Senegalese Visual Artist Aly Kourouma On His Lifelong Journey From Dakar To Los Angeles

Senegalese Visual Artist Aly Kourouma On His Lifelong Journey From Dakar To Los Angeles

Senegalese multimedia artist Aly Kourouma speaks with Benjamin Lebrave of Akwaaba about his life, influences and his artistic journey.

Aly Kourouma is a vastly talented visual Senegalese artist based in LA. He was recently commissioned by the city of Westchester, CA, to create the massive "You Are Beautiful" mural. He is also a DJ (Ndebele) and has a clothing brand, Timbuktu State. His multifaceted art reflects the many layers that have made Aly who he is today, from his native Guinean village, to growing up in cosmopolitan 1980s Dakar, to landing in the U.S. in a quest to become a filmmaker. Benjamin Lebrave of Akwaaba Music recently sat down with Aly during his trip to LA, and talked about his life, his influences and his artistic journey.

I vividly remember the first time I met Aly: he was bigging me up for the music at an otherwise very quiet Sunday night party in LA’s westside. The night I ran was extremely eclectic, going from minimal techno to neo-soul to tropical, and it was rare to come across anybody who enjoyed this diversity, let alone somebody I could speak French to. To this day, whether it’s words from a conversation or details from one of his works, Aly’s diverse taste and influences still surprise me. I’m devoting my own career to bridging music and cultures from Africa with the world, so naturally I feel a strong bond with Aly and how his life and work straddle similar cultural junctions. I was lucky enough to sit down with Aly on my recent trip to LA. Sure enough, he blew my mind once again with his stories, here’s what he shared.

Benjamin Lebrave for Okayafrica: Where did it all start for you?

Aly Kourouma: I was born in Guinea, in a small village of about 30 people, with no running water, no electricity, we used to bathe in the river, go to bed when the sun went down. My dad passed away when I was one, it was tough for my mom to raise all of the kids, so when I was 4 she sent me to Dakar, where I grew up with my uncle, my mom’s brother.

OKA: Moving from a village in Guinea to Dakar must have been a big shock?

AK: You can almost compare the economic reality between Guinea and Senegal [in the 1970s] to what is going on between Mexico and the US: the economy was much better, so a lot of people moved to Senegal. The biggest foreign contingent was Guinean, I’d like to say at least a million Guineans lived in Senegal at the time.

To some extent, I feel like my parents cut the bridge, maybe not voluntarily, but it was hard to stay in touch. You have to remember, this was in the late 1970s, Guinea was a communist country at the time, Senegal was seriously pro-French. So there was no diplomatic relationship between the countries, no phone connections, officially the border was closed. My mom had to take me to Mali to get to Dakar!

My parents spoke Fulani to each other, but they spoke French to the kids, for education and all of that. So I grew up with French and Wolof, the main language spoken in Senegal. My actual dad was Mandingo, I picked it up a bit from aunties also living in the house. I speak it with a terrible accent which makes everybody laugh.

In 1984, Sékou Touré died, and the borders opened again. In 1985 I went back to Guinea for the first time. It was a shock, the place looked the same, smelled the same, but I remembered it with my 4 year old eyes. Of course I didn’t recognize anybody! I spent summer vacation there with all of my cousins. My uncle used to send us so we could reconnect with the family. I lost touch with my real siblings though, I grew up with my cousins in Dakar.

You’ve mentioned to me in the past that music was very, very important in your house in Dakar.

One thing I definitely remember, from a very young age, and I feel very lucky about that, is that my uncle was really, really into music. I grew up with a more diverse realm of music than most. We had everything going from African pop albums, to French hits, to American soul, we even had early 1970s electronic music, opera, and Hector Berlioz. We were listening to all kinds of stuff at home!

Senegal is like any other country in Africa, you hear music everywhere, in cabs, in weddings, in the middle of the street, music was pretty much everywhere. There wasn’t as much variety as there is now, only one TV channel, very few radio stations. So there were shows I used to listen to religiously. They were the only way for me to have access to stuff from foreign countries, soul music, stuff like that.

