The Picasso of Mauritania Takes a Turn in New York

Sometime in 2005, Ba Djibril Ngawa felt compelled to visually document a series of intense dreams he had. In them, an Indian woman would show him vivid images of places and people. But the visions wouldn’t stop, and neither did his drawing.

“I was just drawing a lot. I couldn’t stop that. I thought I was sick,” Ba recalled. The people around him agreed. Convinced that something was wrong, he searched for an answer. The Adjoint directeur of the French cultural center in Nuakchott, Mauritania, where he lived, told him to see a psychologist. An American missionary told him his house was plagued by spirits. Despairing, he showed his drawings to another American, a Peace Corp volunteer.

“When she looked at what I was doing,” Ba says, “she said, ‘No, you are gifted. This is a gift.’ This is art. Keep on doing it.”

As a journalist based in Mauritania’s capital city, Ba had barely drawn before the dreams started, and had never tried painting. But he was an avid music promoter and an amature photographer. He had won awards for his songwriting, and had represented Mauritania in an exhibition of photographs in Bamako, Mali in 2002.

Like the drawings, his photos were an attempt to document something personal, in this case the disappearing nomadic life of the Mauritanian countryside. When Ba first exhibited his photos, many people couldn’t believe that people still lived such traditional lifestyles.

“When I did my first exhibit in Nuakchott,” Ba says, “people said ‘this is not Mauritania; this is Mali, maybe this is Niger.’ Young people have never seen it. People who are permanently in Nuakchott they think that is the sixties, that it no longer exists.”

At his next photography exhibition, Ba convinced the organizers to include his dream drawings. Although his work was just colored pencil on paper at that point, it caused quite a reaction. A local newspaper anointed him “The Mauritanian Picasso,” comparing him to artists he knew nothing about.

“In Nuakchott there are visual artists,” Ba says, “but there are no art schools. It’s just people who love to draw and do artwork.” Later, while touring France with a band he managed, Ba bought some books about painting and read up on the artists he was being compared to.

Painting titled ‘Heavy burden’ by Ba Djibril Ngawa. Photo:Ba Djibril Ngawa

Finding acrylic paint is very hard in Mauritania, so most artists use house paint instead. Some of these artists taught Ba how to mix the paints and he started documenting his visions on canvas. His work was accepted into shows in France and Benin. At a festival in Gambia in 2008, Ba met John Watusi Branch of Afrikan Poetry Theater in New York who invited him to exhibit his work at their gallery space in Queens. In 2011, Ba arrived in New York.

Currently, Ba lives in an apartment on Fulton street in Brooklyn with three other West African men, working out of his small windowless bedroom. His art has been featured at a number of galleries and public spaces in New York. Upcoming shows include one at the Harlem Public Library in August, the Douglass Eliman Gallery in October and once again at the Afrikan Poetry Theater in September.

While Ba’s dreams are the source for his paintings, his upbringing in rural Mauritania gives his work a uniquely pastoral feel. Ba spent much of his youth as a cow herder. Cows, as well as other animals from his youth, inhabit his paintings, sometimes in bright colors, often in loose, abstract patterns.

In particular, Ba is inspired by Mauritanian women’s craft. The patterns painted on huts and the colorful handiwork on pillows and woven placemats fascinated him as a child, but as a boy he was kept from that world. It wasn’t until decades later through his drawings that he would realize his childhood impulses.

Today he volunteers at the Pulaar Speaking Association, a community group in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn of Fulani people like Ba. He teaches childrens’ art classes there.

“I’m just trying to find people who express themselves,” Ba says. “I brought paints, markers and white paper. I handed it out to the kids and they did very beautiful paintings.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

AboutAaron Leaf
Aaron Leaf is a writer, editor, and digital producer based in New York with a special interest in African politics, immigrant diasporas, and the future of cities. Raised in Canada, he has lived on four continents and has written for a wide variety of publications. Recent bylines include Al Jazeera America, The Nation, The Globe and Mail and The Guardian.