A Gambian artist’s story with Aisha Jallow

A weekend in the Village, Bansang

A weekend in the Village, Bansang

I’m deeply interested in the influence an artists’ home country has on their work and life. Toronto’s art community consists of many first generation Canadians, immigrants and visitors. This creates a very unique scene of artists with different stories to tell. This story comes from Aisha Jallow, a photographer from The Gambia who recently visited home. She shares her evolving perspectives and how this affects her as an artist.

Has your perspective of The Gambia changed as you grow older? Why or why not?

The time you spend away from home always changes your perspective. That time away always adds a new layer of how I see the Gambia.  Every time I am blessed with an opportunity to go back home, to see my family and to absorb all the goodness of home, there is always something that is different. It’s hard to elaborate on it. Even though the first few moments I spend at home makes me feel like a guest at times, it doesn’t take long for me to get back into it. The more time that I spend in Toronto, the more I realize that life does not always have to be fast paced, and taking time for myself is key. Being at home always gives me a sense of clarity with almost every aspect of my life. Being around my family, my roots has an immeasurable effect on me, which I am very grateful for. My perspective of The Gambia changes with every visit, some are small and personal revelations, and some aren’t. This is very obvious in my photos, most of the time, I was just in my neighborhood taking photos of people I’ve known my whole life, and to me this shows in the photos. I think living away from your native country, it’s easy to fall into a trap where you think that everything back home is at a standstill whilst you are not there, but I’ve corrected this misconception of mine. I think I am definitely more critical of my culture now, but in a healthy manner that allows me to still be my critical self but still fully enjoy where I am from.

Dad, Uncle Tijan & Little Muhammed at home

Dad, Uncle Tijan & Little Muhammed at home

What are some of your favourite aspects of your culture? Why?

Culturally, there are so many aspects that resonate with me. I would say that my favorite part of my culture is the easy and light-hearted spirit that my people carry, even in the times of complete confusion and stagnation. I admire our resilience, our strength and our respect for one another. A sense of familial ties and support is always very touching every time I am home. Everyone feels like family, which is something that is hard to feel in Toronto, largely because it’s a huge city. It’s hard pinpointing specific components of my culture that are my favorite, because I am so immersed into it, but I think these aspects are more related to people I’m around. Weddings also have to be one of my favorite kind of events to attend when I’m back home. Depending on your tribe, a wedding can last up to three days, with lots of dancing, good food and amazing traditional clothes. This is always a great time to let loose and fully enjoy the diversity and cultural strength of The Gambia.

Saturday Lunch, Mom (In Gambia, you have a “modern” kitchen inside the house which is usually used for quick things, however the kitchen outside is where the real magic happens!)

Saturday Lunch, Mom (In Gambia, you have a “modern” kitchen inside the house which is usually used for quick things, however the kitchen outside is where the real magic happens!)

Do you intend to move back to The Gambia permanently? Why or why not? What are the general deciding factors?

I think eventually I would love to settle back in the Gambia. Living in Toronto, I do feel a connection to this city especially after 5 years, but home is home. I would love to open a photography studio in the Gambia and also use my creative expression to help those in need in any way possible. There are a lot of things I want to do in the Gambia for myself and for others. A deciding factor is family for sure. As I am maturing, so are my parents, so that is definitely one factor that could change my plans for the future. In the past, I have been reluctant to picture the rest of my professional and creative career back home (mainly due to my own internalized misconceptions for being ostracized for being “creative”). However Gambia is undergoing significant social changes in the way people express themselves, politically and creatively. I want to be part of the movement that propels The Gambia to where it rightfully belongs. So many other African countries are undergoing what I would consider a second wave of independence where we are free to fully express ourselves and develop our continent. I’m inspired by all the hard work that people my age are doing to create the changes that they want to see. For now, I have built strong foundations in Toronto so it’ll be home for a bit longer.

Man on the Beach, contemplating

Man on the Beach, contemplating

Are there any life lessons or life changing moments from your experiences in The Gambia that you can share? Why was this so important?

This trip in particular, I was hyper aware of “time”. My late Grandfather’s brother (he’s about 90?) was staying with us due to health complications and I remember my brothers and I discussing all our stories from childhood that involved his energetic character. Like I said before, as the younger generation, I think we’re concerned with our future, but I think we forget sometimes that the older generation are also entering a new stage in life, a stage where we as the youth are responsible to support and care for them. This was a very touching (and equally overwhelming) realization, especially considering that I am away from my family for extended periods. Seeing my parents, my great aunties & uncles settle into a mature part of this life cycle is very eye opening.  I guess I would not really call in life-changing in that sense it’s more a reminder to enjoy little moments, because nothing is really every guaranteed. On my trip to Gambia, I always visit the village/town where my Dad is from (It’s called Bansang), and this particular trip was different, most of the elders have passed on, the town is quiet and you barely see people on the streets anymore.

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Cape Point Beach (Growing up a 5-minute walk from the beach was and still is amazing)

Abu, Cape Point Beach

Abu, Cape Point Beach

How does going home affect you creatively? Why?

It’s almost as if when I’m home, my work feels less like I’m trying to just produce content and instead it feels like I am just experiencing the space and the people. It’s funny, when I first started with photography, every time I would be home, I would be very reluctant and shy to bring out my camera, mainly because I didn’t want people to view me in a certain way. It’s hard to explain and fully unpack in this question -  I think as a woman in the in the Gambia, in the past it has been easy in some instances to be labelled for pursuing certain forms of creative expression, so this trip felt very different for me.  I met a few Gambian creatives that live in Gambia and others from the diaspora who I was able to connect. This was the first time I think where bringing my camera with me to most places was a no brainer, seeing others express themselves gave me a warm confidence which I brought back to Toronto with me. My work feels different, it feels lighter, it feels less rushed, and it feels more authentic to myself. Creatively, I’m learning to be more patient with my process, but also making sure that I am not taking too long (we all know that’s when self-doubt starts to creep in). This trip changed me definitely, I met musicians, other photographers, poets, writers, and the energy I got from those people has fueled me, to not only work harder, but to maintain a relationship with others that admire, appreciate and create art. There are more projects that I wanted to do in Gambia, but between juggling the usual family visits and spending time with my family, I was not able to do everything I wanted creatively, which is okay, because now I know I can do with support.

Habib, my brother & confidant

Habib, my brother & confidant

Bubacar, My Brother (Sunday after Quranic readings at my Aunt’s house)

Bubacar, My Brother (Sunday after Quranic readings at my Aunt’s house)

Special thanks to Aisha Jallow for sharing her story. If you like content like this please share and subscribe to our mailing list for updates. 

 

Monique Hoilett