Arguably the nation’s leading female artist operating in the tourism industry, Isha Fofana aka ‘Mama Africa’ has carved a niche for herself as far as painting is concerned.
Born, raised and schooled before traveling to Germany, it is in Europe that her desire to become an internationally acclaimed painter came full circle.
Mama Africa, 54, shares with The Chronicle her long journey to becoming the renowned painter she now is, recollecting her early life, her knack for the arts, sojourn in Germany and eventual return to The Gambia. .
“I have always loved arts since my childhood days,” she says. “As a woman, it was not easy to become an artist in those days because of stereotyping. But this is what I loved to do and I persisted at all cost.”
Breaking the glass ceiling
Mama Africa’s passion for arts remains undiminished in spite of the stereotyping in a society that sees the craft as a male preserve. Remarkably, she defied the odds in 1984 by joining the Gambia Black African Art Club (GBAAC) before making it to Germany in 2000 where she discovered her full potentials in the art of painting.
“At the dawn of the new millennium I have already attained 35 years with a small family living in Germany. Knowing how life was over there, I thought I needed to do something that I love doing. This was the moment I started doing painting and other art work in Germany to make a living,” Mama Africa explains.
Since 2001 Mama Africa has been attending international arts exhibitions for more than twenty times in Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands.
After spending eight years in Germany, Mama Africa decided to return home in 2008 to contribute to the development of Gambia’s tourism industry. The same year she opened the Mama Africa Art gallery in Brusubi.
Visit to The White House
Her work has not gone unnoticed by both international organizations and governments, culminating in her 2011 visit to The White House to participate in the African Women Entrepreneurs Program under the auspices of the US State Department.
“I was among forty-three African women entrepreneurs who were invited to the White House by President Barrack Obama. This visit was facilitated by the United States Embassy in Banjul in recognition of my work,” Mama Africa recalls.
Falling victim to the regime of Yahya Jammeh
In a dramatic twist of fate two years later, Mama Africa fell victim to the regime of then president Yahya Jammeh, who ordered the demolition of Mama Africa Arts Gallery despite its status as a training center for budding artists as well as providing job opportunities for a teeming number of youths in Batokunku and the environs.
“One day, about three to four black vehicles, all with tainted glasses stormed my gallery. They wanted to know who was Isha Fofana. I identified myself and they handed me a letter requesting that I should leave within 48 hours because they president Jammeh was the owner of the site.”
Though place was demolished by the authorities, Mama Africa remained upbeat. Her initial response was that “Jammeh demolished the building but not the artist.”
Observers say the movement of Banjul-based foreign diplomats in and out of the gallery might have precipitated the former president’s move to demolish it. And like a person on a mission, Mama Africa never relented even after the demolition.
“I decided to move on as quickly as possible after the demolition. I bought a piece of land at Tanji and started construction as early as 2015. This project was completed in 2018 and is opened for business with a full-fledged museum, arts gallery, artist’s restrooms and a training center,” she explains.
Individual honors and life beyond arts
Among Mama Africa’s accolades is the prestigious award for humanitarian work “Gambia Friends” of Switzerland in 2014 as well as the 2018 award by the Institute for Travel and Tourism of The Gambia (ITTOG) in recognition of her outstanding service and contribution towards the development of Gambian tourism.
Besides tourism, Mama Africa’s engagements entail the training of women in fertility issues, female genital mutilation and early marriage. Over a thousand Gambian women received training through the Natural Family Planning Women’s Project established in 2012.
“I will continue to play my part in the development of the arts and tourism industry of The Gambia,” she says.