Stream selections from the musicians Ally Kourouma mentions in this playlist above.

Whatever was available musically was very diverse though. Senegal was a former French colony, so there was this influx of French music, I grew up listening to Claude François, Charles Aznavour. Senegal is also a Muslim country, close to Morocco, so there is a lot of Arabic music, not only religious. Also some really interesting sub genres, which may seem surprising to hear in Africa. Bollywood music was HUGE in Senegal in the 1970s. There would be Bollywood singing contests on TV, Senegalese just have this affinity with pop Indian stuff. So Bollywood on top of Arabic music, and influence from France. Besides American soul, and rap, and all of that.

The other genre which had a big impact on me was Cuban music: it was HUGE when I grew up in Senegal. I remember seeing Cuban orchestras touring in Senegal when I was a kid, it’s a vivid memory. I remember seeing Orchestra Aragon performing on New Year’s Eve. I feel I am really lucky to have grown exposed to so much music — even though I HATED Cuban music as a kid.

Out of all of those, what stands out as the soundtrack to my childhood, was Jean-Michel Jarre. My dad LOVED Oxygène and Equinox. The day he bought Oxygène, he actually forgot to pick us up from school. I was also a big fan of Charles Aznavour, I used to love that stuff, and of course a lot of soul music in general. I discovered Michael Jackson when I was twelve, and that was a big deal. I remember, I must’ve been around 13, a friend gave me a random unmarked tape. I played that tape, I’d say pretty much every day for a full year without knowing what was on that tape. Years later I realized it was Afrika Bambataa and Soul Sonic Force! That changed my whole perception of music, I became a B Boy. That was probably around '81, there was no internet to find out anything, somebody would go to the States or to France, and would bring something to the neighbors, and that tape would go around, everybody would borrow it, that’s how music spread.

Also, around that time, some friends brought back episodes of Soul Train. I would watch those religiously, it was the shit. Music was a big deal, and really influenced me. Art, music and comic books. It really affected my output today.

You also mentioned comic books?

When I was a kid, we couldn’t really afford to buy comic books, but you could borrow comic books from these kiosks, like a library, you would give them a deposit, and get it back when you returned the comic book. Back then there were two major types: DC comics type, all of the superheroes, Ironman was an all time favorite, Spider Man, etc. And the other one was all of the European stuff, mostly French. So I grew up with Pif, Tintin, a little bit later on I discovered Manara, one of my uncles, a cardiologist, turned me onto Manara. That’s when my art career started. When you’re a kid, you always want to draw your comic book heroes. That’s how I started.

Then later on, in my late teen years, I discovered other stuff, like Hugo Pratt, erotic novels. Every family has its crazy uncle, there was one in my family, he was the one who spoke fluent English, who traveled all the time, he went to med school. He’s the one who brought us the first Thriller tape. He really helped me nurture my artistic side. We would also watch Japanese anime on TV, Goldorak and all of it. That’s a lot of influences now that I think about it, damn!

It seems you had your eyes open to the entire world?

As a kid, I was one of those who had an escapist mentality, I was really attracted to anything that was not part of my every day. Art, music, comic books, all of those things were a way for me to get out and explore the world. I was consciously looking for those things, but then the local stuff just happened to be there, so that’s how I got exposed to it, readily available without me making an effort. The other stuff I was really going out of my way to have access to. I’d spend all of my allowance on comic books, tapes. I remember when I was 19, I heard Wagner on the radio one time, and I was blown away. I remember looking for it everywhere in town, and I found one place that had it, for a fortune. So I spent my budget, my entire month, on a Ring of the Nibelung tape!

Music, comics, I remember you telling me you also love to read?

