When I was in 6th grade in Conakry, Guinea, in West Africa, I started drawing with my best friend, Olivie Elvis Dore.
After school, we watched a TV cartoon called “Dragon Ball Z.” We’d draw the fights from the show and compare our drawings the next day at school.
Drawing with Olivie Elvis was so fun, pretending we were the characters from the show. We also used drawing to create our own planet.
It was only the beginning of my interest in drawing and art. Starting in 7th grade, I noticed how wearing different clothes can change people’s moods. I started reading fashion magazines and watching TV shows about fashion. I began to dream of being a designer myself and made some designs in a notebook.
I met some South African designers who lived near me in Conakry. I helped them find a sewing workshop in our neighborhood and we became friends. I showed them my designs, and they encouraged me. I created patterns for fabric.
I wanted to design clothes reflecting the diversity of the world. I had just started working as an assistant to someone who encouraged me in my dream of starting my own clothing line. Then I had to leave.
My father had become sick, and I was living with my uncle, who was very angry I’d converted from Islam to Christianity. He was so angry he threatened to kill me. A friend of my father’s said I’d be safe only by leaving the country, and he helped raise money for my escape.
So at age 16, I flew to Ecuador, and then journeyed up through Colombia, Central America, and Mexico to the United States.
It felt scary to leave my home without knowing where I was going, and it hurt to leave all my friends and my father behind. I also felt bad leaving my art behind, but at the same time, all my artwork comes straight from my heart. I know I will create new ones.
Using Art to Process Change
After I crossed the border into California, I was detained by Homeland Security, then sent to a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Chicago.
There, I wrote everything about my life so far in my notebook. Putting my ideas on paper felt similar to making art and design. I even wrote on the covers of my books.
In the U.S.
I was also able to get back to design. The Chicago shelter had a computer room and there I watched videos of Optitex, Lotta, and VStitcher, 3-D fashion design software programs.
I used their product websites to learn how to design using software.
My first case manager at the shelter was Marta, who was very nice to me. I found a picture of a woman who looked like her in an art book. I asked a staff member at the shelter for canvas and paints, and I painted a copy of that picture. Then I gave it to Marta.
She was happy with my portrait, and kept it in her office. But three weeks later, she was transferred to another shelter. My new caseworker was Nidia, who stayed with me for the rest of my time in the shelter.
Nidia helped me try to find my family members back in Africa as well as someone to stay with in the U.S.
She connected me with an unaccompanied child program in New York City, and that’s how I came to New York, five months after arriving in Chicago.
There were no art classes in the Chicago shelter, but Nidia and my English teacher, Mr. Tyler, got me paint and canvas or watercolor paper to paint on. So when I left, I painted a portrait and some fashion ideas for Nidia and a painting of a nun holding a Bible for Mr. Tyler.
What it Means
Mr. Tyler used to call me in his office and ask me where I got my ideas for my paintings.
I told him about my ambition of fashion design and how that motivated me to paint.
He encouraged me to do it all. He said drawing, painting, and fashion go together, and that my art could inspire my fashion.
Mr. Tyler told me what he saw in all of my creative work, including my logos, poems, spoken word pieces, paintings, and drawings.
I got better at talking about my work from my conversations with Mr. Tyler. Others had praised my work and supported me, but nobody had ever taken my work as seriously as he did.
Making Art in the Future
I want my art to celebrate the diversity of people and show that we are all the same. We are all human, and we need to build on that connection, not destroy it.
I want my art to be a positive force in the world. I liked making paintings as gifts for Marta, Nidia, and Mr. Tyler, who helped me in the shelter.
I also want to make art that protests air pollution, sea pollution, wars, and discrimination all over the world.
I want my paintings to celebrate diversity of people and cultures, and to support people who can’t help themselves.
I had to leave the unaccompanied minor program in New York City, because I am about to turn 18.
Now I live in a group home in Syracuse, New York, for people 18-26. It is very difficult that my life is not in my control.
But with the help of good people, I try to do what I can and send out a positive message with my art.
Descriptions of the writer’s art:
I call this painting “One World,” and it’s about the beauty of diversity. It shows people of all colors traveling together and creating new cities. The wooden door in the tree represents the magic door of diversity we need to keep open.
Back in Guinea, there was terrible strife between Muslims and Christians. And on my journey as an immigrant, I have heard people insult other races and religions.
But I believe that through immigration and exploration, people share cultures all around the world, enriching one another’s lives. The boy in the clothes and hat made of flags is me. I do not belong to any one country but many, because I feel we are all human beings and more alike than different.
This one is about parasites that live in people’s minds as well as their bodies, problems like chronic depression and mental illness.
Some people are born with these problems, and others have problems from using drugs. People who are suffering need support from people who don’t have those problems.
The nun represents an angel who can see all these problems. She is crying blood because she sees people ignoring each other’s pain. To the right of her face is someone who has a brain, supporting someone who doesn’t have one.
“Embryo and Butterfly”
This one is very personal. My mother passed away when I was very young. I was living with my father, and he got sick. I had to take care of him and then move in with the uncle who abused me. That led to my long journey to the U.S.
All that makes me different from many kids my age. I feel like a baby being born in all these new situations. The butterfly symbolizes freedom—freedom to speak out for yourself and others if you can, freedom to live, and freedom to explore and to educate yourself.