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Who Needs Canvas? In Dakar, Street Artists Express Their Visions on Sides of Homes


DAKAR, Senegal — On one wall, the painting of a marabout, a Muslim holy man, peers out from behind a line hung with laundry. Nearby, a poster of an African woman in a bustle has been pasted to a house. Still further along, women socialize in front of a wall covered in an intricate black-and-white abstract pattern.

These are the painted houses of the Médina, a poor and working-class neighborhood near downtown Dakar. The neighborhood has welcomed street artists from all over the world to practice their craft in what the founder of the project calls the open sky museum. Dozens of wall paintings dot the neighborhood, bringing color to usually drab cement walls, and adding to the flourishing international art scene in Dakar.

Artists from not just Senegal but Burkina Faso, Algeria, Morocco, Congo, France and Italy have come to paint on these walls. They in turn have brought art lovers and tourists into a neighborhood where they otherwise might not go, to mingle with people they otherwise might not meet.

The wall art of the Médina “can bring together people who normally don’t even see each other,” said Mauro Petroni, a ceramist who has lived in Dakar for many years.

Street art seems to come naturally to Senegal, where many small shops are adorned with images of what they sell. Paintings of scissors signify tailors; heads with fancy hairstyles advertise barbers; images of cows and bowls of milk herald the ubiquitous sweet milk shops; a drawing of a sheep broadcasts the presence of a vendor serving grilled meat.

Shop art is commissioned by the shop owners, and sometimes painted by them too. But to paint on a house in the Médina neighborhood, it helps to go through Mamadou Boye Diallo, known as Modboye.

Mr. Diallo, 31, was born and raised in the Médina, the son of an elevator operator. He dropped out of school at 15 to become a break dancer and rollerblader. He got to know the art scene by working as a messenger, delivering fliers on roller blades for art galleries.

In 2010, he created Yataal Art, a nonprofit arts collective, and painted the first wall in the Médina with friends. The beauty of it is that “you don’t have to take a nice shower and wear perfume” to see the art, Mr. Diallo said. Among street artists seeking a wall to paint on, Mr. Diallo became the man to see.

“You have to pass by him in order to work in the Médina,” one of the street artists, Doline Legrand Diop, said. “He functions a bit like a curator.”

Ms. Legrand Diop lived in Dakar for many years and has two children by a Senegalese man, though she now lives in France. Her pictures of black people dressed as aristocrats, her #remakehistory project, can be seen on the walls of the Médina.

In the beginning, it was not always easy to convince homeowners to let people paint on their walls.

“They wanted money,” Mr. Diallo said. But as the project caught on, they wanted to keep up with their neighbors.

“It’s for the community,” said Tonton Kaba, a retired chauffeur, who has a Legrand Diop collage on his house.

Abdoulaye Camara, known as Père Djim, allowed an artist to paint the word “suba,” Wolof for tomorrow, on his house. He makes furniture of wood and animal horns on the street in the Médina, home to many artisans, so he could relate.

Still, what residents expect and what artists deliver are not always the same thing. Giacomo Bufarini, an Italian artist who goes by the art name Run, painted the wall of a house with a giant silhouette of the woman who lived there. He incorporated a window into her head, like a window into her mind.

Rather than being impressed by the concept, she complained that he had left the peeling paint on the window frame. “I told her I’m not like a decorator,” Mr. Bufarini recalled, sounding both peeved and guilty.

Another artist, Ernesto Novo, had to tiptoe around a large bull while he painted a row of African statuettes onto a wall last March. The animal is still there (as is the art).

The spirit of the open sky gallery is improvisational, just like the lives of many of the artists. Traveling through West Africa from France, an artist called the Wa, who would not give his real name, wound up in Senegal by accident, after his visa expired in Mauritania, and he and his friends drove to Senegal “for a beer.”

Mr. Bufarini recalled that after finishing his painting, he, Mr. Diallo and friends celebrated by going for a fish barbecue on the beach. Having no barbecue, they cooked on refrigerator racks scavenged from the trash, after burning off the plastic coating.

The painted-houses project has gotten so big that this year, Delphine Buysse, a Belgian curator, has arranged for artists in residence to live at a luxury hotel in Dakar, the Pullman, for a week, while painting in the Médina.

One of the most recent wall paintings was a collaboration between Kouka Ntadi, a Congolese-French artist, and Barkinado Bocoum, a Senegalese artist. Mr. Ntadi painted abstract portraits in black-and-white, and Mr. Bocoum added folksier portraits in bright colors.

Mr. Ntadi loved sharing the neighborhood with the commercial artists of the barbershops and the milk stores.

“I would say there is not really a border between the two in Africa,” he said. “It’s not like in France or the U.S. where there is a snobbism about art, and you can’t be in marketing. So for sure, we can still be an artist and make a design for a bottle of milk or a side of beef.”


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