I Was in Timbuktu (Ich war in Timbuktu), a 1953 novel that brought renown to the German writer Werner Legère, appeared in Estonian in 1959 as part of the Adventure Stories from Land and Sea (Seiklusjutte maalt ja merelt) book series. Based on the travel journals of Frenchman René Caillié, the novel is probably the only source through which an Estonian reader has accessed the myth of the city of Timbuktu, which has fascinated Western European merchants and explorers for centuries.
Until the end of the 19th century, there were many uncharted white spots on the African continent for both European and Arab geographers. One of the most famous cities on the inaccessible Dark Continent was Timbuktu, a promised land where France and England hoped to find at least as much wealth as the Spaniards had in South America.
When war broke out in Mali in 2012, the BBC opened one of its news stories with a tweet, “Omg! Just found out Timbuktu is a real place!”. The first European to return alive from a trip to that city by the Niger River in sub-Saharan Africa two hundred years ago was Frenchman René Caillié. His travel journal, published in 1830, was the first account to provide reliable information about Timbuktu since the 1556 book Descrittione dell’Africa (Description of Africa) by Leo Africanus, a Moor born in al-Ándalus. However, the fact that since the mid-19th century, Timbuktu has technically no longer been a white spot on the map open to unlimited fantasies – instead, to everyone’s disappointment, a city of adobe bricks – does not mean that the mythology surrounding the utopia of European colonists and fortune-hunters for more than four hundred years has disappeared overnight. Not in the English-speaking world, at least. The Oxford Dictionary currently gives two definitions for Timbuktu: a town in North Africa and an impossibly distant or remote place. In proverbs, Timbuktu is, to this day, synonymous with Eldorado.
Both in collaboration with other artists and performing alone, three elements merge in Taavi Talve’s work: quotes, architecture and the social nerve. It may vary between the story being carried by a quote that has been given an architectural form (e.g., Footnotes 2, 2011, with Dénes Farkas) or the form giving meaning to the word (e.g., Nothing Left to Save (Gallery Petra von Kant), 2010, Johnson and Johnson a.k.a. Taavi Talve and Indrek Köster), but there is always a focus on the fate of the individual.
In his Blind Spot installation exhibited at the Between the Archive and Architecture group exhibition at Kumu Art Museum in 2016, Talve explored the story of the Estonian dancer Epp Kotkas. Who was she? And how did she end up in the U.S., in the troupe of Yvonne Rainer? Throughout the archival work, Kotkas remained a fiction, one who it was ultimately impossible even to give a face to. In the I Was in Timbuktu exhibition, the game seems to be reversed: the emphasis is on Timbuktu as a city, which we are held back from acknowledging as a real place because of a myth that promises to be more permanent than the desert town itself.
Timbuktu, which flourished as the centre of Islamic intellectualism during the reign of Mansa Musa, probably the richest ruler in human history, is home to one of the world’s oldest universities. It is not surprising that the Moorish diplomat Leo Africanus mentioned books as one of the city’s most important trade articles in his Description of Africa, published in 1556.
Unfortunately, the golden age of Timbuktu came to an end just when Europeans first heard about it. In 1591, Timbuktu was conquered by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. The intellectuals were accused of treason; this was followed by deportations and the destruction of libraries, but also by hiding books underground and behind double walls. Timbuktu’s libraries have proved so immense that when Islamic extremists took control of the city in 2012, medieval manuscripts once again became the most important (prohibited) commodity extracted from the city.
Timbuktu was one of the first cities to fall under the control of the rebels during the war that broke out in Mali, North Africa. With the approval of the United Nations, France, the former colonial power in the region of Mali, intervened in the conflict in 2013. Alongside French troops, the Estonian Defence Forces are also participating in the military operation on the southern border of the Sahara Desert. We too can now say that we have been to Timbuktu, before the city finally succumbs to dust and becomes lost to the desert.
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