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Portrait: Mamat Sallah

My Magazine 2023/02
10 min
Author: Lana Skorohod
Mamat Sallah is a new media artist. He is also an Assistant Director (Museum and Monument division) at the National Center for Arts and Culture in The Gambia, a husband and a father. Through his passion for art, he is constantly finding new and unique ways of expressing himself. Even if he is busy with his work and family, he never hesitates to share his rich experiences in the field of art.

Embarking on a journey of art

Like many creative young souls, Mamat didn't receive the support to do art when he was a child. But that never stopped him from realising his potential. This is how he described his educational journey.

I took a passion for art when I was a small boy. I remember I was always doing a lot of drawing. My inspiration came mainly from the movies, especially the ones featuring Silvester Stallone and Rambo. I did a series of drawings of his posters. In primary school, whenever I was given books for the lessons, I would use them as drawing books since I could not have any special books to draw. My mum used to beat me because she thought I was wasting a lot of money; many people don't recognise the value of art. They think art is something for less privileged people or people who are not intelligent. But I continued drawing.

In my primary school, there were no art classes where they would teach us how to draw - they don't have that in our syllabus. But later, when I went to Saint Augustine's Junior Secondary School in Banjul, there was a class for art called Arts and Crafts. I was so excited and was always the first person to enter the classroom. I started developing my art in those lessons, and I did a lot of drawings for people when they wanted it. I took it as fun, a tool to express myself. When I finished junior secondary school, I went to Muslim Senior Secondary School, which also had a Visual arts department. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who realised my potential in art. He was my coach but, at the same time, a friend. Whenever I didn't have classes, I always went to the studio in the Visual arts department studio and would continue drawing. Whenever I drew, I gave it to my teacher to give me his perspective. He always encouraged me, which was a very positive thing. At exams, I was able to get good grades, and I realised my potential was in art.

After graduation, I started developing some printing skills (printing T-shirts to get some money). I was also doing some graphics. But soon, I started voluntary teaching at a nursery school, which was a gateway for me. That was where I developed the connection with The Gambian college and where I later studied Art and craft to become a trained and qualified art teacher. I wanted to study art as my major, and as a minor, I wanted to choose mathematics, but they said that this subject combination was impossible. I had some background in history, so I decided to take Social and environmental studies as my minor – I would never abandon my art. I did the training for three years and got a higher teachers' certificate (HTC), with which I could teach from junior, secondary to senior secondary school. During my teaching practice, I was posted to Jambanjelly Upper Basic School. There was only one other teacher there, so I was overloaded, but I liked it because it allowed me to express my style and teach others. I was very passionate about teaching because I believed I needed to develop art in the Gambia.

Later I was posted inland by The Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (Mobse). Still, I didn't want to go at that time as I was also doing a course on Information Technology (IT). The ministry said I had to go even when I explained I would lose my IT studies. I decided not to go, and later it proved to be the right decision. So I went to my former school, Muslim Senior Secondary school. And there was a vacancy for visual arts teacher! The principal of the school asked me if I was interested in teaching there, and I said I would be very happy to teach at my former school. I taught in that school for almost 13 years, and during that time, I had a series of developments. I went to Indonesia to train in the fine art and design program. It was a program at the Indonesian Institute of the arts, Bali, and a group of Gambian artists were going. I went there in 2007 and came back in 2008. In 2010 that same group was called in for a scholarship from the Taiwan embassy in the Gambia through the office of a president. They said that before we start the masters program, we first need to learn the Chinese language. It was difficult, but I did it, so from 2011 to 2014, I was enrolled in the MFA (Master of fine arts) program under the department of new media in Taiwan, and that is when I established myself as an artist. 

 

Forces of technology 

Travels allowed Mamat to establish himself as an artist and also exposed him to some contemporary approaches that he blended with his background in painting.

