Al-Hassan paints artwork onto a client’s van, continuing a project that he started yesterday. He waited until this afternoon to proceed because of the National Cleaning Day schedule. The current government expects citizens to clean their compounds during the morning hours of every first Saturday. He makes up time by staying focused, adding more layers to images he previously painted—a helmet, wrench, spark plug, battery, and more. He also paints the client’s company name and two contact numbers completely freehand without stencils or rough sketches.
Al-Hassan works under the shade of several mango trees growing next to his house. It’s a short walk to the nearby business center and town market. People stroll by and sometimes stop to admire his skill. His attention rarely leaves the work, only briefly to acknowledge greetings or talk with passing friends. Kids gather around him a few times and Al-Hassan warns them to avoid touching the fresh paint. At one point he takes a break from painting to work on another project—hand-carving a rubber stamp using a razor blade. After about three hours of work, the van’s owner stops by and comments on the art. He calls it “perfect or very close to it”.
Late evening arrives when Al-Hassan decides to pack up his paint and tools for the day. He then sits on a nearby bench to relax and share his story. He begins with his reason for entering the arts. Then he talks about his training, work experience, and vision of the future. He ends with advice to the government.
I wanted to be a lawyer, but my dad passed away after I sat my West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in 2008. He sponsored my education up to that point so nobody could help me after that. When I left secondary school my friends gave me small work to do around the city. I slowly saved money to further my own education.
I recognized my natural gift for the arts, so I decided to attend Eastern Polytechnic University in Kenema. My professors taught me well and gave me lots of advice. I learned many things like how to properly sketch and color human figures. I spent one year and six months there and received a certificate at the end of my studies.
A talented man took me as his apprentice after I graduated. The university taught me from the blackboard, but now I learned from observation and experience. I asked my mentor many questions and he would tell me, “This is the proper way to do things.” The apprenticeship helped me improve my talents very much. The experience was very practical.
I quickly found work after completing my training. A Lebanese-owned business asked me to paint signs and print t-shirts for their shop. After that I took a job at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They asked me to rehabilitate sign posts in and around Kenema. I worked at both places from about 2009 to 2010. I’m thankful that both jobs paid me very well.
Then came a period when I couldn’t find work. I sat for a long time but still practiced art for myself. Then I moved from Kenema to Moyamba by myself to look for more opportunities. With time an NGO called Plan International called upon me for a job. They wanted artwork for sign posts and t-shirts. First they asked me for a sample of my work to prove my qualifications, then they hired me. I worked with them from 2012-2015 before my contract closed. Between 2015 and 2018 I found small jobs from many people, everything from sign posts to painting cars. Then a metalwork and welding workshop hired me in 2018. I continue to work there today.
Art is a very good field. I love it so much. My talents gave me benefits for a long time. In the future I’m going to retire and would like my legacy to continue. I have an apprentice but he didn’t come today; he usually shows up every day. I called him but his phone was switched off. Today was cleaning day so I didn’t have time to track him down. He’s a very serious apprentice otherwise.
I would be happy to take on more apprentices, even three to four at the same time. I get plenty of work so I would be able to train and keep them busy. I advise young people to try and become apprentices before working as artists. In Sierra Leone we have many talented people, but their talents go to waste because they don’t have support. The government should help young talented people that are on their way up. Let there be better institutions so the youth can learn trades. Not all children can sit through formal schooling, but they still have talent. They just want the chance to improve and prove themselves.