Alpha Oumar Konaré (b. February 2, 1946, Kayes) is an African politician and museologist from Mali. He was the President of Mali from 1992 to 2002 and Chairman of the African Union Comission until 2008. He is also a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), an organization of which he was president from 1989 to 1992, and has played an active role as member of the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM).
Alpha Oumar Konaré was born on February 2, 1946 in Kayes, Mali, where he went to primary school. Later, he attented the Terrasson de Fougères High School in Bamako; the Collège des Maristes in Dakar, Senegal; the Collège Moderne in Kayes and, from 1962 to 1964, the École Normale Secondaire of Katibougou. He accomplished his superior studies in History and Geography at the École Normale Supérieure in Bamako (1965-1969) and at the University of Varsovia (Polonia), from 1971 to 1975. He started his professional career as a primary teacher in Kayes, then, later, as a high school teacher in Markala and Bamako.
In 1974, he was appointed Research Fellow at the Human Sciences Institute of Mali. Afterwards, from 1975 to 1978, he became Head of the Historical and Ethnographic Heritage at the Ministry of Youth, Sports, Arts and Culture. In 1980, he was nominated as Research Fellow at the High Training Institute in Applied Research (ISFRA) and also worked as a teacher in the Department of History and Geography of the École Normale Superieure in Bamako.
Throughout his career, he was chairman of several professional associations related to the african context, such as: the Association of Historians and Geographers in Mali, the West African Archeologists’ Association and the Association of West African Scientists.
He became a political activist from a young age. In 1967, he was elected General Secretary of Youth for US-RDA (Sudanese Union – African Democratic Rally), the political party of President Modibo Keita, from the École Normale Supérieure of Bamako.
After Moussa Traoré’s coup d’état, he became an activist for the clandestin party (Malian Party of Labour). In 1978, believing in Moussa Traoré’s willingness for an open approach, he accepts the position of Ministry of Youth, Sports, Arts and Culture. He then resigns in 1980. His actions were crucial for basic education and the organization of sports in Mali.
In 1983, he funded and managed the cultural magazine Jamana, and also a namesake cultural cooperative. In 1989, he started the newspaper Les Échos. In 1990, he had a role in the foundation of ADEMA association (Alliance for Democracy in Mali), contributing later to transform it into a political party, named as Pan-African Party for Liberty, Solidarity and Justice (ADEMA/PASJ). He was its first president and the deputy of Mali’s National Conference in 1991, after the decline of Moussa Traoré.
In 1991, he created Bamanankan Radio, Mali’s first free associative radio. In April 1992, at the end of the democratic transition conducted by Amadou Toumani Touré, he was elected Federal President with 69,01% of the votes in the second round, against Tiéoulé Mamadou Konaté. He was reelected for a second term in 1997, still in the first round, with 95,9% of votes against only one candidate, Mamadou Maribatrou Diaby.
On a national scale, his actions were defined by the restauration of Mali’s democracy, the end of conflits with the Touaregs and also the achievement of decentralization in the country. However, the economic difficulties and corruption remained, despite his efforts. In 2002, in accordance with the Constitution which limits the number of presidential terms to two, Konaré was succeeded by Amadou Toumani Touré.
In the museum world, in 1980, Konaré become member of the consultive committee of ICOM for projects. He became president of Mali’s National Committee in 1982[¹]. In 1983, he was elected vice-president of ICOM, being reelected for the same position in 1986. Later, in 1989, he was elected president, ending his term in 1992 as the first African president of this organization.
Konaré had already been participating in activities of ICOFOM since 1982[²], the same year of his first participation in an annual meeting of the committee, in Paris. He kept contributing to ICOFOM throughout his career at ICOM, and he was also a consultant of UNESCO and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) from 1981 to 1992.
On an international level, he works for peace in the African continent and for regional integration. He presided the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) in 1999 and 2000. Konaré was elected president of the African Union Comission on July 10th of 2003, by African Chiefs of States reunited in Maputo’s Summit. His term ended in 2009, and his successor was the Gabonese Jean Ping.
He is member of the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie (The Francophone High Council) and Doctor Honoris Causa of the Université Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne and the Université libre de Bruxelles.
Alpha Oumar Konaré is married to the writer and historian Adame Ba Konaré.
POINTS OF VIEW ON MUSEOLOGY
During his career in Museology, Alpha Oumar Konaré presented sensitive points of view to the African museum reality, raising questions about the European model of museum and presenting the variety and innovations in the African continent as he analyzed Mali’s museums.
