I was talking to Abdullah Conteh, who gave me his perspective on visual arts in The Gambia and on The Key's ambitious art agenda.
What we have noticed is that people in The Gambia don't give a lot of credibility to art, even less do they promote it. So the main idea of The Key Art Gallery at the beginning was to promote Gambian art. When I was growing up I aspired to be an artist but with the limited information I had I assumed you can not sustain yourself as an artist. So I wanted to become an architect as that was the closest thing to art where you still got the chance to draw. As I graduated, my dad convinced me to study software engineering. But when I was away in India, I was continuously drawing and my friends gave me positive feedback. So when I come back, I start painting on my own. But looking at the artspace here, I rarely went around meeting artists or having art-related activities. There has never been a proper structure to facilitate artists.
It is very interesting that within the span of two years, there has been almost like an awakening where many more people are interested in the art. It is almost like Gambians heard their inner call for art. There are groups like Botbaa Art Movement; there are online Whatsapp groups with 40-50 members showcasing their work etc. But these were more of a hidden aspect of the art scene. You would only know what was happening in The Gambia regarding art if you were privileged to this information.
So, initially, it was just me. I started the gallery in January and the next month I met M.L. We realized we have a common interest in promoting art and he has experience as an art collector living in America. We worked on a few projects then he had an exhibition with his collection, exposing people to quality works from the Western world. Since then we have been working together until we registered the organization as a nonprofit foundation, focused just on the development of artists. We had women's exhibitions, we had group exhibitions, and solo exhibitions. We would source the materials; canvases, frames, paints, and paintbrushes and provide them to the artists. The reason why this aspect was interesting is that there has never been a structure on how to find art materials and we were slowly building some kind of a structure by breaking the steps down, from sourcing the wood to building the frames and then sharing the knowledge with artists so they can learn and replicate the process.
Art education in The Gambia stops at high school. There is a subject there that you can pick, arts and crafts, but it is very limited. You can get tested on the final exam which talks about important questions of Western art, some local African art as well, and sculptures, but there is no application, no structure. It is a subject but not a career option.
The main focus towards capacity building in The Gambia are the workshops. What we are doing is we are looking into how we can help artists develop their capacity in drawing and painting. This includes an understanding of techniques and internationally accepted rules that govern arts. What we 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. These capacity-building exercises are also an opportunity to tailor another big project we want to facilitate which is the development of an art institution. We want to build a curriculum which will eventually be able to send around the understanding of Western art, African art, and of course Gambian art.
Part of the workshops includes not only painting capacity building but also for example public speaking. When you are able to communicate your work properly, it is easier to captivate the audience. Another part of the workshops includes financial accounting so that artists can understand the relationship of art with money. Some of these artists come from backgrounds that are not so well off and their education may be limited. So some financial literacy will help them, as well as some sales and marketing knowledge, from the strategies of using online marketing to all the other tools that are available online. That is where I come in because I have the technical background. We will also be building a platform to sell the works internationally. I hope in the next three months we could launch it officially. It will have a list of artists, their works and their profiles with a background story to give people some insight.
There are some very different groups of individuals. There is a huge network of artists focused on pencil drawing and hyperrealism, a huge segment of people who enjoy painting, also quite some abstract and representational art. But when you look around the tourist areas you have mainly art that reflects the local Gambian scapes and the traditional motifs. I am drawing impressionism, which is not something that is very common. So there isn't a fixed identity but there is a wide range of different styles, and you could say that a lot of times artists are still finding their voice because there is a surplus of talent in The Gambia.
In the past we had two exhibitions where we have sent out applications and have artists apply online. But previously, artists were not aware of the opportunity so what we had to do is we had to search them out, handpick them, build their confidence, tell them about what we had in mind, review their work and pick the artists. Then we provided the materials to them accordingly. Moving forward what we realized is that in order to be able to develop the interest in people buying works, the quality has to be higher. So the curation process is a little more strict. This is where the workshops come in – how can the upcoming artists build their capacity to showcase quality works.
Social media is the best way to promote because we gain the exposure to a lot of people seeing the programs we are doing. Moving forward, we would like to continuously do promotion through tv, radio, and newspapers. Because we are trying to grow a market. We have a two-plan agenda: one is to reach out to the international market and get people to buy the artwork and the other is to develop it locally. Locally we are a little less optimistic but we are hopeful that we can actually develop a market here and have more people purchase art. We believe there is a chunk of people who have disposable income and who appreciate art. Now it is about finding those people and being able to build a network.
I think the way I approach art really changed since I am working in the gallery. Now whenever I decide to paint, I paint with intention. I would have a concept of what I want to do and then execute it accordingly. I am always going through a process of learning new techniques and strategies for my work so that the quality I achieve is presentable.
The Key Art Gallery staff is always open to ideas and collaborations facilitated towards the development of art, internationally as well as locally. They can be reached through their Instagram or Facebook platforms.