I was an avid reader, the more foreign and far away the author, the more attracted I was to it. Of course in school we had to read all of the local authors. The curriculum was French books and African authors. But I was interested in far away authors. So I had my run with American authors, I used to love Jack London as a kid, John Fante, and of course discovering Jack Kerouac just threw my whole artistic world inside out, it blew my mind. I read The Subterraneans first, and it kind of destroyed everything really! (Laughs), that was some intense shit, wow! I read a lot of John Dos. I got the books from Alliance Française, Centre Culturel Français. I was always there, if that place hadn’t existed I would be a different person, my influences would have been very, very different. We can say a lot of bad things about the influence of France in Senegalese culture, but as a kid, all I saw was easy access to books from America, Europe, Japan, Russia. It really helped me round up my literary education.

After this American stage, I went through this Russian phase, I started reading Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, all of that stuff. Then a Japanese phase too: the further the author, the more interested I was. Some of those books were turning points for me as an artist and as a human being. Jack Kerouac was one, another one was Philippe Djian, a French radical, Latin American writers, Borges totally blew my mind, it was the first time I experienced a writer who only wrote about writing. It was an interesting concept for me at the time. Gabriel García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes. But Borges and García Marquez were my biggest influences from that part of the world.

Did your parents support or initiate your curiosity?

The only thing that was asked of us as kids was to have good grades. They were the first generation after independence, so they sent us to Catholic school to make sure we had access to the best education available. I went to a couple of Catholic high schools back home. Typical, very discipline oriented, very stern. I went to a really good high school, and the kids in the school were very diverse. A third were from Lebanon, there was a big community in Senegal in general, a lot of French expat kids, government kids too. One of my best friends as a kid was the son of the Belgian ambassador to Senegal. It was definitely an elitist school.

My uncle was a hard working man. Because of the difficult relationship between Senegal and Guinea, my uncle had to walk from Guinea to Senegal, all he had was a copy of the Coran which his dad gave him. He put himself through college, and became a pharmacist! He was the first in the family to leave Guinea, a totally self made man. So he was very attached to us, the kids, having a great education.

In retrospect, the discipline was too intense for me, but I realize now it was one of the best things that could happen to me. It helped me build a really good foundation. It was also a good school in the sense that it really allowed me to explore. I was already drawing a lot at the time, and the school really gave me space to express that. I was 17, I was in tenth grade, and we had a pilot program for computer coding! At a time when the idea of a personal computer didn’t exist! So I used to learn Basic, Fortran. Before we had Microsoft or Apple, when you got a computer you had to write your own programs to use the machine. So promising students could take this program, I have to be thankful to my parents for putting me through this great school. If you forget about the beatings and all of that of course (laughs).

How did your parents feel about you delving into art?

My parents didn’t really have an opinion about me doing art. They never supported it, but they were never openly against it. It never got in the way of my education, it’s just something that I always did. I’m pretty sure I started drawing before I even started to write, it was something very natural for me. But I never saw art as a way to make a living, it was just something I enjoyed doing.

I’m from a family where education is crucial. I can think of at least 5 PhDs in my family. Some of it coming from the fact that my uncle was very successful, high education was an example for the family. The other reason is that my uncle had a very rigorous Fulani background. Fulani culture, traditionally, is very big on education. His dad was a marabout, a Muslim scholar. So education was a big deal from the start.

Of course after high school, I had to make a decision. My parents’ dream was for me to become an architect, because I had that artistic sensibility, and I was really into science as well, so it was a good way to bring the two together. But personally I never wanted to be an architect. I didn’t even want to go to college, but knowing how significant it was for my family, I couldn’t refuse. So I went to law school, not because I wanted to, just because in my mind it was the easiest thing to do without getting too involved. When I was in high school, I was sent to debating contests, so as a kid I thought I wouldn’t have to study really hard (Laughs), I could just sit and pretend (Laughs).

At that point did you know art was what you wanted to do?

My secret dream was to become a filmmaker, a director, because I think for me, making films would have been a way to bring all of the different influences I grew up with into one form of expression. I could bring the story telling, the writing from books, the visuals from graphic novels, the music. So that’s what I wanted to do.

