Since stories are at the heart of this project, here is the tale behind how the Drawing on Culture series came to be…
An African Adventure
This past winter of 2016, I returned to West Africa for three months. It was my eighth trip to the region, marking nearly three years of cumulative travel in and around the Niger River valley. The whole adventure really started back in 2001, when I first ventured onto the African continent as a wide-eyed white kid from New Hampshire who had, by a series of strange twists of fate, become involved in the music and culture of sub-Saharan Africa.
Gifts and Sacrifices
Now fifteen years later, specific reasons brought me to the African continent once again: back in 2012, I wrote and illustrated a book called Djoliba Crossing, which chronicled my experiences traveling to small villages along the Niger River to study the music and culture of the Mandé peoples.
In 2013, just before the book came out, I returned to Guinea with the goal of trekking back to those villages to seek the blessings of the people who appeared in the book. My travel plans were thwarted, however, and I never made it to the region — which lay far inland on roads that are grueling at best, impassable at worst.
Compelled by yet another series of unexpected life changes, this past winter I attempted again, and succeeded, in returning to those villages in Guinea to present my book to the people there.
There in the heart of West Africa, beneath the shade of giant baobab trees, I made gifts and sacrifices in accordance with the local traditions. There were a lot of prayers and benedictions made by elders and holy-men. These events went on for many hours a day, over the course of several days. In the end, blessings were bestowed, and the people were happy: with the book, certainly, but mostly with the respect I had showed them by traveling from afar to honor their traditions.
Staying in the village was a powerful and moving experience, and brought closure — or so I thought — to a decade-long journey. During the course of my stay, however, something new and unexpected was also taking place. A new chapter of the story was unfolding…
The (He)Art Awakens
The journey had begun in the steamy capital city of Conakry, located on a narrow and crowded tropical peninsula on the Atlantic coast.
Planning an extended stay in the remote Kouroussa region to the north required a great deal of preparations and considerations, given the limited access in the villages to supplies, medical facilities, and the like. Beset with challenges there in the city, many weeks passed before we finally embarked on the journey.
An interesting thing happened, however, while waiting and working on arrangements for the inland voyage: I felt an overwhelming need to start making art again, for the first time in several years. On a whim, I had packed some drawing pencils and paper in my backpack. At the very least, I could start drawing again — I had neglected this part of my life for far too long, and it was starting to eat at me.
There in the bustling markets of Conakry, I purchased a small wooden table and a lamp, and set up an art studio in the tiny room where I was staying…and began drawing. I was pretty rusty, but good things started to happen once I began working again.
Several times a week, I attended traditional Malinké festivals (called Dembadon), which featured lots of drumming, dancing, and singing. With the vibrant culture and music on full display, I felt inspired to make a lot of new artwork.
After the festivals, I would head back to my room and draw, often for ten hours straight, sweating buckets in my sweltering hot room. My heart felt happier and lighter than it had in many years.
On the Banks of the Niger
Eventually, I traveled north, some 20 hours by car, to the villages in the Kouroussa region to make gifts and sacrifices, and pay tribute to the people and traditions of the village who inspired my book.
I knew it was important for me to do all this, but I should also say that I really do love being in the village: life there is simple and peaceful. The kindness and generosity of the people is humbling. Culturally, it’s hard not to be inspired by the powerful drumming and dancing. Over the years, I had begun to form an interesting connection here, too — it’s a connection that I don’t yet fully understand, but here, right in front of me, was an opportunity to rediscover what had drawn me here in the first place.
There on the banks of the Niger, I stayed with my friend Lanciné and his family, and took in the experience of living in a tiny African village for an extended stay. It was wonderful, albeit very challenging: there was no electricty or running water, of course, nor any of the conveniences we often take for granted back at home.
To make life more interesting, most people in the village only speak Malinké. In the city, I could at least get by on my French — which I had worked very hard at improving prior to the trip. With months ahead of me in the village, however, I had little other recourse that to start learning Malinké, and would walk around the village meeting people and practicing the language. It was a great challenge for me, and a constant source of humor for them.
During my daily walkabouts, I thought about art all the time; I wanted to draw all the fascinating people I met. I would study their faces, imagining the lines and brush strokes that would bring their character and personality to life on paper.
A New Art Studio
My long-time friend and mentor, Famoudou Konaté, who lived in the next village over, had a small house in the nearby village of Kouroussa. He said that I could set up an art studio there.
From where I was staying, his house was only about 10 km away. In actuality, it took over an hour of rigorous traveling to get there. The trip involved a dicey river crossing, and driving on miles of cow paths and grasslands that really weren’t meant for cars (especially not the tiny 1980’s Renault we were traveling in, which was beginning to suffer visibly from the abuse it was taking). The commute between villages was always a bit of an adventure!
There in Kouroussa, I set up shop in a room that contained only a bed, a tiny table, and a plastic chair. It was perfectly minimalistic. No distractions. Traveling between villages every week, I stayed at “the studio” for three or four days at a time, living on Nescafé instant coffee, loaves of French bread, Laughing Cow cheese, fresh avocados, and pineapple…and drawing fervently, somewhat like a man possessed.
With no electricity or lights in my makeshift studio, I worked from sunrise to sunset as the light filtered through a single window. The sounds of the village outside were the soundtrack to my drawings. With just pencil and paper, I aimed to see how far I could take a simple drawing.
