The most memorable parts of a trip abroad don’t always turn out to be the things you were expecting – going to see the Pyramids in Egypt but being blown away by the sand dunes and desert oasis in Siwa, for example – and on a recent trip to The Gambia this proved true once more. One of the greatest joys of a new place is simply wandering, getting lost, and seeing what you discover – and often this results in stumbling upon some excellent street art.
The village of Kubuneh is a short dug out-canoe ride away from the gorgeous Mandina floating lodges in the Makasutu Forest, and a walk here will reward you with both an insight into typical rural African village life and seamlessly integrated art work. The Wide Open Walls project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, a talented artist and one of the co-founders of Makasutu / Mandina. Although street art is relatively common in the west, aside from artistic advertising I haven’t really seen it much in the African countries I’ve visited, making this venture a ripe opportunity to try something new. Wisely avoiding a typical art gallery set-up in a single building, the idea here is very much that of a “living artwork”, where the village itself becomes the canvas.
Working with a handful of specially invited artists including Eelus and Bushdweller, the walls and houses in Kubuneh were painted in 2010 but Lawrence has many other ideas either already started or planned for the future, including filming a documentary, a coffee-table book, and the painting of more villages. Lawrence also has links with the UK and currently works with a university in Oxford who send students over to The Gambia to engage with the local artists, so the potential legacy for this fascinating endeavour could easily transcend its current location.
The aim of the project is multi-layered – to be a visitor attraction in its own right, and thus having a ripple effect of promoting tourism to The Gambia, but also to be a sustainable, community-based initiative that can foster communication between western and African artists and villagers, and eventually raise some money to be put back into the community where the art works have been painted. The concerns of western street artists simply coming over and painting the locals’ houses was addressed by meeting with the 14 “alkalo”, or village elders, within the Ballabu Conservation Area that the project operates in, and they gave it their blessing. One alkalo went on to say “Don’t be in two minds, you are welcome in our villages”, and I really hope the project continues in this vein of mutual co-operation.
One of the ironic differences I noted was that in Europe and the USA, street art is often done on buildings without the owners permission whereas on this project the local villagers and even the Gambian government have approved the paintings to be done. No need for under-cover-of-darkness spray painting here. Come to think of it, with Banksy being such an elusive character, The Gambia might be an ideal low-key place to avoid the potential limelight (maybe Lawrence himself is really Banksy…).
I loved the riot of colour, the variety of styles, and the fun of trying to find the paintings themselves – some hidden on back walls, or playfully integrated onto a tree. Visiting the Wide Open Walls paintings was one of the highlights during my time in The Gambia, partly because it was so unexpected – a world away from the lions and elephants many people automatically think of when talking about Africa – but the key for the future will be to make sure it can remain financially viable. If you’re staying at Mandina this should be an essential visit, and perhaps one day all 14 villages will be painted as fantastically as Kubuneh. In Lawrence’s own words, “…from small seeds big Baobab trees grow!”
All words and photos by regular contributor Lee Hubbard.