After my little stunt in law school, I realized I really had to dedicate myself to it, and I didn’t want to, so I decided to try something else. I didn’t have the balls to tell my parents straight up that I didn’t want to go to school, so I ran away! At the time I thought the plan was brilliant: I decided, since I wanted to make films, and since there are no film schools in Senegal, that all I needed to do was meet one of my favorite directors at the time, offering him my services, and I would learn the craft. So one day I packed my stuff and disappeared. My goal was to go to Burkina Faso, meet with Idrissa Ouedraogo, one of the most famous directors at that time, and offer him my services, in exchange for some learning. So I took the train to Mali, then a taxi brousse to Burkina - the whole trip was quite hectic.

I get to Ouagadougou, I find his office, I walk into the office, as the most confident 19 year old ever (Oh my god I was such a clown!), I find his assistant, I give her my name. She looks at me a bit like she would a crazy person, then tells me the guy doesn’t even live in Burkina Faso anymore, he moved to Paris years ago!

So I had to go back to Dakar, my tail between my legs. In retrospect, the trip was not a total loss, because it became pretty obvious I was not going to go to college. It was a turning point in my life, it was the first time I indulged myself into art, without bothering to pretend to study. It’s the first time my parents gave me full range to explore. It also happened because my uncle died when I was 17.

So I divided my time between writing, painting, and the usual music and art exploration. I started hanging out with local artists in Senegal, being an apprentice, learning the craft. One of my biggest tutors was a painter called Le Kara. I was in my early 20s by then.

When I was 23, I wrote a story that I submitted for publication for what was then the biggest newspaper in Senegal, Le Soleil. And surprisingly enough, the story was published! That gave me enough credit for my parents to support my artist career. So they decided to help me find a film school. That’s how I ended up in Los Angeles! First we were looking at FEMIS in France, and at the last minute, we were having dinner, and one of my aunties asked if it wasn’t better for me to go straight to Hollywood?

So I moved to the US in 1995.

What happened once you arrived in the US?

I went to film school for a really short time, one semester. Many reasons kept me from pursuing the film career. Even though I grew up soaking in American culture, watching Dallas, Starsky & Hutch, Soul Train, listening to American music, still, coming here was a major, major culture shock. I was a bit thrown off. It was just hard for me in general. I was raised very sheltered, I never had to make money for myself, I just had to have good grades, I never had to work.

In America, I had to learn self sufficiency. The first casualty of that was film school. And I was totally depressed, because of the language barrier, I didn’t have access to what I normally had access to, my English was not good enough for me to read books, or to enjoy movies. Between the language barrier, not having anybody around I could relate to, my first few years were really hard.

So I picked menial jobs, and started doing art.

By the time you and I met around 2005, I think you were already doing T-shirts, also art?

Starting a T-shirt line was another childhood dream of mine. One of the first things I did when I graduated from high school was try to put together a line of T-shirts. It didn’t really work out!

After a while [working jobs in LA] I decided to save some money, move back to the East coast with my auntie, save up some more, then come back to LA and start my T-shirt line. So I was back in DC for 3 years, then came back to California in 2004 and started my line. I bought the equipment and started printing. I was working part time at Trader Joe’s, then one day I decided to drop it and do the line full time. It was tough at first, but by 2008 it was good, I think because my line was very different, nobody else was doing it, it was a mixture of art, a little bit of an African influence, I tried to bring a bit of self awareness in my fashion, it might sound a bit grandiose to say, but a bit of a spiritual sensibility into fashion. Because from the beginning I felt this is what was missing. Fashion is all about ego, how you are seen, how you are perceived. It really caught on, especially in LA. I had a lot of exposure, it was being retailed in 25 stores in the US, also in a few stores in Japan and Canada.

It started like a little hustle, and by 2011 I had a full blown business to run, and I had no idea how to run it. I pretty much ran it into the ground, It became really stressful, I started to be really late in my deliveries. I didn’t have that business savvy mind, so slowly I let go of my line, which I kinda regret today to be honest. But it coincided with a time when the art started to get a real traction of its own.

