Last year, the Wide Open Walls project brought a number of street artists to The Gambia to paint in local villages. Subsequently, the project was criticized as a sort of “slum tourism” for artists as well as anyone who viewed photos of the project, with the artists taking advantage of the communities they were painting in. This year, Wide Open Walls brought more artists to The Gambia and made a point of examining the issue of responsible tourism. After all, part of the goal of Wide Open Walls is to encourage tourism to these villages.
For this round of Wide Open Walls, the artist line-up was curated by Write on Africa and include Bushdwellers, Roa, Know Hope, Remed, TIKA, Freddy Sam, Selah, and Best Ever. The artists spent two weeks painting in The Gambia.
While the people involved directly in Wide Open Walls seem happy that they were responsible, made a connection to the communities they were in and made a difference or are in the process of doing so, it’s more difficult for me to post these photos without feeling that I’m participating in the sort of voyeurism that Wide Open Walls is trying to avoid. I wasn’t there, so I don’t have a personal connection to these villages or the people there (although some of the artists and other people on the trip have posted their reactions on the WOW website, which is something). Instead, I’m looking at the photographs and part of me is smugly thinking, “See, street art can make a difference. Yep. Smiling kids. People having fun in front of art. A building that looks cool now. Here’s proof that street art is a good thing.” And that makes me pretty damn uncomfortable.
What Wide Open Walls is doing can probably be compared in some ways to what JR has done working in the slums of Brazil and Kenya. Except that with JR, he makes a point of telling the stories of the people he is photographing, and he helps to improve their situations (like how in Kenya he fixed up people’s homes by printing his photos on water-resistant material and putting those prints on roofs). Wide Open Walls hasn’t really done anything like that yet beyond painting murals. I don’t know the stories of these villages and there isn’t much of a way to support the project or the people in these villages. Eventually though, that will change. There are plans for a book and an exhibition of photographs to help raise money for the villages. In the mean time, many more photos from this year’s Wide Open Walls can be found on Facebook.
Photos by Jonx Pillimer