A photo by Moussa Ag Assarid, writer and representative of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad, or MNLA (National Liberation Movement of Azawad), shows a seemingly deserted space, with only a hand-painted sign stuck in the ground. A flag. A claim. An idea. We see no state in terms of infrastructure—neither roads nor buildings—but we see the idea of a state. We see the imaginary of a state taking the form of what, materially speaking, is more a canvas than a flag. We see the bare state—the state in its most minimal, performative dimension. There was a space, and now there is a space with an idea. Space is politicized; territory gains memory, history, and thus speculates, through the sign—through the canvas, the flag—about a possible future.
In his essay “National Heterologies: On the Materiality and Mediality of Flags—Mali 2013,” art historian and writer Tom Holert describes a different flag: the French tricolor, which was widely reintroduced in Mali during France’s Operation Serval in 2013 and 2014. The operation targeted what the French described as emergent jihadist groups in the northern territories of Mali. Waved by thousands of Malian citizens upon the arrival of French soldiers and President Hollande, the tricolor formed part of an awkward mass performance, seemingly welcoming the former colonizer back into the territory after Mali had painstakingly gained independence in 1960:
Foreign correspondents reported on flag shortages in Bamako and Timbuktu. The photographs they dispatched showed streets brimming with flags: Malians who had strapped the Tricolour to their car antennas and motorbikes, Malian soldiers wearing the flag as a turban, and Malian civilians who had dressed themselves in flags … If they did suggest “an immense relief,” as characterized by one reporter at the time, this is precisely what made them disturbing, because it demonstrated how fully the population had been let down by its own country’s political class.1
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