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  • Writer's pictureCARAVAN Arts

Artist Spotlight: Only Art Can Change the World

Updated: 3 days ago

An Interview with Senegalese artist Alioune Badara Kébé

During CARAVAN Founding President Paul G. Chandler's recent visit to the historic city of Saint-Louis, Senegal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, he encountered the distinct artwork of Alioune Badara Kébé on exhibit at the iconic Hotel La Residence. He subsequently had the privilege of interviewing him about his artistic vocation.

"As artists, we play some of the most important roles in society. We can transform the world into a better place, where freedom of thought and true dialogue can be spread through art, the universal language of our reality."

Alioune Badara Kébé

Alioune Badara Kébé is a Senegalese visual artist, art critic and the founder of the Baobab Culture Agency in Saint-Louis, Senegal. He is the former manager of "La Galerie du Fleuve" at the French Institute of Saint-Louis. His journey, paved with the study of computer and administrative management, took a divine turn towards his true calling: the visual arts and the nurturing of emerging artists.

From 2003 to 2007, he was the Marketing Manager at the Mermoz Gallery, which led him to initiate the "Door W'Art" workshop for young artists in his hometown of Saint-Louis. In 2012, he exhibited in Saint-Louis as part of the OFF programming around the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary Art (DAK’ART). He has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally. 

He has curated numerous exhibitions, such as "I am Saint-Louis" and "Linguère," to the soul-stirring "Traces Nuunakyeen,” "Le Roi des Arènes," and the poignant artistic exploration of migration titled "Mbeuk bi."


When did you start creating art and know that the arts would become your vocation?

I started drawing at the age of 7. It was with chalk on a slate that I would make portraits of imaginary bearded men. But it was in 1993 during an internship in drawing and painting with a Mexican artist that I had the feeling within me that I was going to become an artist. And it was a good ten years later that it truly became my vocation.

What formative influences have shaped your life as an artist?

No specific formation has influenced or shaped my artistic life, but I respect all movements in the arts. By definition, an artistic movement is a set of artists and works of art with a common aesthetic. A movement can be defined by the artists themselves or designated by people outside the practice, for example historians or journalists. We can say that it is a corpus of artists spontaneously having the same types of artistic practice. My dream as an African is that we will one day see African art influence the world. And I believe that this will happen because of the artists and emerging talent that exist in Africa.

Paintings - left to right, top to bottom:

-Destin 10, 2024, Peinture sur toile, 98x96 cm

-Destin 7, 2022, Mixed media, 111x100 cm

-Destin 12, 2024, Peinture sur toile gîte, 127x75 cm

-Destin 3, 2021, Peinture sur toile, 96x64 cm [Collection: Sophia Domancich]

-Émergence africaine, 2021, Peinture sur toile, 130x110 cm [Collection: Abdelhamid Moustakhfir]

"I created this work to talk about the development of Africa and of those with disabilities on the continent."

I find your work very distinctive. In your paintings currently showcased at the historic Hotel La Residence in Saint-Louis (Senegal), there are often figures with what appear to crocodile heads. Is this done for symbolic purposes, and if so, can you share with us a little about that? 

Water inspires me greatly. As you know, my city is between two bodies of water; it is an island between the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a place of inspiration for an artist like me. The study of animals also interests me a lot. I chose the crocodile to represent those with disabilities in my paintings. I find this symbolic because in the spiritual domain this animal is a complex combination of power, protection and transformation. This ancient reptile invites us to explore the depths of our consciousness and embrace the cycles of life with resilience and wisdom. Sometimes you have to have the “crocodile spirit” in life. Also, I portray the crocodile figure as a boxer, wearing boxing gloves, as I am paying homage to Battling Siki, who was born in the fishermen's neighborhood of "Guet-Ndar" in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and became the first black world light heavyweight boxing champion, dying in the USA. In so doing, I want to show that life is a daily fight to have your place in society.

Saint-Louis, Senegal

Is there a general theme that your artwork is attempting to communicate?

My works in general speak about almost everything: life, music, illegal migration and especially, disability. Being an artist with reduced mobility, currently my work focuses on research into the situation of those with disabilities and their evolution in life; it is a fight I have led for the benefit of our society. I have experienced discrimination in the professional environment, and I have seen so many others like me experience the same thing. Unfortunately for many of them, they do not have the possibilities to denounce it. I have an opportunity, thanks to my art, to have a voice. This is why I take the opportunity to talk about the history of societies in regard to those with disabilities, as well as more specifically about our own context. Historically, domestic animals were the assistants for people with reduced mobility to move around. Their animals were also their loyal friends. I think of the cat, dog, horse, donkey… essential elements at the heart of their lives. While I am not a literary person, I try with my brush to retrace and tell the story of life. It is a gift that God has given me.

Mbeuk-bi (illegal migration), 2023, Peinture sur toile, 103x77 cm

"Here I am talking about migration, a phenomenon that is happening in Senegal."

Art serves many roles. What do you see as its greatest value?