Due to his international prestige, his ideas were decisive for the awaken of Eurocentric museology to the representation of African heritage and culture in museums around the world. Not only he has called into question the European model of the museum in Africa, but he has also interrogated the “Africa” represented in museums all over Europe.
THOUGHTS ON THE MUSEUM PRACTICE IN AFRICA
The foundation, in 1953, of a museum in Mali was, to Konaré, a colonial act. The African museum, on his analysis, had the same purpose of the colonial exhibitions that were still happening in Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century, and represented “an act of ‘violence’, a break with the traditions”[³] that disregarded the culture of local populations to put into place a culture of assimilation. To Konaré:
“The collection, the museum, were the sanction of an open wound, the consequence of disaggregation of traditional social structures. The museum could only contain dead objects, condemned to death or to die”.
Systematically confronting classical museological principles adopted by European museums, with practices learned from the African museums, Konaré relied on his experience to put into context the types of museums and the goal of innovation, proposing “a type of museum adapted to the country”. By considering the renovation of the National Museum of Bamako, in 1981, this politicized-specialist presents a practice that, according to him, “breaks with the tradition of the monolithic museum, palace/house of culture, etc.” and proposes the museum as a “cultural center” capable of affirming modernity in Mali’s culture since its foundation.
Acting in a new museum policy that recommended the democratization of museums both within their conception and in the means of access and communication, the National Museum of Bamako was designed to be the “lungs” of Mali’s museums. In other words, it should function as the coordinating point, a benchmark or the “center lab” of all other museums in the country. It represented, then, a new institutional perspective over a changing museology.
In his first paper presented at ICOFOM, discussing the regulations of authentic objects and copies in the African context, in 1985, Konaré accuses colonization to be the main engine for the creation of copies or for depriving ceremonial objects of their religious function. He points out that it was from the colonial occupation that the military and the cities’ administrators began to take interest in “exotic” objects. The “collection” of these objects by force led to the creation of museums that served colonial interests and, at the same time, met the demands of the rising tourism. According to Konaré: “Faced with the challenge of ‘populating’ these museums with true but non-functional objects, museums have identified artisans (usually caste men) who would be in charge of making copies from real models (which will not be destroyed) or prints or photographs”.
These museums, created under the patronage of colonization, presented collections “uprooted, desecrated or ‘out of use'”, without having any relation with the local human and social environment. The museum, thus, in the words of Konaré, became a place of sacrilege in two senses: “for some, it violated the spirit of the ancestors, and for others, it violated consciousness.”
The role of the museologist in this context is then called into question. Konaré states that the museologist consciously purchases objects or even commits fraud, following the “snob, exotic” behavior of colonial agents. The problem may be, as he explains, in the training of these professionals, that doesn’t include the knowledge and appreciation of their national cultures. In fact, the references of national culture are marginalized as well as their knowledge and means of expression, such as languages. He proposes that museologists should become, first and foremost, “men of the field [terrain]”, nourished by national (traditional) cultures, history and science.
THE ROLE OF LOCAL POPULATIONS IN THE DECOLONIZATION OF MUSEUM STRUCTURES
Between the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s, the museological thought of Alpha Oumar Konaré goes from a more critical point of view about the traditional museums – seen as instruments to colonial domination – to considerer the important role of these institutions when used as instruments to the local populations. In his speech at ICOM’s General Assembly of 1992, where the theme question was “Are there limits for the museums?”, Konaré emphasized the capacity of museums to testify their surroundings and interpret events in many different contexts in the postcolonial world.
On the other hand, in a critique from 1983 about traditional ethnographic museums, he recognized the recent transformations of the European model and proposed that “among all types of museums in Europe today, Africa should examine the system of ecomuseums more closely”, because they represent a priori “a territory, a population in action, a ‘heritage derived from the collective memory'” and “a set of concrete social practices in a real field [terrain]”.
Based on the example of ecomuseums, Konaré notices in the practices of integrating local populations to create and manage museums a key method to reach autonomy. Such premise means, for traditional museums, that the populations themselves must determine the choices which will establish the collection of objects. For African ecomuseums, it means integrating equally all the human and material resources of the local environment, considering, in the new museum structure, the education, the culture and the information in a homogeneous way.
To Konaré, ecomuseums offered new and different paths that favored the traditional structures of education or, still, new structures to be invented in the field of action – of local populations and museologists as well. Only then one could think of new autonomous structures for African museums capable of establishing a real dissolution with colonial and neocolonial heritage. He considers, however, the problems and difficulties of the ecomuseum approach in the African context, since it has as its starting point the participation of local authorities and a population. What kind of government could, on the African continent, successfully implement an ecomuseum?
