo 1999. On Islamic or Mouride holidays and for Serigne Faye's family celebrations, Assane Dione's paintings are taken from Faye's imagorium and bedroom and hung in a tent raised in the street in front of Faye's residence. This is also done when Serigne Faye and his talibés attend the Magal, or the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Touba, where Amadu Bamba is buried. The baraka or blessed energy conveyed by images of the saint is such that even the most profane site--even a street--is converted into a holy place of worship. Dione has also created trompe l'oeil minarets from plywood that are stationed on either side of the entrance to the tent. The portraits are complemented by calligraphic banners designed and painted by Dione. All are facing inward, to offer their baraka to those who assemble therein. For important holidays like the Prophet's birthday, professional musicians are hired to sing through the night while Serigne Faye's talibés dance joyfully. Feasts are organized, and ranks of chairs are arranged to welcome anyone from the neighborhood who wishes to join the celebration.

d. Portrait of Sheikh Amadu Bamba by Assane Dione, Dakar. Photo 1998. Assane Dione has created his portrait of Bamba based upon the only known photograph of the saint, taken in 1913. With regard to style, the originality of Dione's work lies in his cropping the original image to the saint's head and bust, and in his affective rendering of the saint's enigmatic face. Dione's contributions run far deeper than style, however, for following a Sufi sense of imagery, the saint's portrait holds untold numbers of secrets, some of which can be learned from profound study with marabout teachers like Serigne Faye. The contrast of black and white shapes, the wrinkle and wrap of the turban, the hidden mouth and protruding beard--anything and everything has its "hidden side" or batin (an Arabic loan word in the Wolof language spoken by most Mourides). Dione has painted the portrait of Bamba many times, and hopes to keep doing so, for he learns something new every time he does so and is impatient to begin anew so that he will learn even more. He hopes to paint twenty-eight portraits in a crescendo of accumulating knowledge. He will mount these in a bank four high and seven paintings across at the Magal of Touba, to bring a huge burst of baraka blessed energy to the throng of pilgrims.

e. Portrait of Sheikh Amadu Bamba by anonymous artist on an earthen wall of Gorée Island. Photo 1998. Assane Dione's portrait of Bamba has been copied so many times that one can assume that many have found qualities in Dione's rendering that they do not find in the photograph of 1913. That is, there may be something more "authentic" in the copy than in the original. Dione has never been asked for permission to make the copies that now appear in wall paintings and on such articles as fans sold at the 1999 Magal pilgrimage. Dakar Soir, a local newspaper, even printed a special issue on the Magal with a purloined copy of Dione's painting on the first page, warning that reproduction was prohibited! Dione jokes about this, and says he is happy that so many have found beauty and meaning in his work. The image shown here is painted on an earthen wall with a rough texture that lends an ethereal quality to the portrait. The wall is located atop the stony bluff of Gorée that served as an armed fortress defending the port of Dakar in colonial times. Nowadays, the gun turrets and battlements either stand empty or are occupied by a community of Baye Falls, who make money by playing drums and selling souvenirs to tourists coming to Gorée to visit museums concerning the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

f. Personal shrine of Assane Dione, Dakar. Photo 1999. Assane Dione lives in a tiny room perched on the roof of his mother's home in Dakar. He has designed the room to serve as both bedroom and artist's studio. A cabinet holds his papers and other belongings, and bears the open shelves seen here. The display centers about one of Dione's portraits of Amadu Bamba, echoed by the front page of the Dakar Soir special issue with its unauthorized copy of Dione's painting. Wrestling trophies stand before the central painting, and below them is a photograph of Serigne Modou Faye, Dione's spiritual leader. To the left of the central painting is a widely circulated calligraphy of the word "Allah" in Arabic, surrounded by sacred text. The red books on an adjacent shelf contain illustrations of medicinal plants drawn by Dione.

g. Billboard painting by Assane Dione, Dakar. Photo 1998. Although he has given up most aspects of his career as a professional artist, Assane Dione occasionally paints billboards for profit. These are original paintings directly on wood rather than on paper or some other covering applied to the support of the billboard, and after standing somewhere along a major thoroughfare, the entire billboard is moved to another location. This billboard advertises a brand of imported rice called "Mariz," a play on the French phrase "my rice." Dione's skill as a graphic artist is demonstrated in this billboard, and it is clear that if he wished to, he could develop a successful career; instead, he chooses to be an ascetic follower of Amadu Bamba.

 
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