The artwork I produced here represented a return to basics, and I loved it. I was learning and improving with every drawing. I got to show people the drawings I was making of them pretty immediately, which was amazing — and the response was quite positive.
Ancient Cultures in the Modern World
While I was there, I made dozens of drawings depicting the people and the culture of the region. I felt it was important to do. Each person, each drawing, had a unique story.
I also knew, from my past trips, that the culture here was changing. The modern world was encroaching, and fast. Change isn’t necessarily all good, or all bad — and who am I to say what’s right or wrong for these people — but I realized that I was witnessing an ancient culture straddling between the world of its traditions and the frontier of modern ideals and influences. The entire region, and the culture itself, seemed to be on the verge of big changes.
Here I was, though, thousands of miles from home, bearing witness to an ancient way of life amidst a period of rapid cultural upheaval. I began to feel that the stories of these people were important: perhaps the world needed to hear their unique voice…before it became lost in the din of modernity.
Collectively, the voices of the world’s indigenous peoples resound with age-old traditions, ancient wisdom, and a sustainable manner of being in the world that has been ongoing for millennia. Every culture on the planet embodies a vast amount of knowledge and history, carried with them and carefully passed down in the fragile vessel of their language, songs, stories, and beliefs. Their uniqueness should be celebrated, for each represents a diverse set of adaptive choices, brought forth from the imagination, that were required to sustain a meaningful life in their particular place on Earth. In their collective voice, if we listen, we can hear the sound of what it means to have the fire of life inside us all.
It’s a voice that we’ve long since stopped listening to here in the West. And it’s a voice that is literally being extinguished from the planet: languages, an indicator of culture, are currently disappearing from the planet at a rate of one language every two weeks. When a language vanishes, so too do the songs, stories, and myths that were carried on its breath.
When we lose a culture, we lose its unique vision of life, forever. As renowned anthropologist Wade Davis puts it, “As we drift toward a blandly amorphous, generic world, as cultures disappear and life becomes more uniform, we as a people and a species, and Earth itself, will be deeply impoverished.”
A Return Home
Since I’ve returned home to the United States, I haven’t really been the same person I was before the trip. The experience changed me, for sure, but more importantly, my artistic muse had re-awoken during the trip, and now burns like a fire inside of me.
So, I know that I have work to do. To neglect this part of me, and this rare opportunity, would probably make me sick! I alternate between being thrilled and terrified of the path ahead of me with all of its implications — but somehow that fear makes me know that there is something very important here.
So here I am today, back in a small town in New Hampshire, kinda broke and asking both friends and strangers for help. I’m exploding with art, and with each new piece my skills get stronger. That said, I still have a long ways to go. I want to keep exploring what I am capable of, pushing forward with ever greater challenges; I know that I need to get back to painting soon, too.
Additionally, my heart tells me that I must return to West Africa this coming winter, so that I can find the people in my artwork and compensate them fairly — and write down their stories, if they are willing.
Like I said…I have work to do.
I’m Asking (Humbly): Can you help?
If I can raise some money here on Patreon, then I can take the time to continue pursuing this project, and future ones like it — maybe even full-time — and produce my best art yet. Stories are also a important part of what makes this project unique, and I have a lot of writing yet to do, to accompany the drawings and paintings.
Furthermore, with assistance, I can return to the villages in West Africa, and help the people there in any way that I am able. (For starters, I’ve been asked to help find funding and medicines for a medical center in Kouroussa which is severely lacking; friends in other villages have expressed a need for new wells, as the shortage of clean drinking water is a real health concern in many places.)
I don’t know (yet) if there is an audience for the artwork I’m doing. I suppose it doesn’t quite matter, because a voice in my heart is telling me to do it anyway.
I don’t exactly know (yet) where all this is going, but every time I sit at my drawing table and create, my skills improve and the direction seems clearer. A voice inside me insists, “keep going…you’ll know.”
I’m hoping that enough people will see my work, and will also want to see where it leads — and help support it. I’m hoping that you are one such person. At the very least, I hope that you will share this with your community and network, so that it may reach more people.
August 12, 2016
Becoming a patron
Here on Patreon, your support can help me continue and deepen the work that I’m currently doing, while providing useful feedback and guidance on my projects. Your patronage can help sustain the creation of new artwork, while allowing me to offer financial assistance to the communities I work with.
In exchange for your ongoing patronage, you’ll receive monthly updates on new artwork and projects, as well as journal entries and photos while I travel. Depending on how successful this campaign is, I hope to be able to offer more rewards down the road.
How it Works
You can pledge any amount you choose; pledges will be collected for each finished artwork, and will be processed around the 1st of the month. You can also set a cap for your total monthly budget (so as not to break the bank if I’m especially prolific one month). You can cancel any time, for any reason, or even “pause” and restart if you need to.
A Note About Rewards
For the time being, I’ve moved away from the “norm” in regards to the rewards system on Patreon, so as to not divert time and resources from where it is really needed. That said, EVERY supporter — at all levels — will have access to ALL the artwork, updates, photos, and news, and will be able to contribute to the process through an open discussion here on Patreon. I value your contribution and input.
Please contact me with any questions you may have!