The colourful art of the sign painter is ubiquitous in Africa, from roadside barbers to public transport busses, some of it supplied by bespoke studios.
It is no surprise, then, that one such sign painter, Moussa Tine, has risen to become an artist in his own right. A former bus conductor on Dakar’s ‘car rapide’ service, who graduated to painting scenes and motifs from everyday life on the side of transport vehicles, he went on to study art and now commands an audience far beyond his native Senegal.
A recent exhibition in London’s Tafeta gallery provided a rare opportunity to view a small selection of his output, this being the first time, incredibly, that he has been on show in the UK.
The mesmerising A chacun son masque is a fine example of his work, which is characterised by large-scale canvasses of multiple figures and symbolic shapes and textures. It’s as big as your front room rug and draws you immediately in with its intriguing commentary on contemporary life.
“In Africa, the grouping of individuals is very important,” Tine says. “People praying together create a certain atmosphere of forgiveness which in turn allows an individual to reach a state of bliss more easily. The group facilitates this process… And groupings of people produce rhythm, but an innocence has been discovered as well. I am always trying to interrupt the grouping of people, a grouping that will lead to the ideal.”
Another striking image is the cultural melting pot-themed Tour du brassage cultural universel, which demonstrates the artist’s favoured use of acrylics to create earthy tones juxtaposed with brighter shades, creating a vibrant visual feast.
The exhibition was presented by the Mille Arts Foundation, which plans to donate a percentage of the proceeds to the Red Cross Ebola Outbreak Appeal.
“We are honoured to be able to present such famed, original works by Moussa Tine in London,” said Mille Arts’ director, Mablé Agbodan.
“This is the first time the artist has exhibited in the UK, yet demand for his work comes from around the world and one look at his paintings tells you why. The fact that we are donating to the Red Cross Ebola Outbreak Appeal, makes this exhibition even more topical and poignant.”
Unfortunately, the artist himself was not present at the special showing I attended but you get the impression of a real ‘man of the people’ who once had a bird’s eye view of life from his vantage point as a bus conductor.
At first self-taught, he ran his own sign-painting studio for 20 years, having attracted initial attention with his scenes from the life of legendary Senegalese religious leader Amadou Bamba, which he depicted on the inside of a mini-bus. In 1974, he also took up studies at the National School of Fine Arts and then helped to set up The Arts Village, a complex of 45 studios on the outskirts of Dakar, which flourishes to this day. Now aged 61, he has exhibited all over the world, including the US, Canada and Belgium.
All his work has an underlying social narrative, some of it more apparent than others. For example, Le car rapide is a fond tribute to what is becoming a rapidly disappearing mode of public transport in Dakar.
“In this painting I’d like to express my sadness in regards of the gradual disappearance of this urban jewel,” Tine has said. “Its total eradication planned by the administrative authorities, I am sure will turn Dakar into an unknown city.”
This article was first published on Africabriefing.org on January 19, 2015