Njogu Touray, a prominent Gambian artist
Friday, August 12, 2011
Born to the family of Saite Touray, a prominent craftsman during the colonial era in Banjul, and Aji Isatou Kombeh Badjan, on April 5th 1960, Njogu Touray is a Gambian born prominent visual artist and proprietor of the Sakura Art Studio in Latrikunda Yeringanyar. He is unarguably one of the finest artists the country has ever produced in this modern time given his professionalism and the quality of his works. Touray’s career started to develop during his childhood when he realised how endowed he is in terms of talents and skills, which he wisely exploited.
Today, Touray has also been able to penetrate the international world of arts having held series of exhibitions in Europe and the US. Among the awards he received were the Best Poster Design, which he grabbed in Malaysia in 2004 after coming out with the best. Locally, he was awarded with two prestigious national awards by the president of the Republic in recognition of his contribution to national development. Currently, he is one of the pioneers of Wide Open Project in the Gambia, an art initiative involving top artists from the UK, US, South Africa and other countries. Touray’s decades long experience in art has not been without challenges, but with perseverance and unassuming commitment to make a mark in this industry, he has been able to put himself to the task knowing well that success is never without challenges.
Please read the rest of the interview
Bt: Can you kindly tell us more about yourself?
Njogu: Thank you Hatab for finding time to come to Sakura Arts Studio. My name is Njogu Touray; I was born in Latrikunda German on April 5th 1960. I attended Serrekenda Primary School and then later Latrikunda Secondary Technical School. My dad Saite Touray was a craftsman who was head of a carpentry workshop in Basnjul during the colonial era. He was one of the few Gambians who was decorated or given an award at that time during the colonial era due to his achievements. He was a great source of inspiration.
My mum was a housewife, but she was also engaged in sewing and tie&dye although not on a professional level. That was her passion.
Bt: Talking about your dad being a good craftsman that led to his decoration then, how is that linked to your career today? Did that motivate you to choose this career or serve as an inspiration?
Njogu: Actually my father was a furniture maker – carpentry. Well I have learnt something from my dad; being a craftsman I have seen how he uses his tools and apply himself. And really it’s a source of inspiration.
Bt: Many people know you as an artist. But where did you do the training or how did it all start?
Njogu: Well I think I will say arts is something that I started when I was very young, maybe unknowing to me that this was the work of an artist. I was engaged in creating my own toys, making drums from empty tomato tins and using cement paper with baobab juice and wrapping it around the tin to make a drum; and from scribbling images on the tar road. The tar road to my school ended here [just at my compound] then in 1968 when I started school. So for me the tar road was like a long blackboard from my school to all the way to my house. So when I go to school, I had the opportunity to snatch a piece of chalk which I used to express myself on this tar road. Then there were few cars on the road and you can even count the number of cars in the village at the time. It was the government that owned most of the trucks that used to go to Kotu Quarry.
In our school there was a movie theatre called Rock Seasonal – that age we were not allowed to go to cinema because we were too young and the distance was far. But if we arrive early at school, we used to seize the opportunity to go to the movie theatre and watch their posters. On these posters movies that will be shown that night were displayed. Most of these posters at the time were done by artists – they were drawn, created. So this was a source of inspiration and when I see those images, I try to interpret them in forms of drawing. So I think that was also a great source of motivation.
At school they used to ask us to draw and then drawing became a visual language for me that I started to employ. When my peers realized that I had the skill in drawing, some of them would ask me to draw certain things. I remember we were trying to copy our seniors as they had a football team called Red Star. So we wanted to have our own soccer team. So we all decided that each should contribute a T-shirt. At that time, my peers wanted me to put the numbers on them and write the name of the team because they thought I could draw which I accepted. I succeeded in putting numbers on some of the T-shirts. During that time there was this dialogue across the Atlantic, records were coming from Jamaica, US, the likes Jimmy Cliff, and the records come with sleeves. And sometimes people will take these sleeves and ask you to copy it on their jackets or T-shirts.
That also started to stretch me in terms of skills because some of the images, texture were very rich. Then I started copying these things and putting them on wearable jeans, shirts. Those images were worn by young people and that’s how my name started to spread in town. Then after sometime I used similar techniques to paint on what we used to call ‘Samboukuka’. So one of my in-laws saw my painting and purchased it right away. It was a source of motivation and then I started to pursue this more and more and then challenges started coming in the form of commissions. People were asking me to paint this and that and I was employing different materials from charcoal to pencil, water colour, and oil paint, just to create an image that could represent something.
Bt: When did you start the professional career?
