African Village Graffitiby Sydelle Willow Smith / 11.07.2011
I took an economy class trip for one to The Gambia via Senegal, the rest of the Wide Open Walls 2011 crew having arrived a week before. Tom Wolfe’s classic The Bonfire of the Vanities kept me company on the plane as I sat squashed between Americans and their curio shop purchases and crying babies on their way back to Washington. Eventually finding myself in Dakar airport, men with trolleys attempted to grab my bags right off the conveyer belt, their keen eyes flashing with the prospect of money. I spotted a man in the crowd adorned with a white robe and a blue patterned fez, holding a piece of paper up with my name on it. I bumbled towards him in a joyous state, introducing myself enthuisastically only to discover on leaving the airport, after starting a nonstop conversation with him in which he nodded and smiled, that he was not in fact my driver who would take me to The Gambia. He was a porter, who my driver had to pay to fetch me, as he was not allowed to wait for me in the airport. One of the many hustling character traits of life in Dakar. My virgin experience of West Africa continued from the passenger seat of a luxurious 4X4 with a broken stereo intermitteldy providing us with tinkling Kora melodies, the broken battered road to the border lying seven hours ahead.
My driver, Lamin, chatted away about the haggling nature of the Senegalese as the streets of Dakar whizzed by slowly catching the morning light as the calls to prayer began in the distance. Driving through Senegal as the sunrises on a saturday morning while suffering from sleep deprivation, can make everything look a bit like a scene from an Ousamane Sembene film. Arid landscapes the humidity rising over the tar, reed houses, donkeys and the most beautiful women I have possibly ever seen. The hours ticked by, life in South Africa was discussed and compared. The death of Lucky Dube deeply lamented while local music was celebrated and I was introduced to a few Senegalese hip hop tunes (something a bit like The Roots meets Toumani Diabate). We navigated roads with pot holes the size of small cars, stopping for a lunch of peppered beef and red onion from a roadside stall, where I peed at a garage toilet – literally a cemented hole in the ground. We eventually arrived in The Gambia at 3pm after sidestepping a bribe suggestion from a customs official, the rest of my journey continuing by a boat headed for Makasatu, my home for the next week, a lodge situated in a conservation trust on the river and the base of Wide Open Walls.
The Gambia, named after its river, is the smallest mainland country in Africa. It is most famous for a president who has proclaimed that he can cure HIV/AIDS with a special concoction, one of the main ingredients is peanut butter. The landscape is tropical, home to a magestic river and a beautiful coast line. Everyone stops to ask your name and surname and to tell you how great it is to welcome strangers into their village. Mine was a peaceful experience, my time divided between the lodge at Makasutu and four villages: Kumbaya, Makambaye, Galloya and Bufalootoo.
Wide Open Walls is a project that was started last October by Lawrence Williams who runs the Ballabu Conservation Trust with his uncle, James English, both of whom have been living in the area for over nineteen years. Williams, a keen artist, has been working on a project called Bushdwellers for a number of years with Gambian artist, Njogu Touray. They have always wanted to expand the project into something that could function as a valid art installation in itself and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination. The basic idea was to turn villages in the area (falling under the Ballabu Conservation Project) into a living art project by inviting international street artists to come and work in conjunction with the community, painting murals on walls under the guidance of the local chiefdoms (the alkullahs).
In the street art world this year’s line up was pretty star studded, including Bushdwellers (The Gambia), ROA (Belgium), Know Hope (Israel), Remed (Spain), TIKA (Switzerland), Best Ever (UK), Selah (SA), and Freddy Sam (SA). South African filmmaker Rowan Pybus and photographer Jonx Pillemer were there to document the whole experience. The second installment of WOW this year was also the first time collaboration between Wide Open Walls and Write on Africa, a South African based organization started by Ricky Lee Gordon (a.k.a Freddy Sam) which is a community art project based in Cape Town South Africa, based at The Woodstock Industrial Centre. It’s main focus being to encourage inspiration and urban rejuvenation through art events, initiatives and by putting street art in public spaces. I was invited as an “anthropologist” by Ricky to come along and find out what community members thought of a couple of very talented street artists coming into their space and leaving behind an eclectic mix of artworks. Village compound walls seemingly being a bit unconventional for an art form that was born on concrete walls in urban sprawls. To quote visiting street artist Know Hope: “Painting in the villages was different from painting in a city because I actually met and got to know the people on whose wall I was painting on, which is usually not the case. One thing that I think wasn’t new, but definitely amplified and more present, was the direct interaction, impact and transformation the work had on the village. It became a happening – as, for, by and with the community.”
Days rolled into one as every morning we would head out to a village where artists would either continue a piece they had started the day before, or begin a new one surrounded by a new group of curious people always there to offer advice on colour and character choice and a few very strong cups of green tea, and of course mangoes – there were always mangoes being handed to you left right and center. The overall consensus was that the project had the potential to become something inspiring and collaborative, giving it greater depth than merely leaving behind beautiful murals for community members and visiting tourists to enjoy.
After this year’s success discussions about the future focused on plans to ensure art workshops for interested locals, direct collaborations between local and international artists as well as plans to implement a artist in residency programme. Njogu Toray (Bushdwellers) summed it up most succinctly, “Wide Open Walls is a democratic and interactive street art project bringing artists of the world to celebrate through art, all good things in life: environmental awareness, peace, love and respect for our cultural values. For me as a Gambian artist it is inspirational to work alongside and share with our international friends that make the long journey to experience Africa. The community spirit will stay alive through such projects. Africa and the world unite!”
While the project has good intentions and a strong team, there are always issues that may arise in these types of situations and one cannot project or predict the path the project will take. One can only hope that transparency and even dialogue occurs to allow for the most valuable possible intentions and outcomes for the project to develop, in a realistic framework. The negative effects of tourism was an issue that frequently arose, and I questioned many community leaders about it. I used the example of how the little children asked us countless times for minties (sweets) and bottles. A consensual way of dealing with tourism was suggested by community leaders, one of sensitization. This implies that school children and other community members would be educated on the values and intentions of the project, stressing the importance of sustainability and self empowerment rather than some form of commodification of Gambian rural life that could in turn have a detrimental effect on internal development and growth.
The way Wide Open Walls is structured with the Makasutu Trust working in close partnership with the fourteen alkullahs (chiefs – a majority of whom are also school teachers) allows for continuous negotiation and dialogue to occur at each stage of the project’s development process. African chiefdoms may carry with them many negative aspects with regard to a lack of egalitarian views, but the fact that the majority of the Gambians we met relished their unified stance across religious, racial and tribal lines makes me believe that internal, sustainable development is achievable and the processes in place are working to a large degree. For example at the closing ceremony held for us by the alkullahs of the villages, in Galloya on our last day, proceedings were structured, held under the shade of a massive tree. Women representatives were given a platform to express their thoughts on the project, as well as a representative from the youth. I am not implying that things are perfect, there are always tensions when it comes to projects like this, I am merely highlighting the democratic process we witnessed. The owners of the Makasutu Lodge, James English and Lawrence Williams stressed that their underlying intention for WOW would be to bring tourists into the area, allow a platform for local artists to showcase their work to an international audience and inspire cross cultural forms of knowledge exchange through artist in residency programmes and workshops. Despite some of the initial difficulties that will inevitably arise, I believe in their passion and am honoured to be part of the process.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.