EPWORTH, Iowa — Moussa Gueye endured unimaginable hardships in his native country of Mauritania as a young man. But today, he has transformed that experience through art, using it to express themes of peace and love.
The Weyland Art Gallery at Divine Word College, 102 Jacoby Drive W., will host an exhibit titled, “An African Journey,” from Thursday, Sept. 26, through Thursday, Oct. 24. An opening reception will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 26, with a gallery talk by Gueye at 5:30.
The exhibit will showcase 25 pieces by Gueye including collages, sculptures and found items mounted to canvas, most featuring brightly-colored acrylic backgrounds.
Gueye also will speak at Dubuque’s Multicultural Family Center, 1157 Central Ave., from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25. Several pieces of his art will be displayed there as well.
Telling tragedy through art
In 2002, according to a press release, Gueye was a successful architect with a wife and three young daughters when he was arrested and thrown in jail — a victim of his country’s Islamic authoritarian regime, which was known to randomly jail well-educated people and others who did not declare a political party, considering them a threat to the government.
For six months, Gueye was beaten and tortured until a jail guard offered to help him escape.
It came at a price.
Gueye’s wife sold his car and other items to come up with the money to pay off the guard and help her husband escape to a nearby village. Fearing for their safety, his family fled to Senegal.
In 2003, seeing no other option, Gueye left his family and fled to the United States, living first in Iowa City and for a short time in Dubuque, where he became friends with Doug Stillings, a member of Divine Word College’s Board of Trustees.
Because his education from Mauritania did not qualify him to work as a licensed architect in the United States, Gueye found himself unable to afford the additional training required to complete the necessary U.S. coursework. He made ends meet however he could, washing cars and working as a dishwasher at a restaurant to support himself and his family in Africa.
With a background in architecture, fine art was a natural extension of his creative talents. In 2004, Gueye began creating art to combat loneliness and depression.
“If I did not have faith in God, I would not have survived,” he said in the release.
Through the Rotary Club of Dubuque, he met Stillings — then, the senior vice president at Dubuque Bank & Trust. Stillings provided moral support for the artist and purchased pieces of his work.
“He is a great figure who has a big heart,” Gueye said. “I do not have enough words to thank him.”
Stillings echoed the sentiment.
“For 12-14 years I’ve known Moussa,” he said. “I’ve known of his trials and tribulations, and I’ve known of his triumphs over some of those trials and tribulations in his native land. He is and has been tremendous inspiration to me in his ability to overcome some of the tragedy that has been in his life. And his Christian faith and deep roots in his native culture have given him direction and strength. I admire that very much. I think people will benefit from meeting him and seeing his work.”
Embracing the bright
At first, Gueye’s artwork was abstract and based on his distressing experiences in Mauritania. But approximately five years ago, his work took a turn as he felt prepared to move on from those experiences. He decided to focus on the best of human nature, rather than the worst.
“Because the jail was so dark, maybe that’s the reason I use bright colors,” Gueye said.
In 2008, Gueye was granted political asylum in the United States for humanitarian reasons. That same year, he used the money he had been saving to move his family to the U.S., reuniting them at last. They settled in New Haven, Conn., to be closer to the New York art scene.
Since then, his family has added a baby girl and a granddaughter — both born in America.
Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, as well as by appointment.