During the training, I was exposed to technology. Before I was not very good at it, only the IT training I took, but even that IT knowledge was basically Office MS, not software to design art. Here you needed a strong computer science background for the studies because you had to make sure your works were interactive. At that time, I was searching to see how I could fit into the program. I was trying to find a way of connecting my painting background with this new media. I did a lot of experiments. The first work I did was in video; I called it the Invisible force. There was a taifun season with a lot of rain and wind... I saw the rain and the way it was dropping on top of the leaves. I was on the veranda of my dormitory, and I took my camera. I remember I connected what I saw with god because there is this force that is invincible. I recognised the same force in people walking in very busy places, such as the metro station. I didn't want to capture people's faces, so I just captured their legs walking. I took pictures of how the metro was moving from the outside. I took videos of traffic videos and blended them all together in a 3-minute video. In that video, you can see movement, speed and time - this was my first work. 

I did another experimental video by using only the eyes of the people. I took African, Asian and somebody from Panama. They would be looking up, down, and around. Then I put the videos of their eyes together and was thinking of how I could represent them with sound. I noticed one problem; even though I took some courses on sound, how to synchronise the sound with the pictures was a question for me. I did a lot of experiments, but I was not able to fix it. What else can I do? Why not use still images instead of moving ones? The still images will not be just one photograph, one picture alone, but I will use technology to fit different photographs into my concept and make collages. I want to create a window for questions for my viewers. 

 

Water always finds a way.

Mamat is always searching for existential analogies in the works he presents. His mind ventures into the realms of physics and universal laws, as well as being grounded with nature through the material senses of textures and details. This is why the photography he presents must take on large formats but depict micro levels. 

I am very much connected to nature and society. I observe society and my environment a lot. I'm interested in details and textures. I want to bring out something people should pay more attention to: everybody looks at something differently. 

I traveled a lot; I was in Taiwan. If I didn't have a class, I picked up my camera and headed to the streets or to the mountains. I love to hike; I was an explorer and a researcher. I was programming myself to always think about the opportunities to make my next art, even if I was going out with my friends. One day I went to the mountain with my Chinese friend who was very helpful to me. She put a lot of things in me about Chinese culture, and my language improved because of her. There was a waterfall on top of this mountain. When I saw the waterfall I was astonished. I have seen waterfalls on tv, movies, but now I am present and facing it directly! When I was looking at it, something just clicked in my mind. I needed to make a work out of this.

It seems like I saw three things from this waterfall: the past, the present and the future. Where the water is coming from, is the past. When it bounces on the rocks, it is the present. And when it starts flowing, that is the future. You never know where it is going. Human beings are like that. I started making an analogy – how to connect water with society. I see that society has the past, present and future, and there is time, speed, and motion within the society as well as within the water. The movement of the water is just like human beings live in society. We have obstacles, ups and downs, but they should not stop us from moving ahead. Water always finds its way, but the environment determines its movement. It will flow greatly if it has a very open passage, but if it is very tiny, it will also find its way, no matter how difficult it is. We, humans, behave the same way. If you live in a society where you have a lot of freedom, free movement, and education, it makes people move greater. But if you come from a very closed environment, it will determine your movement. I started putting these concepts together and called the work Around us. I took that project as my final masters dissertation. 

The work of an artist does not only include creating artworks but also knowing how to present them.

Part of the criteria for graduation was to write a dissertation and also to do a solo exhibition. I was searching galleries on the internet and came across a contemporary gallery called 1839 Little Gallery in the centre of Taipei. I sent them an email asking what the criteria are to exhibit at the gallery. I sent the email Friday night, and by the following day, I had already received a response from them, saying that I could come to the gallery on Monday for the discussion. I did everything myself: I started making measurements of the gallery, designed my exhibition and made promotional posters, flyers, invitation cards etc. It was a learning process for me, which I am very appreciative of because it has to give me a clue of what art is. It is not only creating; you also need to design presentations of your work. This was my first solo exhibition, but a very successful one. 

