Lido degli Estensi, municipality of Comacchio (province of Ferrara). Summertime, it happens that after walking the tree-lined Carducci street, among vendors who sell all sorts of more or less fake things, you reach the Avenue of the Oaks and find yourself in front of a myriad of tourists watching long black hands, which rise and dip in a large honeycomb-shaped palette, as if it were a dance. Among the cells, they expertly fish fine sand of different colors, which slowly fall on a plywood table, fixed on a natural glue.
Like a magnet, the artist seizes people’s sight, especially that of young ones, with his magic. His gift for each one of them is a smile and a few words. And as if by chance, Ibnou (stage Senegal’s Picasso) creates landscapes with roaming giraffes, boats, villages with huts where men and women are feverishly working. Everything takes on a magical and idyllic flavor.
“My grandfather, who died recently, taught me good things, I have never seen him angry.” It is still morning when we go to meet him and it is a quiet moment. The day is sunny and the first tourists of a summer that struggles to begin are mostly on the beach. But now and then, someone goes to greet him, ask how he is doing or to pick up a painting with their name, which they had ordered the day before.
Senegal’s Picasso also makes that kind of things: your name or any other word you like, badges of your favorite sports team, or even the two towers of Bologna. He offers everyone what they want, in a sort of contamination between Senegalese folk art and local pop mentality. Ibnou has been away from home for a long time. In ’92, he arrived to Paris for an exhibition, then he moved to Italy. He starts to make his paintings on the beach of Milano Marittima, close to Ravenna. There, he meets his guardian angel, Laura. “For my mom and dad, she is a daughter; for me she is a sister.”
Ibnou’s mastery of Italian language is still somewhat shaky, he would prefer to have Laura at his side to advise and support him. “Wait,” he says. He grabs a prehistoric cell phone and tries to call her, but without success. Every summer for the last 11 years he has been coming here, to the Lido degli Estensi, one of the most popular beaches in Ferrara. But wintertime, if possible, he goes back to Senegal.
Where are you from?
“From Meckhé, a town 120 km away from Dakar. I have built the house where my family lives myself. It is made of wood and concrete.”
How many inhabitants are there?
“I do not know”. He takes the phone again and calls the mayor of Meckhé, Magatte Wade. “Thirty thousand”. They chat a bit ‘. I do not understand a word, a part from “Inshallah”.
Are you a Muslim?
“Yes, but I respect all religions.”
The mayor knows you well, does he not?
Yes. He likes art. I talk to everyone, I do not care whether a person is important or not. By the way, he has invited you there.”
Thank you, we will think about it. Do you have an address where we can send the newspaper?
“Send it to David.”
Who is David?
“The owner of the stationery on the street that leads to the sea. Send it to him and he will give it to me.”
You call yourself Senegal’s Picasso. Why?
“I have chosen this name myself. When I saw Picasso’s paintings, I liked them a lot, so I thought: I will take his name as my stage name.”
Where did you learn to draw?
“It is a gift from God.”
So, you did not go to a painting school?
“No. I learned it myself, observing things around me.
What about school? Did you go to school?
“In Senegal, I went to school for a short period of time. I also worked as a welder, but I like painting more than welding.”
What inspires you?
“Whatever crosses my thoughts. If I dream of something while asleep, I have to wake up straight away to paint it.”
How did you develop this technique?
“In Senegal, we make paintings with the natural colors of the sand, but I added more of them, colors I created myself, using natural elements I find in Senegal, when I can go back there.”
Who is waiting for you in Senegal?
“My whole family, my wife and four children. When I go in Senegal, I visit also other African countries. I was in the Ivory Coast, Mali, Togo (to visit my brother), Cape Verde… driving an old R21 car.”
Why do you travel?
“For art. I often travel with my eldest son, Saliu, who is 20. He is fond of art too.”
Who is Laura?
“She is the first woman I have met in Italy. I was at sea in Marina di Ravenna, where she was too, together with her primary school class. She saw that children were fascinated by what I was drawing and understood that I was attentive to them, that I liked them and she asked me: ‘Do you want to come have dinner with us tonight?’ That is how our friendship was born. She has also helped me with the papers. This woman is important for me. She is a teacher and she has taught me Italian laws and how to comply with them.”
Why did you depart from Senegal?
“I did not earn enough to provide for myself and my family. Italians are nice. Thanks to Laura, I have the papers to stay in Italy. I worked as a welder for some time; now I am running my own business, with a VAT number and everything, and I became Senegal’s Picasso.
Where do you live?
I am resident in Ravenna, but during the summer I live here, in Lido degli Estensi. I come from a place at sea and I need to draw the sea, the sun. Firefighters helped me to regularize this activity. Everyone knows me here, people, Mayor of Comacchio Codigoro…”
Your subject are African landscapes…
“I do not want to seem Italian, I want people to see Africa and Senegal through me, the where I come from.”
There are always children around you…
“When I create my paintings they freeze, struck because I take the colors from my palette without even looking at it. If a child who passes by is crying, when he sees Senegal’s Picasso, he stops crying. I do not know why, but that is what happens. And when a handicapped child comes, I make a painting as a gift for him or her.”
Do you miss your family?
“Of course I miss them.”
Do you want to bring it here?
“I would not be able to provide for all it here, I cannot bring it here to stay. But I would like them to come and see what I do. With the money I make hear, I help everyone.”
So, none of your family members has ever come here?
Where do you find the colors to make your paintings?
“I mix earths.”
Do you take sand from here, the beach of Lido?
“No, it is Senegalese sand. I take it when I manage to go there or I ask my son Saliu to send me some. The sand here is not good, because its color is darker than that of ours and I cannot create the colors I need.”
What about the glue?
“I cut the bark of a type of tree in Senegal. It cries. I mix its tears and create my glue.”
What tools do you use?
“These two, I have made them many years ago. These are the brushes of Senegal’s Picasso. I use one of them to blow sand, and the other to draw my paintings.”
What do you need the shell for?
“It gives me inspiration and contains my glue”.
How do you obtain relief?
“It is complicated. It is a technique I have developed over time… I can obtain a 1cm layer of glue and sand. It is not easy”.
“I made them myself. My shoe size is 47.”
What about the table you work on?
“I built it myself too.”
Have you ever been mistreated in Italy?
“There was a person who mistreated me time ago, but I have forgiven him. If I meet a bad person, I think someone who is good, I think of Laura.”
Do you have a dream?
“I would like to come to Italy driving a car with a Senegalese license plate. Arrive to the two towers of Bologna and take a picture together with Laura, with our hands in this sign of victory. I would like to make this gift to her for everything she has done for me. Then, I would send the picture to my Senegalese mayor. It would be great.”
It is a strange dream.
“I do not have money. To show my gratitude to Laura I have only my art to offer her. And for me, this strange endeavor is a high form of art.”