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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Artsy Fartsy Africa

One rule about Peace Corps service is that you truly never know what you’ll do during your time as a volunteer; case and point: I helped to organize and run a classy art show. Though I’ve never really thought myself much of an art aficionado, I’ve always enjoyed going to galleries and taking in the sights, but putting myself in any position close to “an authority” on art, never. The truth is I was mostly brought on to the planning team of this art exhibition as a consultant. I’m the closest volunteer to Conakry and in the best position to help with the leg work. Also, I guess I can be a bit artsy at times, at least I pretend like I am. 

The months leading up to the exhibition had been periodically interrupted by meetings for the preparation of our grand opening. One piece of this artfully designed (more art puns to come) project was to make a promotional video showing interviews of three different artists with three different forms of art. Our first interview was with an artist who is a close friend to all the volunteers in Guinea. His name is James Bucher, but most would know him by his trade name, Batik James. Batik is a traditionally African form of painting using colored waxes on cloths. James provided wonderful footage of the surprisingly simple process as well as an impressive back story. No matter who you meet, if you take the time to hear their back story, you’re guaranteed to be surprised. James’ roots in art go deep. He learned much of his craft while living and studying in Tanzania. He, like many others, made his way to Guinea when the fighting began in Liberia. He took his wife and some other family members and began a new life in Conakry, where he now lives in a small compound hidden through some back streets. His work is always beautiful and, god bless him, cheap. I’ve already made a few gifts out of the works he’s talked me into buying. James’ story is very rich and I do enjoy visiting with him whenever I get a chance.

Gibril Bangura
Our second interviewee was another painter by the name of Gibril Bangura. Another close friend to many volunteers, Gibril not only participated in our little video project but also helped to organize all the artists for the show. He was a great contact to the very connected community of artists in Conakry. The other artists readily trusted him thanks to his first profession of being a pastor. It was nice to see that throughout the entire weekend of showings they all called him Father, regardless if they were Christian or not. Like James, Gibril is a refugee and has been living in Conakry for some time pastoring and painting to support his family. He too has a rich back story that could inspire a Lifetime movie. I’ve never interviewed anyone until these two and I found out how intimate of a process it truly is. I was very happy and humbled to hear such personal stories from both of the above artists.

Sekou Oumar Thiam
The final feature of our promo-video was a younger sculptor named Thiam. I have a very personal connection to Thiam because he was one of my first friends in Guinea. Thiam was my host-brother during my training in Dubreka. He really impressed all the volunteers with his creative style for carving words into wood in such a way that makes it look abstract while 5 minutes of observation will make the theme of the piece quite clear. I knew he’d be a good friend to keep around when, early on, he asked me about American music artists (a standard question here) but instead of asking about Rihanna and Chris Brown, he asked me if I knew Chris Issac and Brian Adams. Despite one of those artists being Canadian and not American, I was impressed he knew their names at all. I was happy to bring him into the art show as well as interview him to better understand where he’s come from and what obstacles he’s faced to get to where he is today.

So there’s my personal interest story for the month. The event itself went by with much less fuss than the lead up. Before the weekend got going, we gave the artists a training on client relations and self-marketing. We planned on them using that training the very same weekend as they were visited by many members of the ex-pat community here in Conakry. Sitting down during a calm Sunday afternoon I thought to myself, how nice it was to see a project up and running. Being a teacher will definitely have a product at the end of the year but this was tangible differences made in a weekend. When all was said and done, the 35 artists had sold close to $5000 worth of art. It was also nice to see how many gifts I got from thankful artists.

I hope to organize another art show, with the help of some fellow volunteers, before I leave Guinea. It was a nice way to help the art community of Conakry but there was much room left for improvement. If we do go for it a second time, keep an eye out for things you liked and I could pick up some nice souvenirs!

PS: For more photos of works from James, Gibril, Thiam and more artists, check my facebook albums.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Same Place. Same Job.

This is near where we had the meeting, not The Lord of the Rings
After almost two straight months of traveling, I’ve finally made it back to what I’ve come to know as normal life in Guinea: teaching most mornings, Coyah in the afternoon, and all the reoccurring characters who’ve stealthily taken important roles in my service. My return to Wonkifong was quite unceremonious. Seeing village friends who I hadn’t seen or called in two months were polite enough to show a whole minute of excitement before going back to normal. It was a calm transition which was probably the best way. The habits of my daily life conformed quickly the village life I’d started a whole year earlier.

That’s really all that October had for me. I got to spend some extra time in Conakry to help plan an art exhibition. Time in Conakry most always leads to more time with other volunteers. I had just as much work as play mind you, it’s just that fun in Conakry with friends beats a Fanta and the BBC for a Saturday night.

November brought a few more noteworthy weekends. The first being a meeting for education volunteers. We got together to edit a new training manual another volunteer had recently produced. It was a motivating weekend during a school year that looks pretty bleak, so far as educational system goes. That same weekend was the weekend of cousin Daniella’s wedding to a great guy. I was sad I couldn’t be there for her big day but they understood the circumstances. So here’s my public congratulations to them!
A student just happened to pass my house with a monkey!
The second major highlight of November would be the holiest of all American holidays, Thanksgiving. Last year’s turkey day was quite impressive with a large spread of western food. This year’s Thanksgiving involved much of the same, I even made another lasagna, but then was topped by adding the second must-have of Thanksgiving: football. I mentioned offhandedly to my director that I’d be ducking out of dinner early to try and catch some of the UofM vs. OSU game. She then feels it’s the right time to inform us that she’s recently been connected to American TV programs like FOX, ABC and dieu merci, ESPN. Meaning, in a Thanksgiving Day miracle, I got to watch, in real time, a great UofM/OSU game. I would have enjoyed a better ending but I can only ask for so much on one day.

That’s October and November. Normally a time for fall trips and bon fires. I got to spend one more autumn watching rain fall incessantly instead of leaves and watching my students play futbol instead of UM play football. I’ve already made the promise to my mother that I’ll be home in time for next year’s Thanksgiving so I’m glad I made the most of this autumn in Guinea.