I believe art and culture should be everywhere and I fully believe that only art can change the world. As artists we play some of the most important roles in society. We can transform the world into a better place, where freedom of thought and true dialogue can be spread through art, the universal language of our reality. A work of art can arouse emotions such as joy, sadness, anger, fear. Art for me must help people to better understand their emotions and those of others.

I have observed that you are committed to helping and mentoring emerging Senegalese artists. Can you share a little with us about that?

Yes, I have been involved for more than a decade in mentoring and guiding young artists. It is a pleasure for me to do this in several areas in the cultural sector - visual arts, music, and theater. As a cultural mediator, I work with different audiences. It is during meetings or artistic activities that I sometimes discover new hidden talent. I also receive calls or messages from artists asking me for assistance in various ways. I am committed to helping them without receiving any compensation. I take a lot of time to train and observe an artistic talent before presenting and promoting them and their work to the public. A few years ago, I started focusing on children, since artistic education plays a vital role in the development of young minds. It guides them towards a deeper understanding of the world, their society and their own identity. I am always wanting to initiate, train and supervise young talent, as I feel it is a mission that God has given me. With the means I have, I rent a space, and buy and provide equipment free of charge to certain artists in my area; it is a way of creating working conditions to encourage their artistic gifts and callings.

Paintings - left to right:

-Destin 2, 2019, Peinture sur toile, 53x75 cm [Collection Frédérique Châpui]

-Mif ta (the key), 2019, Peinture sur toile, 53x75 cm - “This work speaks of openness and protection.”

-Destin 1, 2019, Peinture sur toile, 53x75 cm [Collection Marc Monsallier] -“This painting tells the story of those with disabilities."

What do you feel Senegalese visual artists have to offer the rest of the world at this time? 

For several decades, Africa has often been showcased through Senegalese art and culture. And visual artists have been among the first ambassadors of Senegal to the world. On the international scene, visual art in Senegal has an excellent reputation, such as via the Dakar Art Biennale. Senegalese modern art was born in the years after the independence of Senegal. While the art scene is not as developed as in some European countries, with this new generation I am optimistic that Senegal will contribute more creative originality to the world in the future. We have young emerging artists participating internationally in artistic activities such as art biennales, salons, fairs and residencies. Despite the challenges, the visual arts in Senegal are already offering many promising prospects. Within five to ten years, we will see a significant evolution towards this end. I have great respect for our pioneers and elders in this area.

Can you share with us what you are doing now, following your role at the Institut Francais in Saint-Louis? I believe you are based at a place called Le Chateau. And what is Baobab Art & Culture Senegal?

I started working in 2008 at the French Institute of Saint-Louis (Senegal), and eventually was responsible for their Galerie du Fleuve (The River Gallery). In October 2023, I established what is called Baobab Art & Culture, an office and workshop located at Le Chateau cultural center in Saint-Louis, with whom we work in partnership, which originally inspired the Diagn'Art contemporary dance company. Through Baobab Art & Culture, I am involved in similar work to what I did with the Galerie du Fleuve - training, supervising, supporting and exhibiting artists from the city and beyond.  There is a lot of talent in Saint-Louis but many artists are self-taught and need training. I also serve as a mentor for Senegalese, African and European artists.

As a multi-faceted artist, I have a specific vision related to the arts in Senegal. In 2019, I created Baobab Art & Culture to develop my vision in relation to the reality of what is happening in our country. In Senegal, the rural areas are often forgotten. And via Baobab we work to give local artists an opportunity, creating the conditions for them to artistically express themselves. Baobab's vision is to participate in the promotion and dissemination of the diversity of Senegalese art and culture throughout the world. And since its creation, while we have been developing artistic projects and initiatives without support or outside assistance, this has not prevented us from being able to continue and carry out our mission and achieve our objectives. Our passion is to give all artists an opportunity. We also want to have partners to help create a cultural center in Saint-Louis, that will democratize culture with the slogan, A CHANCE FOR ALL! I am taking this opportunity to launch a call for financial support to help make this vision a reality.

Do you feel that your home city of Saint-Louis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is evolving in new ways as a center for the arts? 

I actually find that culturally-speaking, it is becoming more and more difficult. I feel that artists and culturalists should play the role of ambassadors, defenders and protectors of our unique heritage. Saint-Louis is so rich in culture, a true melting pot. Unfortunately, the political decision makers suffer from a lack of understanding of how to support culture. For example, we need spaces to develop the arts. We need to advocate for the importance of the arts with the political and civic authorities, and sensitively communicate existing needs to the population of Saint-Louis, in order to safeguard that this three-century-old city remains a center for the arts forever.

Au tour du jazz, 2024, Peinture sur toile de gîte, 90x60 cm

Can you share with us what you are artistically working on at this time? 

As an independent artist who expresses myself freely, I use various surfaces, such as plaster, plastic, glass, and canvas. I have been and continue to create the series “Le Destin,” which is about facing disabilities. For me, “disability” is a destiny that faces humanity. I am always looking to reflect on my own life through my next paintings.

Al Burakh, 2024, Peinture sur toile, 101 x 60 cm

"This is one of the works that marked my life. My grandmother almost always asked me to draw this for her.


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