The paint filling in the sketched lines on an alley wall behind the Phillips Collection couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
The artists who stood on scaffolding and ladders, reaching to the highest portions of the mural with bright yellow, red and orange paint on Oct. 23 had come from across the Atlantic to decorate the wall. For them, artistic expression is necessarily political, and having their culture represented on a wall in the district is an important means of connecting the people of the United States with the people of Senegal, West Africa.
“The idea of doing this work here … opens people’s minds to the fact that there are artists in Senegal,” said Muhsana Ali, an artist who has lived in Senegal for 13 years, though was born in the United States. “In general, people don’t know a lot about Africa. … Doing this kind of work here gives people the opportunity to see them as real people.”
Sheep peer out from the mural — an animal that is sacrificed during religious traditions in Senegal. A figure carries a fish with a spiked head — perhaps a representation of a symbol found on the West African CFA Franc, the currency in Senegal, and the fishing industry.
They are images you don’t see on the news today when you hear about West Africa.
“I’ve heard a lot of people saying that the air is heavily charged with fear around Ebola,” Ali said. “This kind of lessens the fear, I think.”
At least that’s part of the point of projects like this, which was paid f0r and sponsored in part by the Phillips Collection and the State Department’s Office of Art in Embassies, though the artists’ flights were booked to come here before panic had spread about the virus. Ali holds an optimistic view, in spite of overhearing whispers from strangers behind their backs in support of African travel bans and people serving them with gloves on for protection.
“We’ve become increasingly interested in the notion of culture diplomacy,” said Klaus Ottman, the curator at-large for the Phillips Collection. The new generation of people going into foreign service need to “recognize the huge potential that art and artists have when it comes to dealing with conflicts, crossing boundaries … It will help for people to see that Africa isn’t only people dying,” Ottmann said.
Ottmann said collection bought its first piece of art by a contemporary African artist two years ago. Last year, they invited a Pakistani artist over — another country and region with frequent negative associations in the media.
Back in Senegal, the artists painted a mural first in the U.S. Embassy in Dakar. The Senegalese government places a premium on decorating roadways and public spaces with murals and mosaics, according to Malcolm Versel, who stopped by with his wife, Karen, to see the artists work. Versel moved back to the United States to be closer to his college-aged kids, but said he first moved to Senegal in 1972 and worked with the Peace Corps there and on economic development in the country.
“It’s a living art form,” Versel said. “It’s definitely something that is part of the fabric of life.”
The mural was finished last week, and the artists participated in a panel discussion Monday. The collection hasn’t decided yet if they will seal the mural from weather.
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