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Floating art venue offers hope in strife-torn Mali

Dancers from the Don Sen Folo Lab, a Malian cultural association for artistic creation, train ahead of the inauguration of Mali’s first art residency boat on the Niger River i   -  
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12 young dancers pound the boards of a boat to the sound of tomtoms on the Niger River in Bamako. They are rehearsing for the grand opening of Mali's first floating art venue: the Pirogue du Zémé.

"Floating artists" aboard the specially adapted vessel would move up and down the Niger, a river that nourishes West Africa from Guinea to Nigeria.

They would bring dance, theatre, puppetry and exhibitions wherever they could find a place to tie up and people to entertain.

"Every second is important. It is a d ream that has just come true. It's not just the dance sector, it's not just the artistic sector, but there is a new imagination that is going to land on the river Niger. I have only seen small fishermen's canoes on the river during my childhood and I think that it's more than that, everything has to be perfect, the dream has to be perfect, it has to be more than just a dream." said Lassina Koné, creator of the Pirogue of the Zémé.

Their idea is to make art a moveable feast, no longer restricted to fixed venues in the cities and available to as many people as possible.

"What we're doing is adapting the stage. It's my first time getting on a boat and dancing like this, it's a little bit unbalanced and it gives us strength, it allows the dancers to really adapt to different environments," added Yacouba Coulibaly, a dancer.

Four years after their talk, and with some financial help from the European Union, the Pirogue of the Zeme was born. The overall project cost the equivalent of almost $300,000, including the construction of the boat, salaries for the craftsman and funding for activities over four years.

The fruit of five months' labour, the wood and steel vessel measures around 20 metres (66 feet) long by six metres (20 feet) wide.

"He had this dream of putting a show on the water, and he wanted the people of the banks, the people of the river, to see a show that was performed. I thought it was great and I said to myself, let's embark on this adventure," explained Cheick Diallo, the architect and designer of the boat.

The architect of the boat’s work has been widely exhibited internationally. 

Diallo also oversees a photography exhibition held in Mali every two years which is one of the biggest cultural draws in Africa.

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