Lamyne M. reflects on African religion and immigration in a series of “gris-gris,” or charms, created in collaboration with African marabouts, or diviners. These ritually empowered sculptures are designed to assist prospective migrants to Europe and America. Visible components—such as action figures of the European soldiers to be avoided—combine with secret ingredients to activate magical and spiritual forces, such as to render the migrant invisible or to neutralize Trump’s forces.
I am of Peul origin, also known as Fulani. The Fulani are widely dispersed in West Africa, as is their term “gris-gris,” which is applied to magical charms. As I was growing up, I both attended Koranic school and was engaged in traditional rites. So I have understood since childhood the magico-religious syncretism of gris-gris, which owe their invention and their social efficacy to humans’ desire to influence their destiny. Though monotheistic religions prohibit and punish the makers and users of “gris-gris” (“charms”, “amulets”, “talismans”, “fetishes”) and what Islam terms chirq (occult practice and witchcraft), they persist nevertheless among African Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Whatever their “official” beliefs, they all employ gris-gris to address situations both conventional and contemporary: marital disputes, school exams, political elections, soccer matches, migratory journeys…
The African migrant, from the day of his departure until he arrives at his destination, has for his only luggage his backpack and his gris-gris. The trafficker or smuggler may seem to be the one who facilitates the migrant’s passage from one country to another, but rather it is a distant overseer who powers the journey: the marabout, or diviner.
The choice to emigrate in hopes of a better future does not always belong to the migrant himself. Many families consult a marabout and rely on his words to persuade a child, a young adult or a parent to make the attempt. The marabout or diviner is usually at the same time a Muslim priest, a merchant, a scholar or a schoolmaster, a prominent and respected person whose authority is based on knowledge of the Koran. The power of the gris-gris, which is directly linked to the power of the marabout who manufactured it and who is the only one who knows its secret, convinces and reassures prospective migrants. The gris-gris become symbols of protection for the migratory journey.
During my far-ranging travels throughout Africa, I have collected and commissioned gris-gris from specialists in Bamako, Niamey, Ndjamena, and Nigeria, often presenting myself as a prospective migrant. Many gris-gris were made specifically to ensure an aspect of migratory success but every piece is specific and unique, made to address a particular need: a gris-gris to prevent the migrant from running out of money during the trip, a gris-gris to expedite immigration papers, a gris-gris for quick integration, for social success, for insurance against risks, or to defeat facial recognition systems. There is a gris-gris collective of at least 60 marabouts against Frontex, The European Border and Coast Guard Agency. There are even gris-gris to deflect tomahawk missiles.
Gris-gris often include animal bones, beaks, claws or paws, horns, tails, hooves, hide, and fur. While some ingredients of a charm are visible and bespeak its purpose, many ingredients are invisible. Many of my amulets involve a manipulation of these contradictory qualities, the visible and invisible. For example, I might ask the marabout not to grind up the eagle’s claw required to be integrated into the gris-gris, which changes its appearance, it’s shape and size to further my artistic intentions.