Theresa Traore Dahlberg is an artist and filmmaker who narrates stories on class, race, identity, gender, post-colonialism and social structures through her work. Working seamlessly between two cultures, she navigates these complex issues with a sensitivity that comes from someone who is a product of two completely different worlds. Her education encompasses both film and art, having studied 16mm experimental film at the New School, New York, and at the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts followed by a Masters from the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. Traore Dahlberg belongs to a very special group of creatives who manage to be both artist and filmmaker and possess the ability to blur the boundaries between art and film. She is multi talented, always driven by curiosity and an open mind.
Portrait by Margareta Bloom Sandebäck.
What was it like growing up between the Swedish island of Öland and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso?
My parents met at university in Washington when they were both studying there. I was born in Sweden and soon after we moved to Burkina Faso. We lived in an area of very mixed social background, and attended the French School. At the age of four we moved back to Öland and I continued in a school there till the 7th grade. Öland was a different world, one where I had more freedom than in Burkina, I was able to walk to kindergarten all by myself. I then went back to Burkina Faso during my High School years, but returned to Sweden for the last year of High School. It was quite easy going back and forth, and sliding into both lives in the same houses, neighbourhoods and communities. Having been raised physically in two different places has given me different perspectives. Ordinary things from my daily life in both places very often turn up in my art projects, for example the cotton that is spun and sold by the women in Burkina Faso in my sculpture in Sweden.
When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
My mother was a teacher when I was between the ages of four to twelve. She was able to borrow the VHS camera from her school which she used to film my three brothers and I all the time. I had started to use it too, and remember that I was always filming and documenting, but not putting it into a narrative or context. Not until I got to New York, where I spent 6 years assisting directors and Magnum photographers. I spent my last year at Parsons Film School in New York, and that is how I got into the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts. I have always had an urge to document. It feels more present in a way for me when I take pictures, it’s an easier way for me to be part of something. I also remember in pictures.
Why did you choose New York as your first place to study film?
I did an exchange year in High School in Ohio where we had a school trip to New York. I totally fell in love with the city. I was actually studying Economics in Stockholm, encouraged by my dad who believed that it was an education with a good solid foundation. After a year of studies I decided to take a break and moved to New York. I shared an apartment with a group of fellow Swedes and it was a nice supportive group so I didn’t feel like I was alone. I wanted to find a way to express myself and work with images so I assisted in a lot of productions, very often being in the very lowest rung of the ladder! This also formed the way I wanted to work, in smaller productions as opposed to big budget Hollywood productions. I wanted to focus on documentaries, I enjoyed assisting in many of them including one on tunnels underneath Brooklyn.
How did you manage to support yourself financially in New York, being so young?
I actually got casted when I was at Starbucks as a model for Alexander McQueen very soon after I got to New York. I did not have a portfolio or any ambition to model, but was taken around to the biggest agencies by casting agent Barbara Pfister, who was very respected in the business. I modelled for awhile and this was how I got my visa and was able to do what I really wanted to do, assist in all those other film and photography productions. This is a chapter in my life I am uncomfortable talking about for many reasons. Seeing how the other models, all much younger than I was end up in totally unhealthy situations both mentally and physically was painful, many could not handle the pressure and it was so destructive in so many ways. I also did not like the whole concept of being chosen, having people judge you without even talking to you and and not being encouraged to have opinions was frustrating. There was a feminist rage that started to slowly burn in me. It became even more important to me that I should always put myself in a position where I make the choices. I then quit modelling and took a real estate license in two months and started working as a real estate agent instead. I had met so many interesting people during that one year, and got so interested in the state of a person in transition that I ended up doing a short documentary on it. I then applied and got into the New School, Parsons. I enjoyed finally being able to spend the days learning the 16 mm Bolex camera and making films out of all the ideas I had kept in my head for so long together with other students who shared the same interest. I lived in the Village, so I could walk to the school, the lectures were inspiring, the people so diverse and interesting, the whole thing was like a dream after a lot of years working hard. With the films I made that year I managed to get into the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts, which is very hard to get into.
What was the inspiration for the short film “The Ambassador’s Wife”?
I was in Burkina Faso working on my film Ouaga Girls at the time when I was approached by the French Ambassador’s wife to film her concert for friends. She had always dreamed of being an opera singer, but as the ambassador’s wife she was told it wasn’t suitable to outshine her husband. I wasn’t really interested in documenting a concert, but I did ask if I could follow her around for 3 days and document her life. There were a lot of conflicting feelings, my father growing up was known as a voice of the people, but my mother on the other hand was a European expat and moved within those communities. Subjects surrounding power structures and intersectionality appeared in the filming and in the editing.
What would you say is your style of filmmaking? How do you approach a project and what would you like to leave the audience with?
