By Hassoum Ceesay
‘The International Art Festival’ which opened at the Alliance Francaise on Kairaba Avenue on November 30th, is a feast of colour, canvas and sculpture. There is also something on display which is still rare in the Gambian fine art scene, a couple of installations. But before lifting the veneers of artistic virtues, I must go down history lane to attest that Gambian art has come of age.
The first generation of Gambian artists were Shola Mahoney, Momodou Ceesay and Comrade E. M. Sillah. All of them were trained in the best art schools available in 1960s London, Paris and Dakar. Comrade, who tragically died at 60 in 2006, went through the pupilage of Iba Ndiaye, the iconic Senegalese painter of the Negritude movement, whose Mouton de tabaski is still seen as the Guernica of Africa, and Iba as the Piccasso. Shola represented The Gambia with pride at the historic Festival of Black Art held in Dakar in 1966, with haunting water colours which kept the great audiences dazzled and sizzled. Momodou Ceesay, is in fact, the scholarly painter; he trained at the once revered temple of French academe, the Sorbonne, and has combined painting with angry poetry. What these three pioneers have in common is that at one time they belonged at one time to The Gambia Black Art Club of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
This circle of artists wanted to express Gambia’s African pride in art. There were matured painters like Comrade and parvenus like Njogu Touray, Momodou Camara, Chuckley Seeka, and the highly lamented late B. Etu Ndow, and the recently deceased Saliu John. Aisha Fofana stands out in this generation for her versatility.
The old, and the new. The Gambia Black African Art Club was in fact an art movement, so engaged that if it had managed to remain focused for a bit more time, it could have evolved into something like the Banjul School in African Arts just as we have the Zaria School in art, in Nigeria. Sadly, the painters were forced to leave these climes one after the other to ply their trade elsewhere.
Shola and Momodou for example went to live and work in Europe. The younger ones like Etu, Mo Camara, Njogu Touray and Tijaan Kamara stayed on to mainly teach art in schools, and thereby also bringing up a vast pool of talent. Of course, they also did painting as an aside. They became the second generation of Gambian artists.
In the late 1990s to 2007, I curated ‘Art from The Gambia’ which was a fixed staple in our art calendar. A. Badjie was one of the young artists then; I am happy to say that now, as is obvious in this exhibition, he has matured. This third generation of Gambian artists is just about to come of age. Sadly, I have not seen much of them in this exhibition. But let me return to the ongoing exhibition.
I will start with the splash of colour in Njogu Touray’s ‘Invisible action in the house’ or in Moulaye’s ‘Fashion Lady’ and in A. Badjie’s ‘The Spiritualist’; a haunting and totemic piece which takes us into the esoteric world of the Jalang, where eggs fly. The painters give a copious dose of acrylic splash as if they manufacture the product, emitting a virtuoso colour-scape which rivals the beauty of Olu Ogunlade’s landscapist piece ‘Rice Fields’. Olu is one of the few artists in this exhibition who shows that one can be adept at oil on canvas and acrylic on canvas at the same time, producing the same hue and artistic heft and beauty.
Talking about beauty, Moulaye is one Gambian artist obsessed with feminine curves and surfs. He does so in realism and in portraiture. His ‘Fashion Lady’ ‘Classic Lady’ and ‘Jouma’ celebrate the curvy African lass. Moulaye does so using spectacular colours, and a straight canvas to make the women’s benedictions stand out clearly and loudly, without being voyeuristic. A viewer tells me in private: ‘Moulaye celebrates Gambian culture as imbued in the woman’.
Culture on canvas and in sculpture
Culture is one theme which runs large in the exhibition. Olu Ogunlade’s ‘Kora Man’ and ‘Kora’ an oil on canvas, in which the strings of the Kora lute stand out like the sinews of an Olympic heavy lifting gold medalist. The veteran sculptor, J. Pierre Sambou, also harps on the cultural with his wooden piece ‘Oral historian-griot’. This is a beautiful wood cut which has the shadow of a Benin head. Toyinbo is back in ‘Kora Music’; while Yuspalka dishes out an installation well worth its name.
All told, the exhibition celebrates the best of art in The Gambia. It is weak in the abstract, which is good as the artists want to be understood not in the obscurantist abstract, but in realism and as landscapist. There are the veterans and the maturing. What is missing is the new wave of Gambian artists engaged in digital and multimedia and animation. They are trained in Taiwan, Indonesia and elsewhere in fine art in the digital age. For them the canvas is obsolete. This would be the third generation in my calculation, and I am sure in another exhibition, sometime in the future, they will feature.
(The International Art Exhibition runs through December at the Alliance Francaise)