Njogu: Unknowingly I was an artist since I was very young, but when it comes to starting a professional career, I sold some pictures when I was 13-14 years old -mostly family members used to buy them. But I could say I started the professional career when I finished school – that was when I started doing sign boards for people to support my studio work. It was in 1986 that I sold a painting to a visiting tourist from the United Kingdom in the person of Lesley Abdella, a journalist and reviewer of books who is now a women activist helping women in many countries to pursue political careers and things like that. She bought this painting 1986 and took it to UK and then the following year, she came back and this time around she wanted to stay in the country with King Simons her partner. So they rented a flat at Wellington Street and then they fell in love with the Portuguese architecture there.
One day they invited me to this flat and they made a proposal that they wanted to turn the place into a gallery and that they have this room which is very small, and thought if I painted something in that room it could change the room. So I accepted the challenge and then I there was a window, I looked at the [COPR] and it was beautiful as there was a Portuguese architecture all over. So I reflected that image I saw on that window through the window on the opposite wall and it created this illusion of space. So they fell in love with the mirage and then we were preparing the place to turn it into a gallery. That place turned to be African Heritage Gallery Café in Banjul. So there was another lady from UK who came to The Gambia in 1987 and saw that work. She took photos of it [mirage] and wanted to meet the artist.
They arraigned for her to come over to my studio and when she came she took photos of other paintings I had at the time. To my surprised, just few weeks a letter came from UK. To my surprised again, when I opened this letter, it was an invitation from the Commonwealth Institute in London and the gallery coordinator there, wrote to me and said “we have seen your paintings and they look very interesting to us, and if you are interested to do an exhibition here, it will be nice if you send us additional pictures of your work.” I accepted this and they offered me an exhibition immediately. So I was lucky to be one of the first Gambians to do a solo exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in London. Then after that I started having invitations – went back to the UK – I was artist in resident at Hammersmith, Kensington Adult Education Institute; I stayed there for six months and did work with prisoners, people with learning difficulties, and then it culminated in an exhibition and I had exhibitions in some schools, and then I had a major exhibition at the Africa Centre. This is how my career started to evolve and I started to travel abroad further to exhibit my work.
Bt: But was arts a dream for you even during childhood or were there other dreams that you wanted to pursue?
Njogu: When I finished school and obtained some of these skills; what I wanted to do was to link it to something that relates to arts. I wanted to do architecture but when I realized that it was not feasible to pursue that here locally and it was not possible to obtain apprenticeship in that area, in 1985, I opted for a day job as a graphic designer with one of the local newspapers – The Gambia News Bulletin which they wanted to change it into Gambia Weekly at that time. But all these things have a connection with what I was doing -painting. I wanted to be an artist all my life and the urge was there all the time to do something creative artistically.
Bt: What does it takes to be an artist given the nature of this work, especially the type you are trading with?
Njogu: Well I believe it’s discipline and you have to be focused and you have to be ready to experiment; you have to be observant because if you observe that is when you can interpret. If you observed well, that is when you can draw the same thing you have seen. So I think these are some of the key elements you need.
Bt: How about the challenges which I assumed must be numerous?
Njogu: They are numerous. In some cases artists are not taken seriously. There was a time in the 70s artists were seen as people who should be marginalized and as a result some artists marginalized themselves because they thought they should dress in rags; they should behave weird; they should hook up in drugs; drink, sit in ghettos. I was lucky to realise that that was not the things an artist should indulge in. So I started to move into the mainstream – being yourself and trying to do stuffs that are positive; trying to contribute my quota in my community.
Bt: The Gambian art industry obviously is not that strong in view of the fact that the workforce is small and just a handful of the artists including yourself have been able to penetrate the international industry. What do you think is the problem in the industry?
Njogu: Yes the art community here is not big – this is because the institutions that should create artists are not as strong as institutions creating accountants and other disciplines. So that is why you would realize that there are few artists in this country. Secondly, the challenges that you mentioned are numerous because the institutions are not here to prepare the artists. Sometimes people get to a point where they realize that they should abandon this [art] and look for something else. It’s like climbing the S shape where they get to a point they could not move forward and thus hook to something else. But for example when I started to pursue a professional career in the 80s, there were no galleries – it was only in 1994-5 when the Alliance Franco on Kairaba Avenue was built.
We used to exhibit at the National Library in Banjul and the Alliance at Hills Street. Basically these were the places where you could show your work. These are some of the limitations and for instance if an artist want to use Western materials there were few places where you could just walk in and buy them. And if you compare the prices of these materials in those outlets, the prices were almost higher than what you could just sell a piece in this country because the institutions were not there. There were no linkages where you could buy the material, create it in a studio and give to an art gallery or an agent to sell it for you. So those are some of the challenges we face. But then some of the artists realized that they should do it on their own – promote your work, exhibit your work, and then in some cases opportunities come your way then you exploit them.
Bt: But then don’t you think that with the availability of these institutions that are lacking at the moment, they will enhance the country’s art industry?
