On the Gambian fine art scene in the past (especially after the independence in 1965), a few strong artists paved the way for generations to come and managed to build worldwide recognition. Njogu Touray, Etu Ndow and Isha Fofana – Mama Africa are among them. I am mentioning these names not only because they strongly influence the story of the contemporary Gambian fine art scene but mainly because I got the chance to see their work and experience their influence. Gambia's growing fine art scene still depends mostly on private initiatives for empowerment. There is a lack of available knowledge on art, so Gambian artists mostly have to educate themselves when they are already working; formal education regarding arts finishes in high school. The younger generation of artists started to make use of the internet and social media. They connect into collectives and support each other, but they used to be very private, unseen by the general public. This is slowly starting to change as new art spaces open up or regain interest.
Hence, I will try to map out some of the contemporary art spaces and approaches in the Gambia.
Isha Fofana is the artist behind Mama Africa, and her story is one of success. Ample land close to Tanji fishing village features a gallery/museum and a restaurant building alongside a few luxury huts, uniquely designed by combining different African styles and her own; big rough wooden structures with careful details. The tiles are fixed creatively; the light covers are made of versatile calabash, in places broken apart and sewn back together by her apprentice. In the gallery, there is a collection of art from different African countries and also her works. Her works are usually painted on big canvases, with visible brush strokes and lines. As a person, it is an event to meet her. She radiates a charisma, almost celebrity-like. For her, every corner of the place is connected with art; she is always making adjustments. It is all about creativity and living changing experience; showcasing art is part of the creative process for her. Her last place got demolished, but that didn't discourage her from creating a new art centre; »make something out of nothing – that is art. Nature will help you as well; because nature is creative.« She started with planting trees, and the land is now full of birds, fruits, and vegetables and very well taken care of. Mama focuses on running an art centre that can be showcased to visitors and used as a residence.
Same as for Mama Africa, the idea of connecting art with nature comes to life in an art village. It is a way of showcasing creativity, where art can expand beyond the frames of a canvas into a space and time. It transforms into an experience. Baboucarr Etu Ndow embraced an abandoned land near the village of Tujering that was once believed to be under spiritual possession. Etu built Tunbung for the people who love art, internationally as well as locally. Education and recycling have always been his main focus. Etu wanted to help the youths who never got any support to make art and to show people how to make it using local materials, even with few resources. His efforts were well recognised, many Gambian artists learned from him, and many foreign countries got a taste of his talent. That was until Etu tragically passed away. Tunbung was inherited by his younger brother, Muhammed Jatta - Dodo, who maintains it and organises workshops. Guests can choose between different workshops, such as tie-dye, screen printing, batik, painting, sand painting and beads making. Dodo himself runs all the workshops and also creates his own works. There are a few rooms guests can stay in, built with local creative techniques. Not only is Tunbung the best place to see Etu's legendary legacy, but it also offers a humble and honest environment that embraces creativity.
A project called Wide open Walls was launched in a village near the Gambian airport in 2011, where world-renowned muralists would come and create their works on the walls of Galloya village buildings. The UK lodge owner initiated the project and connected with Njogu Touray. They first created Banksy-inspired graffiti (Banksy approached system inequality through content and telling people they could make money from visitors coming to see his work). Later, different artists were invited to Galloya, among them ROA (Belgian graffiti artist known for creating huge animal images), Addam Yekutieli, Eelus, Remy Rough etc. Villagers hoped the visitors coming to see graffiti would help them build a nursery, but that has yet to materialise. There are two young boys, Musa and Amadou, who grew up in the village and are trying to bring in more tourists and organise workshops. There is also a cultural festival taking place in the village. With the younger generation seeing art as an opportunity as well as young muralists like Musa Sarr being on the rise, mural art in the Gambia has a lot to offer.
A fresh art gallery opened a year ago in Alhagie Kebba Conteh Plaza in Kanifing. It is a white cube-style gallery featuring local and international artists: painters, photographers, sculptures and others. While it is a modern place with a variegated program and new exhibitions every month, The Key Art's mission is not only to promote artists but to slowly help build a coherent art market and educational system in The Gambia. Their workshops for artists include understanding techniques and internationally accepted rules that govern arts and teaching artists how to promote themselves. What they are hoping for is that the quality of works the artists will be able to produce is going to be internationally renowned and purchased for a fair value claimed the young painter and founder of the gallery, Abdoullah Conteh. The gallery administration is distributed between him, cofounder and art collector Modou Lamin Sanyang and female artist Ya Fatou. Since it is even harder for women to pave their way into the art world, they opened some important topics in previous exhibitions featuring women in art and gender-based violence.
