Wide open walls of Gambia
On a clear October morning, street artist Eelus is painting under the baking heat of the great African sun. He is a long way from the comforts of his South East England home. Biting insects surround him; he is hot, thirsty and extremely frustrated. He is the first to curate the soon to be annual Wide Open Walls project.
“Art Safari” as the project’s been dubbed started with an idea, 1000 cans of spray paint, eight artists, two weeks and the vision to transform the remote Gambian village of Kubuneh into an open-air contemporary art gallery. It aims to eliminate poverty by encouraging sustainable tourism. The idea being that tourists will come to view the artworks painted around the compound walls, trees and boats around the village. It is the brain-child of Lawrence Williams, an expat, who it’s important to point out owns and runs tourist lodges in the area.
Getting Eelus behind the project proved a feat. The street-artist was discovered by graffiti legends Banksy and Ben Eine ten years ago, and broke Banksy’s record for fastest selling print after he was signed to printmakers Pictures on Walls. He convinced seven other artists to step out of their comfort zones. This being Logan Hicks, Lucy McLauchlan, Xenz, Mysterious Al, John and Mike – better known as Broken Crow, and Eine. But as with all great ideas nothing ever goes as planned. In fact, 40 minutes before he was due to board the plane, Eine sent a text saying he couldn’t come.
“It was a shock and a big shame, but we just got on with it. The real shame was that we had a lot of other artists in mind who would have loved to take part and have that free ticket so the chance was taken away from them” says Eelus.
One artist that did board his flight was New-York-based stencil artist Logan Hicks. Despite hearing stories about a friend’s friend who had gotten kidnapped in Cape Town and forced to wire money, he thought he’d leave his prejudices behind him.
“When I heard about Gambia and saw how close it is to Sierra Leone, I thought it was the same there. It wasn’t.” says Logan.
“I got the feeling that the villagers were happy to have us because we were trying to give them something, instead of take something,” he adds.
Fans blogged that the spray cans used weren’t in keeping with the environment, but Eelus insists a happy medium was achieved, since the walls of the houses were painted in crude paint made from oyster shells that didn’t last long under the heat and rain storms.
“The paint we used will help protect the walls from the elements,” says Eelus.
“We were also painting with brushes, and bucket paint so it wasn’t purely spray paint,” he adds noting that the organisers plan to recycle the cans.
Under home comforts both artists feel changed by the experience.
“Going over there, and seeing those kids without any comforts that I have, and seeing them happy, it just makes me remember that I am not saving the world, I am just trying to make a few marks on it,” explains Logan.
“I really hope that our trip brings attention to Gambia and encourages people to go. It’s a beautiful country to visit, it’s just a terrible country to paint in 100° heat,” he adds. Next year, the project will involve local artists; we look forward to the results.
This is an edited version of a feature published in the latest issue of Spindle magazine.