Mauritania Through a Portuguese Artist's Eyes

Portuguese artist Isabel Fiadeiro (@Isabelfiadeiro) lives in Nouakchott, Mauritania, where she paints and runs an art gallery. Fiadeiro also sketches from observation, filling her blog Sketching in Mauritania with images of daily life in the West African nation.

Global Voices spoke to Fiadeiro about her art and how sketching has helped her get to know Mauritania.

Global Voices (GV): Where are you from originally? How long have you lived in Mauritania and what took you there in the first place?

Isabel Fiadeiro (IF): My father is Portuguese and my mother Spanish. I grew up in Portugal and I feel Portuguese. I also lived in England for almost 15 years (on and off). Actually I left London in March 2003 to go back and settle in Portugal; I had finished a BA in Fine Arts at the Wimbledon School of Arts in 2000, and I stopped painting for the next three years, so I decided it was time to go.

In November 2003, a Portuguese friend and I decided to travel to Guinea-Bissau in a Renault 4L. The car broke down in the Parc National du Banc d'Arguin on the Mauritanian coast. My friend stayed in Nouakchott and I went off with a group of French people to discover the Adrar Region.

We went on off-road tracks and through the desert stopping occasionally in small villages to buy bread or repair the tyres. I had a sketch book with me and for the first time I started drawing from observation. It was this curiosity of knowing more about the people that lived in the middle of these vast empty spaces that made me come back in January 2004, and in September 2004 I moved to Nouakchott and I'm still here.

Diallo and Mamadou, tailors in Nouakchott. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

Diallo and Mamadou, tailors in Nouakchott. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

GV: How does sketching help you understand a place?

IF: Drawing and the observation that comes with it makes you see the world in a different way. You slow down, you look and you discover things. For me this act of drawing is also a sort of memory and questioning.

People around you come to see what you're doing so it works in two ways. You're recording what attracted your attention, but by your action communication becomes possible, even if you don't speak the language.

Police at demonstration, Nouakchott. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

Police at demonstration, Nouakchott. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

For years I would go to a remote village for a month and stay with a local family, drawing their daily life. I did that in two fishing villages in the Banc d'Arguin but also in Oualata, Goungel and Ouadane. My last long stay was in Tindouf in the Western Sahara refugee camps where I went to sketch the women and their work in the camps. All those people became friends and we still exchange mails and phone calls and meet if they happen to come to Nouakchott.

Also in each area I discovered a new vocabulary to do with the sea or the land and the cattle or the revolution.

Griots at the Fondation Malouma. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

Griots at the Fondation Malouma. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

GV: You are also a member of the online community Urban Sketchers. Can you tell us about them?

IF: Urban Sketchers is a non-profitmaking, international organisation, dedicated to fostering the art of on-location drawing and painting. I am one of 100 correspondents invited from around the globe. Our aim is to inspire others to sketch daily, this way improving their skills and observation capacities.

I discovered them in 2008, and it was a great discovery because until then I was isolated, and finding this community suddenly made me want to sketch more and better. The founder of Urban Sketchers, Gabi Campanario, uses sketches as a reportage tool; his work is published in the Seattle Times. This way of using sketches made a strong impression on me.

Discussing The Great Gatsby at a reading club. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

Discussing The Great Gatsby at a reading club. Sketch by Isabel Fiadeiro.

I have participated in a number of Urban Sketchers symposiums. The next one is in Barcelona. We now have another correspondent from Mauritania, Oumar Ball, who started sketching from observation a few years ago and publishes his work on Flickr. Later this year I would like to hold some talks and workshops to encourage more people in Mauritania to sketch from observation. Citymag, a free magazine distributed monthly in Nouakchott has started to publish my drawings. Maybe that will inspire more people to pick up a pen or pencil and start sketching.


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