Wide Open Walls

Artist: Njogu Touray and Lawrence Williams
Location: Rural villages in the Ballabu Conservation Zone, the Gambia
Year of completion: 2010
Researcher: Leon Tan

Launched in 2010, Wide Open Walls (WOW) is an ongoing initiative that brings international and Gambian artists together annually for a fortnight to create permanent murals on homes, schools, and local businesses in rural villages in the Ballabu Conservation Project zone of the Gambia. Between 2010 and 2012, upwards of 100 murals were created in the villages of Kubuneh, Galoya, Makumbaya, and Bufalotou. International artists including ROA (Belgium), Know Hope (Israel), Remed (Madrid), TIKA (Switzerland), Freddy Sam (South Africa), Selah (South Africa), and Best Ever (United Kingdom) visited the Gambia for this project, working closely with the Bushdwellers (Gambia-based artists Lawrence Williams and Njogu Touray) on each mural. All murals were created with the permission of the dwelling and building owners.

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An important part of WOW has been the series of art workshops that artists conducted for local children. Since art is not taught in schools in rural Gambia, workshops resulted in new artistic skills for the children and immersive engagement with the local community for visiting artists. Significantly, several murals were created by the school children in collaboration with the artists. From 2011, WOW began to incorporate an annual school exchange with the United Kingdom, so that children from the United Kingdom were linked with children from the Gambia, and traveled to the villages to paint murals on schools with their local counterparts.

Over the long term, the intention behind WOW is to contribute to the economic development of the region and its villages, encouraging art and ecotourism, and generating revenues through the sale of photographs and books featuring the mural artworks, as well as through international exhibitions. According to the artists, “The plan is to build a visitor centre, with a cafe, art classroom, community centre and apartment. The apartment will be for artists to stay during residencies here. The cafe will generate money for the community and the classroom will be open for all people, young and old, to come to paint and express their creativity.”

While the objective may seem ambitious, it is notable that the project has received considerable support. In 2012, the British High Commission appointed the artists to paint their offices as part of the Jubilee celebrations, and in 2014, an exhibition in a London gallery is scheduled, where proceeds from the sales of works will be donated to Gambian communities. Additionally, starting in November 2014, tour operators will actually begin small art tours, bringing visitors to the region to see the art, with the villages benefitting materially from the entry fees into the zone. The influx of tourists has already led to the sponsorship of education for many village children. In light of these successes, WOW and its future plans seem to be within the realms of the possible.

WOW’s excellence consists of its success in using art as a vehicle for sustainable placemaking. It beautified local villages, making them aesthetically enjoyable for local residents as well as international visitors, artists, and tourists. It also produced tangible educational and artistic outcomes for local children. Part of its success relies on the long-term commitment its organizers have demonstrated to the Ballabu conservation zone and its communities. The skillful brokering of international cultural alliances and exchanges must also be acknowledged, as these partnerships brought international exposure to the project, and consequently, to neglected rural regions of the Gambia. In the opinion of locals, WOW helped to reduce urban drift (migration of young people to city centers), and improved the quality of life, particularly for children.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency