Fatou Alhya Diagne is an MMIAM alumna based in Milan, Italy. She is currently a Program Manager for the Moleskine Foundation. A third culture person, Fatou describes herself as having a twenty-first-century globalized toolkit of strategies and perspectives for solving complex arts and cultural challenges. Enjoy this interview between Fatou and Brittany Johnson, editor of the MMIAM Journey.
How did you become interested in the arts?
Well, my father is Senegalese and my mother is from Niger. I was born in Dakar, Senegal, and raised between New York City and Montréal. I moved to New York when I was about four years old. I consider myself a third-culture person. My parents took us to different African countries every summer. It was important to them that we knew where we came from and appreciated our culture. During those trips, there was a big emphasis on culture—through art, through food, through fashion—and it gave me a real passion for the arts.
That’s fascinating. Since you’ve been to so many places, are there African cities you’d recommend for their arts scene?
Yes! I would definitely recommend Dakar for many reasons. First, for its geographical location, it’s on the coast of Western Africa which has put it in contact with European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and other African civilizations for hundreds of years. But even though there are many cultural influences, Senegalese people are also very proud of their culture. We eat our own food, for example, ceebu jën has been recognized by UNESCO as being the original jollof rice. We wear our own clothing, the boubou—a garment that various African countries have adopted—is the main form of dress for women and men in Senegal. We listen to our own music, I could go on. When people come to visit our country, we really invite them to adopt Senegalese culture. This is what we call la teranga. It reminds me a bit of Italy. Italians are very proud of their culture, art, and food and they hold it to a very high standard. Senegal is very similar.
There are obviously other cities and countries, like South Africa for example, that I’d recommend visiting. I also lived and worked in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and there is a very interesting, emerging contemporary art scene there.
So, you lived in Côte d’Ivoire, but you are currently based in Milan? Can you tell me about what you’re up to there?
Yes. In September, I joined the Moleskine Foundation as a Program Manager. In its essence, the foundation aims to inspire social change through creativity. We offer several unconventional educational opportunities for youth, primarily from marginalized communities. Two of those are AtWork and WikiAfrica Education. I am the program manager for both of those. We’re working in countries in the Americas, in Europe, and also in Africa, in Mozambique, Gabon, Chad, South Africa, and more. It’s quite fascinating to see how this rolls out and to observe how creativity in its different forms can be a force for positive change.
It sounds like you really connect with the mission and the work that the organization is doing.
Yes, you know the arts as an industry is still developing in many African countries. So, it’s really about creating an ecosystem. The infrastructure, resources, funding…there are still challenges and not all governments see the arts as a potential engine for development. So, seeing how the foundation is working to fill that gap is really inspiring and has given me hope to see how young African creatives are acknowledged and how our culture and creative sectors will soon hold more space on an international level. Hopefully one day, the MMIAM program will have a stop in an African country!
How does your team approach working with developing countries or with people at the forefront of development?
So, I’ll use WikiAfrica as an example. WikiAfrica was developed in 2006 to fill the knowledge gap about African countries and cultures on Wikipedia specifically. Did you know, there are more articles about the city of Paris than about the whole of the African continent on Wikipedia—including in African languages—and when these articles are published, they’re often written by non-African people. For this project, it was important to create a space of empowerment, allowing African people to move from passive knowledge consumers to active knowledge producers and take ownership of their digital narrative.
In each country we work in, we collaborate with local cultural partners and implement programs through them. For WikiAfrica, each year there is a recruitment process and training about how to create content on Wikipedia. After, the recruits dive into a sort of hackathon—called AfroCuration—creating articles, uploading information, and editing biases.
Can you share what prepared you for your current role?
In Canada, I pursued a bachelor’s in International Development Studies and African Studies at McGill University, I was always drawn to the development world; my father works at the United Nations, which always inspired me. At the same time, I’ve held a passion for fashion.
I had an internship with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which is the United Nations’ branch for the environment and industrial development, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. It was there that I discovered that there was something called Cultural and Creative Industries (CCIs), which was being used as an engine to develop African countries. This ended up being the perfect niche because fashion is considered a CCI and I’d wanted to find a way to combine my love for fashion and art with my interest in development.
This led me down a research rabbit hole and lead me to the MMIAM program. I wanted to further my education with a program that really spoke to my interdisciplinary interests. Having this background in development, a strong passion for fashion, and an interest in the arts, I was ready to immerse myself in the art world to better understand how this could, in turn, be adapted to an African context.
Can you share one thing, personally or professionally, that you’re proud of or excited about?
I am currently working on a personal project called FAD that explores the intersection of fashion, art, and development; it is also my initials. We collaborate with artisanal communities in Africa to transform their knowledge and practices into more contemporary designs and ideas. It’s in the works, we’re developing a website and I’m excited to share more very soon. This is how I stay connected to fashion.
In August 2022, I attended the AtWork Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa. AtWork brings together a group of 25 young people for a five-day process in which they tackle one overarching question. In 2022, the question was “What comes first?” Being able to be a part of that experience was a grounding moment for me. Seeing the work that went into that week together and the determination of all the attendees to stimulate collective discussion and personal reflections, proved to me that I am at the beginning of pursuing my dream. I’ve always wanted an international career and all these opportunities make me feel like this dream is finally becoming real.
What comes first for you?
Progress! Being able to move forward and become an elevated version of yourself is the most important thing for me.