Mauritania's Astonishing Contemporary Art Scene ·

Mauritania’s Astonishing Contemporary Art Scene

As is the case most everywhere in the world, but especially in Africa, interesting places attract interesting people, and one’s own travel―and life―experiences can be greatly enhanced by interacting with them.  In times when ‘human’ interaction more commonly takes place through a handheld device, the chance to speak face to face with diverse people unrushed by the 21st century is already a revelation.  The doyenne of Nouakchott’s cultural scene is Isabel Fiadeiro, owner of Galerie Zeinart.  This small art gallery is big on African art.  A longtime resident of Mauritania, Isabel works tirelessly to increase awareness of African arts and crafts; her gallery showcases select works by genuine artisans from across Africa but mostly from Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, and Burkina Faso.  An avid advocate of social justice, Isabel empowers the normally downtrodden artists by instilling a sense of pride in their work in a country where art is anathema to daily life and artists are categorised as tradesmen alongside electricians, plumbers, and mechanics.  Many of the artists live hundreds of miles away from the capital but make the trek to Zeinart, knowing their work is appreciated by both owner and client.  When sales are made, Isabel sends their money back to them on the bus.

Oumar Ball in his atelier

Originally from Portugal, Isabel and her husband Herman are both artists in their own right but their altruistic natures see them spending more time promoting the work of others rather than their own.  Zeinart hosts a weekly marketplace every Saturday so that locals merchants have a place to sell their goods, which may range from baked madeleines and other food items to silver bracelets and cloth bags made with typically colourful African textiles.  Inside the gallery, the swiftly rotating displays of beautiful artworks encourage (mostly foreign) patrons to snap up the bargains while they can.

The unexpectedly productive art scene in Nouakchott is inspiring to say the least.  Young artists, unshakable in their commitment to their creativity, toil wherever they can to express themselves, even if that means the vestibule of an apartment building as it does for Oumar Ball.  One of Mauritania’s shining stars in the art sky, Oumar is a young man from a disadvantaged background who somehow retains an inspiringly optimistic view of life in the face of adversity.  He works in a dilapidated building in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, producing extraordinary paintings and sculptures now found hanging in museums, embassies, and art galleries.  His work, like Mauritania itself, is deceptively simple at first glance but deeply nuanced beyond initial observation.

Amy Sow inside her ArtGallé

Bechir Malum is another artistic spirit, a smiling, happy soul whose work often presents violent scenes in contrast to this gifted man’s own nature.  What to do in a country where art is considered unnecessary and few walls exist where paintings are welcome?  Open an art café of your own.  That is what Bechir did, and his chic little café is one of the most stylish places in Nouakchott.

Amy Sow is one of Mauritania’s best-known artists, though her name said to people on the streets will result in blank stares.  Like Oumar Ball and Bechir Malum, her international recognition belies the relative anonymity she experiences at home in Nouakchott.  Amy, too, has her own gallery, ArtGallé, where diverse media are displayed on the premises where gallery, café, and outdoor courtyard all provide the backdrop for temporary exhibitions, special events, and weekly art classes Amy offers free to local children.  An empowered woman who proudly pursues her path in life, to the benefit of friends, family, and the local community, Amy is an inspiration to many.  There’s that word again; even among some of the poorest people in the world, there is a lot of inspiration in Mauritania.

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