Besides the language school, Alliance offers support for the artists, from the stage for entertainment, film and performance programs to expositions in their main hall. They are known for only picking quality works, and artists appreciate that. The current exhibition features Njogu, whom many young artists look up to. Among them is Ebrima Gitteh, an upcoming talent who exhibited in Alliance and sold most of his works there. We visited Njogu's exhibition together, and I understood what all the talk was about there. The new series he made showcases clever compositions and materials, all interconnected through colours and textures. Even though the hall is not big, it is big enough to lead the viewer through a meaningful placement of paintings and let him experience different colour moods.
The privately owned gallery was initiated by German curator Nina Effinger, followed by Hannah Stokbroekx. It is run by Amfaal Beyai and provides cosy accommodation full of artworks, a nice garden and a smaller gallery space in the lobby. The space is quite rich with some interesting collected craft objects; among them, a doll made out of colourful metal bottle caps stood out for me. There are a good portion of paintings and batik works on the walls. Well-selling Gambian artist Moulaye Sarr signs most works, and it offers a nice overview of his repertoire, from abstracts and figurative paintings to realistic portraits. Some earlier Njogu works can be seen and purchased, as well as paintings by Abdoulai Sallah, Baboucarr Faal, Malik Ceesay, Toyimbo, Modou Jatta, Kruna and others. The residence is located in Kartong village, close to the Casamance border, outside the main tourist area; therefore, it has the potential to develop a somehow peripheral area.
Some artists are choosing Katchikally, the crocodile pool, one of the most visited attractions in The Gambia, as their studio and a place to showcase. The most prominent of them is Edrisa Jobe, stationed right before the entrance of Katchikally. Edrisa's popularity is connected with his unique style, featuring sacred geometry, numerology and symbolism. He tells a story about learning from his grandparents, who taught him about ancient wisdom and organising the world into a system. His paintings have numbers, humans and animals, but they are hidden in patterns, not spotted at first; you have to find them. Katchikally is traditionally a mythological place with a history of healing and fertility rituals performed there by the Bojang family. There I also met one other artist, Lamin Dibba, painting traditional motifs and abstracts inside the park, and as was mentioned, other artists also come to paint and sell there.
Many Gambian artists saw the opportunity to sell their works on craft markets. Around those areas, paintings are usually more decorative in nature, depicting traditional scenery with beaches, leaf-covered huts and women preparing food; also, colourful abstract paintings with some figurative elements are in demand. Many artists like to use African colours; ochre yellow, red and also blue and green. The Senegambia Craft Market is busy with a few painters, wood carvers, jewellery makers, tailors, and others. Another nearby craft market where paintings are sold is by the Palma Rima junction leading to Tamala. Still, artists can be found almost anywhere around tourist areas – even walking on the Senegambia beach. Paintings at the craft market don't reach optimal prices and lack the potential emancipatory art as – they are reduced to souvenirs and help artists make a living. But craft markets are also a common place for craftsmen to work, which is interesting to observe as it implies the joy of working in a community of people.
Gambia has many creatives in different areas. Painting is still the most represented among visual arts, but there are also a few photographers and a few digital artists. Making use of technology is still one of the biggest challenges artists have. The sculpture is traditionally one of the popular techniques, especially now using recycled materials. Murals are becoming more and more popular, and you can see them on many public walls.
While there is still a lot to discover, in The Gambia, I came across a concept of art that rose out of disadvantage and aspired to be free. There is still a big need for gallery spaces, and it needs to be emphasised more how important it is for institutions to respond to artists' needs. But I think art that is closer to the people is practical. It is living; it is useful; it has a hint of a forever-changing place where people come, stay and go. A place where people hang out and can do their tasks in peace – a mix of a traditional village and an art colony. Art villages in different shapes and sizes are enchanting places because they bring forward the most important thing for anyone working with art; to stay creative beyond making artwork.
In the words of Mama Africa: »I always said our government, our people –– they would not even look at me. As a female artist, I struggled a lot. But I would not say what my country can do for me, but instead, what I can do for my country. And I started to move forward.«
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