Don’t you think some of the signs you see when you’re travelling are great? There are those hand-painted individually crafted signs which advertise services and merchandise for sale or hire, and then there are the more stylised roadside public information signs. I quite often find myself taking photographs of signs when I’m away on a trip. I’m not obsessive or anything – I don’t have trunks full of photos of foreign signs. I just like the idea that you don’t need to be able to read script if you can read signs. Although we get hand-painted signs at home they’re not always pictorial. In countries like Mali, these hand-painted signs usually have the minimum amount of script but are highly pictorial. From a Government or NGO point of view, if you want to get information across to people, nearly three-quarters of whom are illiterate, you use pictures. Even if literacy rates improved dramatically, with over 30 languages spoken in Mali, it would still be more cost effective to use pictorial means to disseminate public information. From a small trader’s point of view, pictures are the obvious way to tell the greatest number of people what service you provide or what products you sell. This is art born out of necessity and makes a significant contribution to the cultural identity of many countries worldwide. Mali is no exception.
Take a walk around the shopping area of any town in Mali and look at the paintings on the walls to the side and above the doors of many shops and workshops. Regardless of whether I could speak any French or not, I would have no trouble figuring out which shops sold spark plugs, bread, ceramic floor tiles, tinned sardines or plastic kitchen utensils. Neither does it matter that the paintings are often out of proportion, two-dimensional and idiosyncratic; they do the job. Tombouctou was particularly fruitful when it came to signs. One of my favourites was a driving school advertisement depicting a set of traffic lights, a stop sign, a pink saloon car of indeterminate make and a somewhat incomprehensible right of way type sign. It’s interesting that in Tombouctou there are few if any stop signs and no traffic lights at all, yet these images are used to signify learning to drive. A barber’s sign in Tombouctou also had me momentarily puzzled. Two nearly life-size men’s heads had been drawn onto a piece of ripped sheeting which was tied onto gate railings. The head on the left hand-side had a smart hair cut and trimmed beard while the one on the right hand side was a bit of a scruffy looking tyke. I wondered why the guy on the right looked more like the "before" than the "after" picture. Then it dawned on me – the barber must have been a Muslim. So the "before" picture was actually the "after" picture because the advertisement had to be viewed from right to left. OK, so maybe I was a bit slow – I know that picture books and comics, when in Arabic, are read from back to front and right to left. I’d just never thought about applying it to "before" and "after" adverts. You do really need to be in a country where there’s a staggeringly low literacy rate and a tradition of Muslim culture. It also helps if advertising as we know it, just hasn’t really happened yet. I can’t think of many countries I’ve visited that have that specific combination of factors so I suppose that’s why I was puzzled.
The Government and NGO sponsored public information signs appear at regular intervals along the side of the main roads in Mali as well as in the villages and towns themselves. By far the vast majority are concerned with public health issues, in particular the prevention of diseases such as malaria, dysentery and AIDS. So you get depictions of mosquitoes, mosquito nets, hand-washing, soap and this black bacteria-shaped splodge with an evil face that represents the AIDS virus. The messages are clear enough without the use of script. One of the most disturbing public information signs was a World Vision sponsored sign condemning the practice of female circumcision. It shows a young girl cowering as an older woman looms over her – instead of a tongue, the older woman has a scalpel pointed at the girl from her mouth. It is estimated that about 90% of girls in Mali are circumcised and moves are being made by the Government to stop the practice. It is now an offence for hospitals and medical practitioners to perform circumcision and a few villages have actually banned it. It will be a long haul for the Government because the practice has been going on for hundreds of years and has become part of the women’s cultural tradition. Indeed, it is the older women themselves who perpetuate the custom and that is why it is an older woman shown on the sign. It is hoped that through a countrywide education and public awareness programme women will, in time, reject this unnecessary and very dangerous practise.
There was one public information sign I saw that I loved, although you did need to be able to read a bit of French to get the most enjoyment from it. It was for charcoal stoves and the artist had painstakingly painted three different models of stove and the logo of the Strategie Energie Domestique (SED) in the top corner. The SED is a government initiative that aims to discourage the use of wood as a fuel and promote alternative energy sources such as imported charcoal or increasingly, bottled gas. It was the slogan painted along the bottom that got me – MA FEMME EN A ET LA VOTRE? – which means "My wife’s got one, has yours?" It was like going back in time and watching those old early 60’s TV ads for cookers. Your cooker is not only your status symbol girls, it’s the key to a happy marriage!
So, the moral of this tale is; read the signs. It may well be that as literacy rates improve and language and script become standardised, this "information art" could one day be a dying tradition. For the time being though, it is a contemporary and functional style of art that is worth looking out for.