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Gambia: Village art

As I get out of the 4WD I’m confronted by a succession of surprising scenes: a child perched on a broken television set; another toasting a lizard on a stick over flickering yellow flames; a huge elephant slumped forlornly on its chin; and, er, what appears to be a lion wearing football shorts, carrying a wooden shack on its back and emitting a striking beam of red light from its jaws.

Gambia: Village art

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Kubuneh is not your typical African village. This ramshackle cluster of modest family compounds was transformed in 2010, when eight street artists from around the world were invited to cover its buildings with murals, as part of the Wide Open Walls project. Since then, others artists have come and added their visions, and the results are striking, compelling, and at times a little odd.

The main aim of the project is to boost tourism to the area — Kubuneh is located within the Makasutu Nature Reserve, connected by water to the luxurious Mandina River Lodge and excursions can be easily organised through The Gambia Experience. Yet the artists who worked here have made no effort to please everyone, to satisfy the tastes of some imagined everyman tourist. Street art — so often unsanctioned and illicit — is intrinsically rebellious, and this desire to challenge is evident on almost every wall in Kubuneh.

And there’s plenty here for visitors to admire, although I can’t help but wonder what the villagers themselves make of it all. I know if I lived here, I would want my compound to be the one adorned with the mural of two huge ibex, sat grazing amid a clover of grassy swirls. And I would want my windows to be facing the glorious image of a love-struck blacksmith, banging out bright red metal hearts on his magic anvil.

And it’s not just the compounds that have been given the treatment; as I look around, I can see the corrugated iron walls of a shed adorned with huge brown faces, and a plump white bird imprinted on the base of a baobab tree.

The villagers manage to show us almost every degree of interest: from the men gathered around a taxi, utterly oblivious to our presence, and the teenagers in European football shirts eyeing us suspiciously, to the clusters of shy yet fascinated children and the group of mothers and elders treating us to a traditional musical welcome.

Confronted with so many unusual sights, I find myself wondering how much of this I’m likely to remember, once my photographs have been consigned to a dusty, neglected album. Which image will stick firmest in my mind? Perhaps it’s the woman with the green and white face and a flock of birds nesting in her Afro. Or the grotesque black frog, which sits with the tail of some unseen creature hanging from its mouth.

Maybe. But, something tells me it’s more likely to the tiny African warrior, spear in hand, who’s flicking a sneaky V-sign at a crusty old colonial sergeant major — a mischievous image that seems to perfectly sum up the rebellious nature of street art.

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