»I remember when I was a kid, I had this feeling of greatness in me – one day, I will be great in life. I didn't know how I would get there, but I knew I will. I was not lucky to get sweet things when I was a child, and I never saw my father, but that never held me back. I never wanted those things to label me. I told my sister I will never fail in life, and that always motivated me to push harder and never stop.«
Ebrima is a self-taught painter. He started painting six years ago, in October 2017. At that time, he was twenty years old, and he switched from football to art after an ankle injury. He reached out to a more experienced artist that went under the nickname Fax Art to train him how to sketch. After staying with him and learning from him for half a year, he was on his own. Formal art education in The Gambia is very limited, so it was at that time inaccessible to him. He used to sketch in his home and help himself with Youtube videos on mixing paint, etc.
A few decisive moments in Ebrima's life pushed his art career forward. One of the breaking points on his art journey was the international art exhibition he attended in 2018 with other young artists. He sold two of his paintings and invested the money into buying art materials – canvases and paints. Later Ebrima came up with the breastfeeding concept, and he thought of two big names in the Gambian art scene he admired in that 2018 exhibition; Njogu Touray and Olumide Egunlae. He called them and showed them the paintings. After that, his contact with Njogu became more substantial, and he would always go to him for advice. When he thought he had done enough, he went to Alliance Franco to exhibit – but they refused him. That didn't discourage him; on the contrary, it was one of the greatest moments he speaks fondly of because it allowed him to correct his mistakes and make his paintings better so they would accept him next time.
And they did. The exhibition was titled Chosan. In the meantime, he was invited to the portrait competition in the NCAC, where he won with the cultural painting – people fell in love with it. Then the »no face« idea came. First, he made it by coincidence, but Njogu loved it and advised him to make it his style. »I don't want to be painting realistic because photography is taking all of this. I don't paint for president, I don't paint for revolution, I don't paint for tribalism. I want everybody to feel themselves in my paintings.«
All of those events shaped Ebrima's style and career. Right now, he is painting every day in his studio near the Bakau stadion. He didn't abandon portrait painting as it is still a powerful medium, especially for cultural series like the different tribes of The Gambia. Many of the paintings are done in »no face« style, like the Asubi dance (his favourite painting). There are also some even more abstract geometric paintings in his studio, as this is a trend Njogu generation dictates. He is also running student workshops, where he teaches young talents the things he learned about sketching and painting. »There is no art school here, just raw talent,« and the biggest favour you can do to the youths is to support their creativity.
The stories of big artists inspire Ebrima, of how they started and how they became great. »I asked Njogu how to be great. He gave me some advice: first, make it step by step, don't rush. Make sure you learn every day from your mistakes. And make sure your art is based on your community. My community is deeply rooted in culture. I am a part of a very poor community, but these poor communities usually have very rich cultures. If there is a poor community, know there is a very rich culture. And that is why I love to paint ordinary people struggling to feel better. There is a painting I did of children looking up and laughing. A poor guy can feel happy too.«
Art is all about the message for Ebrima. He finds it very important for the paintings to have a very good title and a back story. He is going by the motto,» if you can explain your painting very well, you have a very good painting.« For him, the artwork is speaking. And it should be speaking about the artist's surroundings, about the people, about the culture – it doesn't matter what struggle he had to go through personally. A painting should tell a good story.
And what is a good story? According to Ebrima, Njogu's artwork is so good because he represents his locality. You know he is based in The Gambia because of the colours and the materials he uses. He works with organic colours, local pigments like kola nuts and coffee, but also acrylic. This is what makes his paintings unique, and a painting should always be unique. It should not look like the paintings of the teacher or like anyone else's painting. »You have to paint with your heart what you see with your eyes.«
An artist, in his eyes, acquires almost a griot's role; he must be a storyteller. And that means he has to have a lot of knowledge. Ebrima claims culture and tradition is crucial to his surrounding and so to his art. He knows about the oracles, ritual sacrifices, the history of Mansa Musa, African symbols. »They say Africans didn't use to communicate because they didn't use the written language. But they did it with symbols.« He talks about the history of his nation, the colonization, and about the abuse of power. He, without a doubt, claims a role of a cultural communicator.
Ebrima understands well he has to invest to build. He is always investing the money back into art; »More than giving money, it is important to show people how to get money,« he claims. Many youths stay poor because of the traditions such as big ceremonies for weddings, naming, entertainment etc., where people are willing to spend everything they have and more on a one-day program, not investing for the long run.
His wish is to train more and more young artists so they can look up to him as he did to his mentors. He provides material for them as it is sometimes difficult to get it. There is no shop for art material in The Gambia; he normally gets it from secondhand container shops. Sometimes artists from Europe take the leftovers and bring them to him. He also aspires to attend international exhibitions anywhere in the world because that is one of the ingredients that make artists successful. He finds his calling in cultural painting because »culture is the most valuable thing we have in African art.« His new collection is dedicated to people's lifestyles – the happy life, not the sad one. With that, he is building a legacy that will never be forgotten.