 

A needle and a thread

As a new media artist, Mamat did a lot of experiments. He even challenged himself in animation, drawing ideas from his environment but also Gambian traditions.

We did a series of group exhibitions at my university, for which I also created my first animation work. I drew the story myself and did all of the editings. The concept of that animation was from a painting that I did. It was a painting of a tree that I personified as a woman. You have the roots and the stem, which are the legs.

And on top of that, I started creating the abdomen, the breasts, the brunches are the fingers and the head. Beside that tree, I put a basket, a thread and a needle. Part of it is wrapped on the tree, and the other part is in the basket. The idea came from our Gambian culture. Whenever you get married as a woman, they prepare a traditional wedding to take you to your husband's house; there is a particular advice they give the bride. ‘You need to be like a needle and a thread.’ It means you should not be like a knife or a blade which cuts, separating the family. Needle and thread are used to combine, to connect. It is the same with the basket; when you are making a basket, you weave it together. I connected those images into the animation work using Illustrator. I created all of my characters there, and then I used Adobe flash to allow them to move. I called it jigéen, woman. 

 

Saint Louis reinspired

After returning to The Gambia, Mamat was busy working and caring for his family. It was only when he applied for the exhibition in Saint Louis that he rediscovered his art.

When I returned to The Gambia, I was not very active, simply because of my concentration. You have to focus on art to be able to create something, and here there are always a lot of distractions. I have my family here; I also have to work. In 2014 I went back to teaching. I was teaching at the same school, a Muslim high school. I taught there until 2018, and in 2019, I joined NCAC. I wasn't able to do any work until last year. I saw an exhibition in Senegal, Saint Louis. I applied, and I sent my old works, Around us. I sent three works; they selected two. Last year in march, I went there. I exhibited alongside other Senegalese, Mauritanian and Nigerian artists. When I showed my work and explained my concepts, everybody appreciated it. From there, I toured the city of Saint Louis. I came across one boat at the riverside. I went closer and started taking some pictures, which became my recent work. When I returned to The Gambia, I was looking at the pictures for a long time, but I couldn't do anything with them. I slowly developed the idea of what I wanted to do with them. I produced five collages from those photos and called the series Chaotic

That exhibition in Saint Louis has reinspired me. When I came back, I also had another connection with a Senegalese artist from Dakar. They were just preparing for the biennale Dak' Art 2022 in Dakar. I contacted the guy and sent him some of the works, so he selected one and asked me for my biography. I sent it to him, and that's how it was. Unfortunately, I could not go to the opening due to administrative work here. The work is still there, they just sent it back now, but it is another achievement for me. Even if I am not there, my work represents me. 

 

Printing challenge 

Despite his persistence, an artist's work comes with challenges. 

Now I am working on my latest works and looking forward to exhibiting here in The Gambia, Senegal, or anywhere in the world. But the big challenge I have in my work, especially with the medium I am using, is very difficult to have the works printed in the Gambia. They don't have large formats, and my pictures all need to be big. I want the viewer to be present and to have a connection with my work, and that is why they need to be in a large format. I am creating a lot of work, but to have them printed in the quality that I want is a problem for me, and sometimes that makes me lazy not to create work because there is an obstacle I can only sometimes overcome. If I was in an environment where I knew that if I made a piece of work that could be printed in the next three days, I would have the chance to do a lot of work. I have a lot of ideas in my head. 

New places are opening in The Gambia, so he is faithful to exhibit his works at the new Key Art Gallery or the Alliance Française. Mamat has an eye of the artist to see the details other people miss. At the moment, nobody else in The Gambia is doing that type of art. Of course, there are other photographers here, but they are doing their work differently. Mamat's story is also inspiring because he himself is like water – always finding his way to move forward. 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lana Skorohod
Student of Cultural Studies
I am a cultural studies student. My interests are creating and curating art, cultural management and exploring cultural diversity. While travelling to The Gambia, I learned about these topics at The National Centre for Arts and Culture in Banjul and many other locations.

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