I approach all my projects with an openess and curiosity. I don’t put out my opinions in my film, I leave it to the audience to see it from their perspective. I would love to leave them with new questions. I was teaching a class on story telling the other day, and at the end of the class I asked the students what they thought, and there were so many different perspectives. I think it is also very interesting to find out what people see and don’t see from a film. Art and film can be a starting point for these conversations.
Your documentary “Ouaga Girls” was very well received, could you tell us more about this documentary and why did you choose to make this film?
I am interested in documenting changes in people’s lives. Also to show what it is like to be a teenager in Burkina Faso today. What was it like for these girls being the pioneer batch in a school for car mechanics, something they did not choose themselves, but a solution for them to get a job. As opposed to the Senegalese taxi driver in my previous film, Taxi Sister which was filmed in Dakar. She had made that choice, to become one of the seven women drivers out of 15,000 men. There aren’t a lot of women car mechanics, it is still a very male dominated area in Burkina. I documented them in their last year of school, all their different dreams, struggles and backgrounds amid a country that was going though a major political change. This was a coming of age story in the midst of these changes.
For your 2019 exhibition at Färgfabriken, you had a parallel exhibition at the National Museum of Burkina Faso. Could you explain the process and inspiration behind this exhibition?
I had spent seven years collecting copper circuit cards from a company in Stockholm that were producing them, making sculptures out of them. I had been intrigued by the cards and knew that at some point I wanted to use them. Then there were the women in Burkina Faso who were accused of witchery and expelled from their villages. They went to a centre that was set up for them in Burkina to spin cotton and sell it in order to make a living. My mother took me there when I was little girl. I started doing embroidery with the cotton on the circuit cards and they got bigger and bigger. I found the opposing values interesting, the circuit cards represented Swedish technology used in all our computers, phones, military, hospitals, in every aspect of our day to day lives. The cotton on the other hand is spun by hand, by women who had been outcasts in their communities. There are so many stories tied to women and cotton. In the 18th century there was a women’s prison in Långholmen where the inmates were doing their sentence in relation to how much cotton they had spun. Cotton is a very loaded material. Something happened when I put these two materials together.
As for the exhibition in Burkina, my father was a pioneer in the music industry in Burkina Faso. He started a production company and studio where you were able to record in your own language, there are sixty different languages there. They also produced videos, organised concerts and sold sound systems. The country’s first cassette factory was a huge success, and as with all technology, the world moved on from cassettes. What was so highly valued had been become redundant, He wasn’t even able to sell it so everything stayed in storage, it had all been untouched for years when I went over to see it. I would have loved to have brought it to Sweden but the logistics were just impossible. I contacted the Burkina Faso National Museum and asked if they would be interested in doing an exhibition on the music industry. I then filmed that exhibition and sent it on a live feed to Sweden to my exhibition at Färgfabriken. During my exhibition the copper circuit card factory had closed in Sweden. The questions became about technological changes, changes in values and post industry. It turned out to be an appreciated exhibition in Burkina Faso that centred around collective memory and the importance of archives.
What are you exhibiting at your present solo exhibition at Kalmar Art Museum?
The same issue, and the same questions. I created a new 18 metre high sculpture with the circuit cards. There was also a room with the tapes and a lot of my father’s musical exchanges between Kalmar and Burkina Faso over many years. I had included a new film on a cement factory in the south of Öland that went from seventy five employees to seven, overnight. This was an industry that had been around for three generations of people living and working there, but which was now moving to Gotland. I filmed the everyday life of the seven employees during this time of change in their lives. While filming I found out that the same company based in Germany had opened a factory in Ouagadougu. It looked exactly the same as the one in Öland. I exhibited both films in the same room. I had also invited my brother, Daniel Traore who is an artist, to do seventy five portraits of the employees, only seven of them had faces. It was a room for reflection, of our values, where we are and where we are heading.
Tell us about your job with Swedish Television.
I work as a commissioning editor for arts and culture documentaries on Swedish Television SVT. Not only buying but also developing and producing film. It is also inspiring to be part of the creative process and get to be behind the scenes.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a collaboration with the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. My paternal grandmother died last summer and my son started asking a lot of questions about her. She used to tell a lot of stories but I realised I don’t remember any of them. It wasn’t until after her death that I found out she had been reading stories on the radio for twenty years in Senufo, the ethnic language of her tribe. So I am working on her stories right now. While doing research at the museum’s archives I came across a little sculpture of a hare that caught my attention, and it turned out to be Senufo! I am doing a bronze version of the hare, offering different perspectives on how the hare is perceived and oral history. What started as a research project will end up as a small exhibition with Diana Agunbiade-Kolawole and Andreas Nur this autumn.