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The Air Burundi Paintings

Dreamed 2007/1/20 by Chris Wayan

A sleepy village: palms, red-roofed huts, dirt plaza, a dog.

I'm wandering around a farmer's market in a hill-town in East Africa. Rwanda? No, Burundi. Small shops around the plaza, which is a winding, sloping open space, just a wide stretch of dirt street really. It's near noon, hot and sleepy. Nearly everyone's home napping. Only mad dogs and dreamers out in the noonday sun!

Above the shop-fronts, where I expect to see signs, hang huge paintings by a local woman. Cartoony oil paintings on rough wood panels, generally squarish but irregular, rough--Flintstones shapes.

The paintings show the founding of the national airline--Air Burundi. This was a matter of great national pride because it wasn't a colonial inheritance but an all-black, entirely new enterprise. But it's still an odd thing to see in a hill town like this. It doesn't even have an airstrip! And decorating stores selling peppers, or cloth, or chickens? Weird.

Bewildered, I look more closely at the panels... Painted caricatures--really just giant heads with legs. A black head with red eyes and filed teeth speaks to a pink head with sharp nose and thin lips. Behind them, a red and yellow airplane with chicken feet and a silhouette of Africa on its tail.


We're at an airport. Air Burundi's very first plane is ready for its maiden flight. But it looks all wrong, almost a child's drawing, with fat body and stubby wings and chicken feet for landing gear.

It's as if the painter's never seen a plane (and in fact, one shopkeeper who notices my interest in the art tells me "Oh, the artist is a local woman who's never flown").

It seems that Silly Whiteboy has just purchased a ticket on the inaugural flight of this native-run airline. Black engineers, black pilots.

But chief Trad-Dad-Belly-Bad, a huge alarming Cannibal Head with filed teeth, warns Silly: "Boy, you'll die--Africa's not meant to fly."

And how can he ignore the voice of Traditional Black Authenticity? Why, that'd be racist!

But despite his fear and guilt, Silly Whiteboy boards the plane...
Painting of a plane flight. The tall black flight attendants have claws and eyes on stalks. Pink head in a passenger seat looks scared, holds a drink. Blue sky, white clouds out the plane windows.


On board, in flight now, Silly White Boy sits nervously.

The flight attendants (and pilot) are not reassuring. They look like demons--tall figures with masks for faces, huge green slit eyes bulging from their heads, and claw hands.

Are we seeing through Trad-Dad-Belly-Bad's traditional eyes? Has Whiteboy, by daring to enter the sky, strayed into the spirit world?

Or are we seeing through the eyes of Whiteboy's fears--old racist fears he thought he'd laid to rest, reborn in this moment of suspension between Earth and the spirit world, life and death?

He huddles in his seat below the monsters, and nervously sips a drink. It doesn't seem to help.

He dares not look out the window at the cloud-castles and lands beneath--not yet.
The red, dotted flight-path of the first Air Burundi plane, over an abstract, painted landscape--gold savanna, blue lakes, red desert, snowy volcanoes, gray elephants, pink hippos. Seen from above, they've all turned radial and wondrous strange. .


The red, dotted flight-path of the first Air Burundi plane, across a wildly abstracted landscape--gold savanna, blue lakes, red desert, snowy volcanoes, gray elephants, pink hippos.

Seen from above, they've all turned radial and wondrous strange.

Seems like Silly Whiteboy has opened his eyes and LOOKED, at last! At Africa. His Africa, too. An Africa he's claimed, by his courage and trust. He's left Tradition in the dust.

Pinkboy rides the doom bird, sees
Forest mountains deserts trees...

Painted caricatures of pink face phoning a huge black cannibal head, with filed teeth and yellow eyes. The path of the cellphone call is shown as little footprints in the air.


He lands alive, to proudly phone:
"Africa's flying on her own."
And so he does. The no-longer-silly white boy telephones the chief from the Big City to prove he survived the first flight on a fully African-run plane. The path of the cellphone call is shown as little footprints in the air.

And something more is in the air: change. Colonialism and its generation-long hangover is fading at last! It's a new day; a day when things don't always fall apart.

Sometimes (though slowly, even invisibly) things come together. The center learns to hold.
Painting: profile of a brown woman with frizzy hair, in a yellow top, pointing up and to the left.


I've been describing the Air Burundi Paintings in order, but that's not how I saw them first. You see, they got hung on the shop-fronts out of sequence. The painter had to talk friendly shop-owners into her project as opportunities came up.

So at first, as I wander the market, the series just looks like some crazy shop-sign painter is obsessed with airplanes (and with quite insulting caricatures of both blacks and whites). I had to slow down and take in the market as a whole to notice the paintings were narrative, then deduce the true sequence from context. Small numbers were scrawled on them, but they were easy to miss at first.

They fascinate me--her work's so bold, crude, cartoony, big. So unlike mine!


I think this dream said two quite separate things.

  1. I'm meant to paint this! It's so different from my regular work, and yet I dreamed it, I have to own it as mine. I don't know if that hill woman exists in the physical world or not, but matter or spirit, she was an outsider artist eager to have her vision publicized any way she could. And of course the American equivalent of shop-front signs is weird websites... so here we are. Below is the finished painting-with-inset-paintings-not-in-my-style, done in acrylic on plywood (so I could cut it into an irregular shape). And yeah, it was a creative stretch. OK, dreams? Happy now? Betta be!
    Market in Burundi's hills; local artist shows off irregular paintings about the national airline. Acrylic on wood, 86x98 cm, of a dream by Wayan. Click to enlarge
  2. More important than her style (fascinating though it was) and method of getting shown (ingenious though it was) is her message. Consider the Tale of Air Burundi as a parable: the Voice of Habit says new ventures won't work, we're screwed up, we can never fly... but sometimes we can! Miracles get built out of tinkertoys and chickenfeet, by visionaries and threadbare painters and discounted people. Who defy tradition. They paint wrong. They vote wrong. They flap their arms and... fly.

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