Well now, this is incredibly exciting. Lawrence Williams, founder, designer and proprietor of the magnificent ecological and cultural project at Makasutu, and of the wonderful river lodges at Mandina has a new venture. Lawrence, a keen artist himself, has been working with local artists on a project called Bushdwellers for a number of years and has always wanted to expand the project into something more, something lasting that could both function as a valid art installation in itself and at the same time promote The Gambia as a tourist destination. The basic idea was to turn some the village of Kubuneh within the Ballabu area into a living art project. Lawrence spoke with renowned street artist Eelus and suddenly he had himself a curator – the first curator of Wide Open Walls… So from 12th-26th October, 8 of the world’s leading street artists (Eelus himself, Logan Hicks, C215, Will Barras, Broken Crow [John Girder & Mike Fitzsimmons], Lucy McLauchlan and Ben Eine will be in residence within the Makasutu region turning a Gambian village into an art installation. Click on the individual artists to see some of their work and read on to find out more. Oh, and follow the Wide Open Walls’ Facebook page for up to date information.
Many thanks to Lawrence who took the time to answer some of our questions about what sounds like a fantastic project.
The Gambia Blog (hereafter TGB) You guys have been a presence in The Gambia for a good 15 years now – could you tell us a bit about how you came to the place and what you’re currently up to?
Lawrence Williams (hereafter LW):
I originally came to The Gambia in 1992, looking for a piece of land on the beach to build a surf camp, but quickly realised that there was no real surf to talk of. I was tagging along with James, who is my uncle through extended family and his friend Bill who was going to be his business partner on a project in The Gambia. We travelled the whole country, North and South bank and on Christmas eve James and myself found Makasutu by dug-out canoe and decided to do a project together. We originally bought 4 acres of land on the bend of a river which we now call base camp. The original plan was to build a small back-packers lodge. We returned to the UK for 2 months, and when we arrived back in The Gambia over 200 palm trees had been cut down in the land surrounding our fence. We reported this to the authorities and the tribal owners of the area and they suggested if we wanted to protect the land that we bought it and fenced it. 4 acres has now turned in to 1750 acres that we are now the custodians of.
Having such a large area of land we are forever juggling new projects with maintenance and general up keep of the forest. We are in the process of building a 3 storey tower at Base Camp, which will eventually link to a network of towers across the river, joined by suspension bridges. This is the first phase of a canopy walk way that we want to build through the forest, linked to zip lines etc. We want to make Makasutu more of an adventure! We also now have a small piece of land on the beach, which happens to have the only descent wave in the Gambia right in front. I finally get my surf camp!
TGB:You’ve been working on the Ballabu project in conjunction with the Eden Project – how did this come about and how is the project going overall?
LW: In 2004 we were asked by the United Nations World Tourism Authority (UNWTO) to present Makasutu as a case study to Governments around Africa as part of their S.T.E.P program (sustainable tourism to eliminate poverty) and spent most of that year travelling to seminars. Makasutu is a private business, but we have always tried to involve the local communities as much as possible. The idea for the Ballabu Conservation Project came out of the seminars we presented at, and a desire to create a protected area that surrounded Makasutu but was 100% community owned. We decided on an 85 sq. kilometre area, incorporating 14 villages with roughly 100,000 people. We went about getting the support of the Chiefs of all the villages, and eventually signed a MOU with the blessing of all 14 villages. Once it was all set up, the project stalled because we did not know which way to push it.
A friend of mine was tour manager for the band Muse, and introduced us to them. In our off time, James and I would travel all over the world following Muse, going to festivals with them and generally having an experience that was the total opposite of our lives in Africa. In 2006 we approached Land Rover who lent us a brand new top of the line Range Rover Sport to take to Europe to drive between the festivals that the band were playing. The second to last festival was a show at the Eden Project. For many years people had been suggesting that we introduce Makasutu to Eden and see their response. I must admit, if it was not for the fact that Muse were playing there, we would probably of never made the effort to visit Eden. Why go all the way to Cornwall to visit a forest in captivity when i live in one already? On the day of the show, arriving at the Eden Project we were both blown away by the place. If you have not been, you are missing out on something very special, and quite possibly one of the man made wonders of the world!
