Sierra Leone refugee helps Winnipeggers look on bright side with colourful art

Ever since he was a boy, art has been his lifeblood — and today at age 49, Gibril Bangura is tapping into his passion to bring healing and hope to sick people in Winnipeg.

Vibrant patterns 'add colours to the lives of people,' artist Gibril Bangura says

Gibril Bangura, 49, shows off one of artwork from his Happy Paintings exhibit that was displayed at the Seven Oaks General Hospital in April 2015. (Supplied by Gibril Bangura)

Ever since he was a boy, art has been his lifeblood — and today at age 49, Gibril Bangura is tapping into his passion to bring healing and hope to sick people in Winnipeg.

Bangura came to Winnipeg in 2014 after escaping the civil war in Sierra Leone, where he was "a bit of a troublemaker."

"I use my art to speak for people. I've gone through so many things, so every opportunity I have to fight, to advocate for those who couldn't do it for themselves, I do it. I had problems with my government," he said.

"I was painting paintings about what they were doing, the corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, tribalism, destroying the economy, dividing the people. They hated my [guts] for that. They wanted to kill me."

Life before art wasn't without its troubles either.

When Bangura was seven, he said his mother took him to her friend's house one day. She left him there on a promise that she would come back to see him.

He never saw her again.

Dangers of dealing

He stayed at his mother's friend's house but soon learned it was dangerous. She was a drug dealer, and despite feeling unsafe, Bangura started dealing pot.

Some of Gibril Bangura's artwork was sent to London last year to be auctioned off to raise money for Ebola victims and their families.

He ran away, but the woman found him and brought him back to the home. She beat him. He stills has marks from it.

When Bangura left for good, he had nowhere else to go. He would spend his days on a beach in the middle of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

"I can actually smell the smell of the sand and I remember it vividly," he said. "That's how I would spend my time, just drawing on the sand."

'I didn't know joy'

Bangura spent some of his childhood in a U.S.-sponsored orphanage where he was given his first water-colour paints. Whereas he now focuses more on coloured patterns, back then his style was dark and depressing.

"The kind of paintings I was doing were not joyful because I didn't know joy. All I knew was hardship, bitterness," he said. "I said to myself, 'This is not working. I need to do something.'"

Gibril Bangura, his wife and three children arrived in Manitoba in 2014 from Sierra Leone. (CBC)

Bangura said he started to see the women around him and how they were suffering by being neglected and not appreciated for the work they were doing. He began to paint them in colour to beautify their lives.

"My paintings began to have life, and the more I painted [these] colourful paintings, the more I began to experience a kind of break free in my own life. I began to experience peace, happiness," he said. "The more I paint these things, the more I feel liberated. I first of all saw the healing powers of colours transforming my own life."

Colouring the community

The executive director at Seven Oaks General Hospital saw Bangura's paintings at an art gallery in 2015 and asked him to be the first artist to showcase his work on their new gallery wall.

Gibril Bangura's palette contains many colours today, but he says his work used to have a dark and depressing edge. (Gibril Bangura)

The wall spans from the emergency department to the food court, where there's lots of foot traffic and natural light.

"It allows people to kind of connect with different experiences and for one moment get a break from whatever their reason for being here is," said Annica Ramkissoon, the hospital's marketing and development officer.

His Happy Paintings exhibit was up for five months, and Ramkissoon said the art had an impact on both the patients and the staff.

"There was one gentleman who was taking his wife to dialysis, and she used to be an artist way back when," said Ramkissoon. "When he was taking her there, she looked at the art and it was a reminder for her of something she was passionate about and something she used to do. It brought back really nice memories for her."

Colour speaks without words

Bangura's past wasn't the life he wanted to live, and he's thankful to have the opportunities he does today.

People say they weren't having a good day but his art helped transform their life, Bangura said. Helping them transform has brightened his life, too.

Gibril Bangura, 49, takes in a colourful painting of two women he is working on in his studio. (Danelle Granger)

"It did liberate me and it's liberating others. My mission now is to add colours to the lives of people to just make them happy," he said.

"Colour is language that has no barriers. Colour is a language that unifies the universe. Colour speaks, even without a word."

This is one in a series of stories written for CBC Manitoba by Red River College journalism students that looks at ways conflict abroad has shaped Winnipeg.

Other stories in the series: