In the spring of 2016, illustrator, musician and cartoonist Elín Elísabet headed to the remote eastern fishing village of Borgafjörður Eystri armed with just a few clothes, some sketchbooks, and a portable watercolour set. Elín had spent time there previously working at the local fish processing plant, after a friend vouched for her strongly enough to get a job. She was fascinated by the colourful and close-knit local community, and this time she returned as an artist, to depict the culture, nature and inhabitants of this interesting little place.
“It’s a beautiful, intense and weird little community that I wanted to document,” says Elín. “It ended up turning into a book, although that wasn’t my original plan. I didn’t really have a plan.”
Elín went along to local events such as bingo and meetings of the elderly association. She became interested in the village’s common rural problem of young people leaving for university, or to pursue employment elsewhere, resulting in a shrinking, ageing population in Borgarfjörður Eystri.
“The status of the town in uncertain, like in lots of parts of Iceland,” says Elín. “We don’t know what will become of the town in the future. I wanted to document it as it was at that point. It was a fun project, and the people there enjoyed seeing their town being drawn.”
In 2017, Elín used the resulting book in an application for an artists residency in a small village in Senegal, not really expecting the trip becoming a reality. But sure enough, she soon found herself packing once more to spend November of 2017 in Senegal.
This time, documenting the local community would be a different kind of challenge. “Being a fly on the wall was impossible for me in Senegal,” says Elín. “Every time I went out I’d have a group of fifteen children following me. They were really curious, picking the brushes from my bag and trying to grab my sketchbook to see what I was doing. I loved the interest—but there was no way to sit in a corner and draw what was in front of me.”
How to represent what she saw was also an issue for Elín. “There’s so much out there already about kids running around barefoot in Africa playing with a football made of rags,” she says. “And there’s more to life in Senegal than that. But then, I did see it. It made me examine my role in being there.”
The Senegal Manifesto
The constant attention was fun, but also tiring. Without the internet—or any connection to the outside world—Elín sometimes withdrew into solitude and introspection. She recorded her thoughts in a diary alongside her drawings of day-to-day life in the village.
“I’m usually worried that someone will find and read my diary, so I’m never completely honest,” Elín smiles. “But in Senegal, nobody spoke Icelandic, so I was very honest. I thought about my past relationships, and how I wanted to behave in the future in that regard. There were many places in the diary where I’d say, ‘Next time I will be this way.’ It became a kind of manifesto.”
The resulting exhibition—”The Senegal Manifesto”—mixes Elín’s observational sketches of the village with texts from the internal world of her diary. “The diaries give a window into what I was thinking at the time,” she finishes. “I think it adds another dimension to it. Iceland and Senegal were completely different, but the drawings are still of people making dinner, or hanging out. Situations and thoughts can be completely specific or personal, and at the same time, universal.”