Considering the appropriation of the ecomuseum in Africa, Konaré emphasizes the need to accept different models, and hence several approaches and translations of new formulas that arise from the European ecomuseums, favouring even more “the role of units such as families, ‘resourceful people’, the elderly, etc.”. The African experience, therefore, challenges and broadens the concept of the ecomuseum, prioritizing the intangible goods (words, rituals, signs, etc.) that are particularly special to the societies of oral culture, and having the human, the creator as someone who can make and remake the new, taking the leading role in the museum action.
THE “LIBERATION” OF ARTS PREMIERS IN EUROPE
While occupying the role of president of ICOM, from 1989 to 1992, Konaré was an influential voice in the cause for representation of African cultures in European museums. His influence contributed to the appreciation of the “arts premiers” in museums, a movement that had been gaining supporters in the 1990’s with the creation of new museums that broke with the ethnographic logic seen as colonialist – including some new national art museums oriented to this theme.
In his thought on the decolonization of museums, on the one hand, Konaré defended that ethnographic museums in the African continent should be renewed, leaving the responsibility of freeing themselves from all cultural alienation – rejecting the foreign concepts to decolonize the museums and reinventing them according to their own needs – to the benefit of the African people (not the foreign “experts”). On the other hand, looking at African collections in the European context, Konaré questioned the colonialist bias that still prevailed in the African representation through “ethnographic” objects.
In January 1990, when he took over the presidency of ICOM, Konaré addressed the Prime Minister of France, Michel Rocard, to highlight the lack of appreciation of African art in French museums and suggested the creation of a new institution, which should lead to the “appreciation, enhancement, and renovation of other museums specialized in African culture”. His message, both political and museologic, echoed positively among French personalities such as the collector Jacques Kerchache , responsible for giving a straightforward support to a desire for change that came from different representatives.
In the midst of a crisis of ethnographic museums in France, and of an uncertainty about the fate of their collections, Kerchache calls into question the kind of museological treatment these objects were receiving in these institutions. A few months after Konaré’s declaration, Kerchache would become well-known for publishing, in the newspaper Libération, his manifesto “For masterpieces of the whole world to be born free and equal”. This mobilization of cultural authorities in the French context would lead to a revolution of the values from ethnographic and art museums around the world, creating the label of “arts premiers” to the collections of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas in private and national institutions, such as the Musée du quai Branly, idealized in the 1990’s by Jacques Kerchache and by French president Jacques Chirac.
In his museum critique, Konaré was certainly inspired by the reflections of Stanislas Adotevi, museologist from Dahomey (currently Benin), who in the 1970s has planted the seed of decolonization within ICOM . He was also influenced in this works by French museologists Hugues de Varine, Georges Henri Rivière, and the African from Mali, Claude Daniel Ardouin.
AUTHORS HE INFLUENCED
Directly or indirectly his works on museums in Africa have influenced a more critical approach to museology by authors such as André Desvallées and François Mairesse. In his comments on the arts premiers, his ideas and political points of view would be used by Jacques Kerchache and Jacques Chirac in the French “liberation” of African art.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar (1980). Musées et patrimoine ethnologique. Actes de la 12e Conférence générale et de la 13e Assemblée générale du Conseil international des musées. Mexico, 25 octobre – 4 novembre, 1980. ICOM, pp.69-71.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (1981). Bamako, Mali. Naissance d’un musée. Museum, vol. XXXIII, n. 1, pp.4-8.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (1983). Pour d’autres musées « ethnographique » en Afrique. Museum, n. 139, vol. XXXV, n.3, 1983, pp.146-151.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (1985a). Des écomusées pour le Sabel: un programme. Museum, n. 148, vol. XXXVII, n. 4, 1985, pp.230-236.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (1985b). Substituts de masques et statuettes au Mali. ICOFOM Study Series – ISS 8, 1985, pp. 57–60.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (1987). L’idée du musée. ICOFOM Study Series – ISS 12, 1987, pp. 151–155.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (1992). Discours du président. In : ICOM. (1992). Musées : y-a-t-il des limites ? Actes de la XVIe Conférence générale du Conseil international des musées, 19 au 26 septembre 1992, Québec, Canada. pp.75-76.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (2004). Un africain du Mali. Entretien avec Bernard Cattanéo. Bamako : Cauris Éditions.
Konaré, Alpha Oumar. (2015). La bataille du souvenir. Bamako : Cauris Livres.