Making art started as a way to create extra income to inject into the clothing line, but by 2011 I transited to art being my main activity. My art got more and more popular. Until that point, the art I was doing was very traditional: oil and acrylic on canvas. What happened is when I started my T-shirt line, I became a print maker, and that in turn affected my art, it found its way into my art, and changed my art visually. From this traditional art form, painting on canvas, it became a mixture of painting, print making, and computer graphics. I started to use the tools I was using to build my line, into my art. So in a sense the art I am doing today is the child of my clothing line.

Now I’m at a turning point again, because I remember the promise I made to myself the day I decided to dedicate myself to my clothing line. And I fee like I didn’t follow up, so I’m about to embark on a new journey again, where I am going to put the art on the back burner, and take my line as far as it can go. Because my art was never meant, it just kind of happened!

Your art feels like a juxtaposition of many different worlds, now that you tell me more about your itinerary, it all seems to make sense!

I don’t think I belong to any culture in particular. For plain geographical reasons. I spent the first 4 years of my life in Guinea, then 20 years in a very different surrounding in Dakar, then 20 years in the US. Even though I speak 4 languages, I speak all of them with an accent, almost as if I don’t have a native tongue! I speak Wolof with a Mandingo accent, my Mandingo has a Wollof flavor, I speak French with a Wollof accent, and English with a French accent! In Senegal, if I open my mouth they will know right away I’m from Guinea. But in Guinea they can tell right away I’m from Senegal. And in America they think I’m French.

Besides the geographic diversity, also the cultural diversity. The fact that I grew up in a part of the world, Senegal, where I spent my formative years, which was - and I hope it still is - a very cosmopolitan place. My parents were practicing Muslims, but I got my education from a Catholic institution, surrounded by the kids of French and European expats, Syrians and Lebanese. Besides the French, we had a huge community of Vietnamese - my auntie makes spring rolls from scratch! I also grew up with Arabic jokes and curses, I can still curse in Arabic today! A lot of it had to do with the French post colonial reality. The Lebanese and Vietnamese came during civil wars, it’s a positive aspect of French colonial reality. I feel really blessed that I grew up in such a culturally diverse environment.

When I was a teenager, TV and radio became deregulated. People would buy these pirate antennas, and all of a sudden, you could watch MTV London, watch Middle Eastern movies, French TV, all kinds of stuff. And from one FM station, it went to a whole range. Whatever you could get on your antenna you would listen to. Pirate radio, I guess that’s kind of what it was.

I believe Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese had the same impact on my life as going to Islamic school when I was a kid. Then being exposed to the Beat Generation literature had the same, if not more, effect than going to Catholic school. So what does it make me? Can I honestly say that I am Senegalese? Am I from Guinea? Am I American? I feel like a citizen of the world.

Africa seems to retain a strong part in your art?

I see my art like a bridge between cultures. It makes sense given my own life story. To make it simple, I can say I grew up in 2 cultures: I was born in a village, and I grew up in a city. I think my art reflects both. I see it as a translator of cultures. What I’m doing with my art is taking cultural values, finding their aesthetic counter parts, and translating them in a different language, which the American public can understand.

Since music has been such a big influence in my younger years, it pops up in my art. I also realized that as humans, we have this natural connection to music, so it is an easy vehicle to convey things and connect with people through my art. Music is the closest thing I’ve found so far to a universal language. So it’s a tool I use to connect with people, this is why music themes are so recurrent in my work. You can connect an entire generation of people through one song. They can belong to different classes, have different political views, but they all gather for one song.

The Liberation Beat piece is a tribute to the contribution of musicians to the liberation movement in Africa in the 1970s. After independence in the 1960s, a lot of African countries were run by dictators. In a lot of cases, only musicians had the strength to speak up, and many of them paid the price. So this piece is a way to recognize their sacrifices.

That story can be extrapolated in other cultures - I don’t think I ever sold the Liberation Beat to an African! (Laughs). The symbols of struggle and triumph translate in any culture.