We spent the entire time that Muse were on stage talking to management, security guards, beer sellers and we got the same response from all of them. They all loved their jobs and were so excited to be part of the Eden team. It was such a great atmosphere there that we just lost ourselves in the biome instead of watching the band. One of the management team gave us a number to call the next day, and by 5 o’clock the next afternoon we already had a commitment from Eden that they would send someone down to see our project. We hear a lot of talk from people, saying they will get involved and pledging their support, but nothing comes out of it. 6 weeks later we were at Banjul International Airport picking up the Curator of the Tropical Biome Mr Don Murrey and his fiance Beki.
That was the beginning of a very special relationship between Makasutu Wildlife Trust, Ballabu Conservation Project and the Eden Project. Don and his team have visited The Gambia on quite a few occasions now, as well as organising a trip here with a group of Friends Of Eden, which Don was the main guide. But the real compliment was when Don offered us a permanent exhibit for the Ballabu in the Tropical Biome. We thought he was joking at first, but true to his word the exhibit is now in place and viewed by roughly 1.5 million people a year! We are also working with 5 schools within the Ballabu on a project that Eden initiated called Gardens For Life. Gambia Experience have been working with us and Eden on the project since it’s creation, and have been very generous in their support with flight tickets, publicity etc, and also they shipped all of the artefacts for the display at Eden, that were sourced within the Ballabu area.
TGB: The art project sounds like a fantastic idea – could you tell us a bit about how it came into being and what it entails?
LW: A couple of years ago i started working with the renowned Gambian artist Njogu Touray, on a street art project under the name of ‘Bushdwellers’. I went to art college before studying architecture and then film and television set design at university, and always wanted to paint again but never found the time. I have been a big fan of graffiti since i first saw it in NYC in the early eighties, and messed around with it for a while as kid. When i first became aware of Banksy, his work ignited something inside me that made we want to stop procrastinating and get out there and do it myself.
Bushdwellers started out painting walls in some of the villages around Makasutu. We would go out every Sunday and paint during the day, asking the compound owners if it was ok to paint their building. This then led on to us painting canvases during the rainy season, which has been our main focus during the last year.
The concept for Wide Open Walls – Gambia was adapted from an idea of a music festival that we had been trying to get off the ground for the last 10 years, but with no luck. The aim was to encourage bands to come and play in the Ballabu area, working with local musicians and trying to create something new by mixing the cultures.
Last November i sent a late night Julbrew (beer) inspired email to the website of one of my favourite artists Eelus, and never expected to get a reply. A few days later i got an email back saying he was interested in the idea and could i give him some more info! Eelus got behind the project instantly, and used his little black book of artist friend contacts to put together a group of some of the top artists in the world to sign up for the project as well. We only have 8 lodges at Mandina, so that was how we chose the number of artists, one for each lodge! So Eelus is the curator of the first ever Wide Open Walls – Gambia.
The plan is to Paint an entire village in the Ballabu area, every building. The village we have chosen is called Kubuneh, and is linked by river to Makasutu. The artists will travel every day by boat to go and do their thing.
TGB: What about the logistics of it – in terms of organising the 8 artists, flying them in etc: has it been a bit of a slog?!
The logistics have been a bit of a nightmare. We have 4 artists coming from the UK, One coming from France and 3 coming from the USA, and flights are not cheap! Gambia Experience have sponsored the flights coming from the UK. Phewwww huge sigh of relief, and a BIG BIG thank you. We are waiting to hear back From Royal Air Maroc on the flights from the USA, and Brussels Airlines on the flight from France. Also, getting the materials that are needed to complete the project has been tough. One of the artists coming from the USA, Logan Hicks very generously used up all his good will with a company based in Greece called ‘Sabotaz’ who produce a very high quality graffiti spray paint. Sabotaz have donated 1000 cans of paint for the project, as well as a number of bucket type paints. The logistics of getting a hazardous material from Greece to Gambia has been a headache. I would like to thank Sandra at Sabotaz for all of her hard work to make this happen, she was working night and day right up to the last minute before she left to go on holiday! Turns out the paint had to come overland to the UK from Greece, where Redcoat, who are the main shipping company between the Uk and Gambia, have sponsored the shipping to get it to Africa. It sailed a few days ago, so the project will have paint!!! Thanks to Lloyd at Redcoat for all his help on this as well. Much appreciated. Farma at Discovery tours has donated the use of her vehicles for a week of the project, and Malleh and Africa Adventure Tours for donating his vehicles for a week. Gerard at the 5 star kairaba Hotel has offered the use of the luxurious Jamma Hall for a closing ceremony/exhibition.
