Painting a bigger picture: Senegal’s pioneering ‘first lady’ of graffiti

Artist, poet and singer, Dieynaba Sidibé, AKA Zeinixx, has made her way to the top of the country’s male-dominated hip-hop scene and wants her messages of hope to inspire young women

When Dieynaba Sidibé discovered graffiti, it was love at first sight. She was 17 and had already begun experimenting with painting and drawing.

“​​It was on TV. I was sitting in my living room and I saw people doing big walls and I thought, ‘This is what I need’,” the Senegalese artist says, one hoop earring shaking as she laughs. “I don’t like small things. I was doing big canvases, and I said to myself: ‘A wall is a bigger surface for expression’.”

Her parents wanted her to focus on her studies, but Sidibé, who adopted the name Zeinixx, sought out Senegal’s budding graffiti community, finding her way to the Africulturban cultural association – a nonprofit in Dakar’s Pikine suburb that promotes urban culture through festivals and skills training.

There, she persuaded one of the country’s pioneering artists, Oumar Diop, AKA Afia Grafixx, to mentor her.

“I already had my basic drawing skills because I used to draw Mickey Mouse, McDonald’s logos, and things like that, and I drew on the walls of my room,” Zeinixx, 31, says. “Grafixx showed me what graffiti was – how to write, how to do lettering – and I started to get interested in hip-hop culture. Now, here I am, 14 years later.”

Zeinixx is Senegal’s first female professional graffiti artist and a core member of its male-dominated hip-hop scene. She is also a slam poet, singer, and entrepreneur. In August, she launched Zeinixx Entertainment, organising visual arts workshops for young people.

“My refrain is to tell young people: ‘Don’t let others choose for you what you would like to do tomorrow’,” she says from the Africulturban centre, where she runs communications and is preparing for her next project at a girls’ high school in Dakar.

“For me, it’s essential to be able to make your own decisions,” she says.

People walk past a graffiti mural in Dakar, Senegal
‘I think we found our microphone, to get messages out’: art work created by Zeinixx’s students during a graffiti workshop in Dakar, Senegal, December 2021. Photograph: Guy Peterson/The Guardian

Senegal is in many ways a conservative country, but also has a long history of art, music and poetry. Traditionally in this part of west Africa, the artistic caste of griots were responsible for storytelling through music, spoken word, and dance. Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was a poet. And last year, a Senegalese writer, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, won the prestigious Goncourt literary prize.

“All this is the common point that unites us, that brings us all together,” says Zeinixx, who colleagues refer to as the “first lady” of graffiti. “It’s this need to express ourselves, this need to share things and to do beautiful things, whether it’s audiovisual or something physical like dance, or something else.”

Hip-hop took root in Senegal in the 1980s with some American influence. But it has maintained its own distinctive flavour.

“It’s a culture that has a lot of virtues and principles, like peace, love, and harmony,” Zeinixx says. “Here in Senegal you’ll find [the traditional Wolof and Pulaar oral poetry] tassou, kebetu, and pekan – these genres are not hip-hop but they have similarities.”

Graffiti, one of the four main elements of hip-hop culture, is more accepted in Senegal than in some other countries.

“In the United States, for example, there is a special brigade that tracks down graffiti artists. We’re not like that,” she says. “Here, it’s a country where you do graffiti and a policeman stops to say ‘Respect man, that’s nice!’ […] So I think we found a way to make it our thing, our microphone, to get messages out.”

Senegalese graffiti is typically socially conscious messaging, Zeinixx says.

“You speak directly to the people with messages like, ‘Stop throwing rubbish in the streets,’ or something like ‘thiono dou reer’ [hard work always pays off],” she says. “They’re actually messages of hope.”

Sidibé in her studio in Dakar, 9 December 2021
Zeinixx in her studio in Dakar, 9 December 2021. Photograph: Guy Peterson/The Guardian

She and her fellow graffiti artists once came across a dilapidated wall, covered in rubbish and urine, in Dakar’s Colobane neighbourhood. They cleaned it up and covered it with the message: “Be the protector of your environment.”

“For a long time, the wall remained clean,” she says.

Zeinixx’s messages are often for and about women. Last month, she participated in a campaign as part of the annual UN initiative 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. At her first workshop, Graff’All, in October and November, six of the 14 participants were women.

“It was important that they could see me in the room very, very often, and it was important that they could hear from me,” she says. “We are still in a very masculine environment … and the rare women we find in this environment, most of the time, they don’t really assert themselves.”

What she is doing is huge, says Fatou Warkha Sambe, a prominent Senegalese feminist and journalist. “We need women everywhere, in every domain. And she’s a pioneer, so I admire her.”

Another recent workshop, Taaru Mbedd (beauty in the street), paired 15 young artists with mentors for four days of discussions before they painted the walls of the French cultural organisation the Institut Français du Sénégal à Dakar. Inspired by the theme djoko, which means connection or communication in Wolof, their work will be exhibited there until April.

Artworks in a studio
Artwork created by Zeinixx’s students during a workshop in her studio in Dakar, December 2021. Photograph: Guy Peterson/The Guardian

Zeinixx asked the trainee artists to bring their families to the exhibition’s opening. In her speech, she pointed to her mother in the audience and said, “If what we are doing is a bad thing, my mother would not be here.”

She told them that, as Senegal’s first woman graffiti artist, she has travelled to Australia, Belgium, France, Switzerland and the US. “I’ve represented Senegal all over the world, and it’s graffiti that got me there,” she said.

Afterwards, she says, several parents called to thank her for reassuring them.

“Lately, the activities she has been leading, the workshops – we see young girls interested in graffiti because she has started to really influence girls,” says Babacar Niang, AKA Matador, a graffiti artist, dancer, rapper, and early member of Senegal’s hip-hop community, who founded Africulturban.

“It’s great, because it’s not a man’s domain: if you have it in you, you should be able to do it. Her project must continue because the girls need these spaces to express themselves, to blossom,” he says.

Zeinixx stands in her studio next to boxes of spray paint cans
Zeinixx stands in her studio next to boxes of spray paint cans that she uses for her graffiti. Photograph: Guy Peterson/The Guardian

Niang has known Zeinixx since she was a teenager and says she always had talent.

“In the beginning, we had to insist that she focus on her studies, but once she had finished school and we couldn’t ask her not to come, she began to integrate more with us,” he says. “Graffiti wasn’t very developed in Senegal at the time, and then to have a girl who wanted to do it, it was huge.”

Zeinixx has a straightforward message for young women.

“It’s to tell the girls to be focused on what they want to do, what they want to become … to set goals that they will achieve,” she says. “Don’t ask, ‘Can I do it?’ When in your head you say, ‘I’m going to do it,’ normally you can.”

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