Njogu: Surely it will. But we live in a digital world and there are exchanges across the world on a daily basis and its much easier now to buy materials from anywhere in the world and bring hem over. Even in the absence of those institutions, if artists are well organized we can overcome some of these challenges. If there are arts centers where tourists could go and even pay a small fee to just see the work of those artists, it will enable those artists to pay for their electricity bills; it will enable them to put bread and butter on their tables, and so on. So this will enable them not to depend entirely on selling their work to survive. This will enable them to focus more on their work and to create more serious work without targeting the cheap tourism industry. Tourists come to my place, but I sell more of my work to expatriates than them.
Bt: I understand that one of your biggest patrons in the country is President Jammeh. Is this true and how motivating is this presidential patronage to your work?
Njogu: Yes, the president is one of my biggest patrons in The Gambia. He is not only a patron but he is also one of my great promoters and I cannot thank him enough for his patronage and support. It was a big surprise to me the first time when I saw the giving out one of my pieces. I used to sell some of my works at the emporium. So there was a time when they sold some of my pieces and not knowing that it was the head of state who bought them. And one day to my surprise, it was on TV and he [the president] made a presentation of this work – what a great promotion for an artist! What a great support for an artist!
Bt: How many exhibitions have you attended internationally?
Njogu: I have exhibited in many countries such as Germany, Sweden, Britain, Italy, US and so on. I had a bigger exhibition in 1999 to promote Roots in the US. So I have exhibited in many countries but when I do these exhibitions, my focus was on promotions. Sometimes you may do exhibitions and make some money but my focus was promoting on my work and establishing myself.
Bt: You are no doubt with a good knowledge and experience. Are you sharing your knowledge with other people through some sort of employment or training?
Njogu: There are some young people around whom I assist. It’s very difficult for me to keep a big number of students but what I encourage is for people to come over. There are schools here which I am open to; they come here [at the studio] and I do work with them. The American school has been coming over on a number of occasions, but there are young people around this area and some as far as Brikama in the West Coast Region who come over. What I do is to engage them, show them some techniques and give them some materials and also discuss their work with them to motivate them. I don’t have a school as such but I employ two people who help me in the work.
Bt: What can you share with us on the Wide Open Walls Arts Project in which you are a key stakeholder?
Njogu: Wide Open Walls was actually initiated by Laurence Williams of Makasutu. It is a street art images. Laurence has this urge to art and then we met some three years ago and then we started painting in the streets in and around the Balabo Conservative Area – Kumbujeh, Brikama, and those [satellite] villages. Every Saturday I drive my car over to Makasutu and we just go around the villages and paint. One day he [Laurence] phoned me and says ‘I have this idea to invite an artist from the UK to come and join us to paint more pictures in the Balabo Conservation Area.’ So then he contacted this guy and the artist fell in love with the idea and suggested that he could also invite other artists. So it culminated into a Wide Open Walls.
In 2010, we invited eight artists – four from the United Kingdom and the other four from the United States. We started this project without having one dalasi in our coffers but we engaged some institutions like the Gambia Experience which donated four air tickets to get the artists from UK to the Gambia. For the tickets from the [US] we were assisted by an institution that gave us a loan to get these artists over. So that’s how we started and then we approached a company called Sabotage in Greece which gave us about US$2000 worth of paint; Red Coat stepped in and get them over. With these artists we painted the villages of Kubuneh. This year we engaged a curator from South Africa. This time around, we had artists, an anthropologist, a photographer, and a movie maker all from the South Africa to support the project. We also had artists from Israel, Switzerland, Spain, and UK. So we painted three villages of Bafuloto, Makumbaya, and Galoya.
Bt: What does it seeks to create or achieve?
Njugo: The project started three years ago and in 2010 it expanded. Actually what this project is trying to create is a Living Art Museum the first of its kind may be in Africa. These artists [involve in the project] are established artists in their countries – they are famous and they come to paint free of charge in these villages. If you compare the value of the works of those artists that they put on cameras and sell them, you will realize that there is a great value in these villages as a result of this project. What this project could create is it could have an educational component because we have done workshops in the schools and this year what we did was, we gave materials to the children such as drawing books, pencil colours and we just asked them to observe and question whatever these professionals do.
So it was like a school in the village. What this project could create is an opportunity to link it with tourism that tourists visiting this country could go to these villages, view this museum and also spend money in those communities. The good thing about this project is that you have schools in those areas. It’s good to teach arts in schools but it’s also important to see the real work of arts in your community. The other thing is that it enhances the environment in those communities like the villagers were very supportive of the project in that they have taken ownership of the project. The villagers are protecting the art work because they know it is important. The project is enhancing their life because you could see some of them looking at these works and suddenly you will see a flash in their face – they smile.
So the project is ongoing and what we want is to paint all those 14 villages in the area and if we succeed in our art workshops, what would happen is in few years time, we will have more and more artists in those localities that will take over this project and push it forward. Now hopefully we want to do it annually and turn it into an international event. We created a Facebook page last year and now we have a membership of more than 1500. We hope this will continue and we are hoping that once this movie is out, it will sell the Gambia because this project could bring in different category of tourists to the Gambia. Maybe few years ago, people would come here for culture of the country, so this project is going to be a plus to that. The beauty of this street art project is we are trying to give art to the local communities. Even if an international artist is selling his work for 300,000 dalasis, we are giving it to these local communities for free. What street art do is creating a democratic playing field where art is not only for the rich; where art is not controlled by galleries or agents because the artist is free to expose him or herself to the public without going through a gallery.
Bt: What is the composition of your work, things that are involved?
Njogu: Well I would say I am inspired by the culture – the traditions, the beliefs, and I draw inspiration from all these. Among the things that I draw inspirations is the rich proverb that we have. This is what I would say proverbial arts because some of these proverbs are so rich. It is often said that a good picture is more than a thousand words, but a good proverb is more than a million words. I try to visualize some of these rich African proverbs, turn them into something visible. That’s a source of inspiration. Then I have a theme on women which I called the invisible women series. This is a tribute to women because you will realize that when you walk around the streets, you rarely see women sitting down drinking attaya; you rarely see women playing draught, games for that matter on the streets. It is mainly men that you see on the streets walking around, loafing around, and sitting enjoying the shade of a tree.
But the women are somehow invisible when you use those lenses. Why are they invisible when you use those lenses to assess the society? This is because the women do the domestic work in the houses such as cooking, washing, fetching water, work in the gardens, grow rice etc. So it is this busy traffic that keeps them away from the eye of a visitor thereby making them somehow invisible. So that theme is a tribute to women for the pivotal role they play in our society. The other theme I have on women again is the ‘Kanyallens’ [local group griots or entertainers]. I grew up here but the kind of entertainment in 60s such as drumming was very much part of the fabric of society. So the kanyallens were quite visible to me when I was young. Sometimes I will just come out of our house and see women cooking at the junction but it’s not common anymore to see those activities.
Then I decided to do research on these women [kanyallens], their behaviors because I also realize they are artistic – the way they dress, the way they dance, in the way they comport themselves in ceremonies. So I realize that kanyallens have a belief and the belief is that they are puzzled by an evil spirit which is creating problems for them –i.e. they loose their children when they are very young and they are unable to bear children. So when a woman joins this kanyallen community, they change their name, dress differently because they want to disguise themselves from these evil spirits. And it is the mode of their dress that attracted me to them. You can see that the kanyallens are very good in recycling objects and turn them into works of art. For example an empty rice bag could be used as a wrapper and the empty bottle tops with the beeps is added to their outfit which makes sound. The calabash which is also one of their symbols is a symbol of fertility. Then I started to learn more and more and continue with series because this tradition is becoming to fade in our society. I want to record this in my work so that the future generation can also reflect on this which is really a strong part of our society.
Bt: What is your vision for The Gambia art industry given the stamina and commitment you have attached to this profession?
Njogu: The vision is to create an international event with Wide Open Walls; to promote young Gambian artists to take up this project. We are just serving as a nucleus to a bigger thing – we may be the pioneers of it but eventually other young artists should be ready to take over the project. The other is to establish an international reputation for Gambian art, to produce top notch works that could be exhibited or sold anywhere in the world. That is my vision and I am focused, and I am pursuing it.
Bt: We are almost at the tail end of the interview, but before I take leave of you, what message would you like to send to the artists, especially the upcoming ones?
Njogu: What I will say to the young people who want to pursue arts, I am saying the best way forward is to be focused, to persevere, and be ready to face challenges. There is an opportunity now that didn’t exist many years ago. Let them find time to read and to apply themselves. For me I would not claim to have all the answers to their problems but I am happy to share experience with any of the young artist and to advise where necessary.
Bt: What has been the most exciting thing for you in this field?
Njogu: There are many exciting things but I would say one of the most exciting moments during the past few years is the recognition given to me by the society, the appreciation given to my work and the fact that I was given two national awards by the president of the Republic for the little contribution that I have done towards arts.
Bt: Any other awards for your work?
Njogu: I have both local and international awards. I have won some awards like in Malaysia; I won an award for a poster design. I came out with the best design and this was in 2004. I have also won awards locally for advocacy and promotion for the work I have done towards the environment. I got MRG national award from the president, which is the highest and the most prestigious awards I ever receive.
Bt: Thank you so much Njogu for sparing some of your time to chat with Bantaba.
Njogu: Thank you Fadera and it’s a pleasure.
Author: Hatab Fadera