TGB: And what of integrating their varying styles within the project as a whole? Or is that part of the fun?
LW: There is a wide range of styles within the artists that are coming over, and i think that adds to the fun. Broken Crow’s animal/human hybrids, C215′s portraits and Lucy McLachlan’s faces and birds all lend itself to the environment already, and Eelus will come up with something exciting that fits the setting i am sure. I am excited to see what Logan comes up with. His work is very much a product of the environment that he lives in, NYC and very urban. I think he will surprise people with his incredibly complex stencils. Eine is very much in the old school style, doing lettering like no one else can, with a mixture of stencil and freehand can use, and Will Barras creates multi layered textures that boarder on being abstract, that will look stunning in the village setting. The tough part now is having to paint alongside the worlds best! It is going to be a humbling experience for Bushdwellers! I am excited to see some collaborations coming out of this. 2 weeks is a long time to have all these artists in one place, it will be fun to see how the separate pieces will integrate into the village setting and into each other.
TGB: As a genre Street Art has something of a ‘reputation’ – how do you think the concepts involved will sit within the overall Gambian culture and political situation?
LW: Street art does have quite a reputation, mainly because of the fact you are painting on someones property that does not want it done. We started this project to give art to the villages, and to hopefully brighten peoples lives in a small way. The villages are fully behind the project and are excited for it to happen. They wont be trying to scrub it off the walls the next day! As far as the political aspect of street art, i don’t think any of the artists are here to make any political statement. This is about giving something to Africa and also showcasing this type of art to people who have never experienced anything like it. The artists are all Ambassadors representing their countries and profession, and i have spoken to them all by email and they are all excited to be coming to Africa. The Government here in The Gambia are fully supporting the project, the Gambia Tourism Authority on behalf of the Ministry Of Tourism and Culture have created a task force to make sure that everything runs smoothly, and are helping out on so many levels. Big thanks to Binta Jobe the Director General for all her support and encouragement, and also to all of her team especially Fatou Beyai and Lamin Saho. The project has been put to the National Environment Agency to get their support as well. His Excellency President Jammeh is a big supporter of art in The Gambia, and has been supporting and encouraging Njogu to keep striving forward in his work for years. We are hoping to make him the Patron of the event!
TGB: And what of the project’s legacy – where do you see it say 1/5/10 years from now?
We are hoping that Wide Open Walls – Gambia will become a yearly event. There are 14 villages in the Ballabu area that all need painting, so that is the next 13 years taken care of already! Next year we would like to open it up and encourage people to travel from all over the world to watch the event take place. We are trying to encourage responsible tourism within the Ballabu Conservation Project, and we plan to start to run excursions through the area, ending up in Kubuneh village to see the living art village, with an entry fee being paid by everyone that goes to see the art, this way the villages will benefit directly. Each year the area will become more impressive, and we believe we can get this on the international art calendar of events not to be missed.
Eden Project are keen on having an exhibition there of the work that gets created, and also the artists will be doing workshops in the schools for the kids to learn about art. We will be providing the kids with canvases that can be shipped back to the UK and exhibited at eden along side work by the artists. Eventually we hope to have a body of work together that can be exhibited around the world, showcasing the artists over the years that have taken part in the project.
Massive thanks to Eelus for getting behind the project and adding more work to his already hectic schedule, and also to the artists who have agreed to come over and paint in Africa. Also Big thanks to Gambia Experience, the British High Commission Banjul, Sabotaz, Redcoat, Discovery Tours, Africa Adventure Tours, Kairaba Hotel, Marcel at Kombo Beach Hotel/Sitanunku Lodge and the Gambia Tourism Authority/Ministry of Tourism and Culture
Royal Air Maroc and Brussels Airlines we are waiting! Don’t miss out on being part of this ground breaking project!!!!
Thanks again to Lawrence for answering these questions. We wish the guys all the luck in the world with the project. Here’s hoping we can get out to see it!
For more information on the amazing work Lawrence and his business partner James English have achieved in The Gambia please see the video below.