If the name Ismaila “Izo” Ndiaye sounds familiar to you, that might be because he’s made quite the name for himself in the Indianapolis art community. Born in Senegal in West Africa, Izo grew up in the city of Dakar. He was surrounded by artists and makers who drew inspiration from the natural beauty of their city, which is practically surrounded by ocean. At only 8 or 9 years old, Izo knew he wanted to be an artist and began drawing and fabricating with anything he could find.
Eventually, Izo found a niche in two distinctive forms of art: stone carving and batik (the use of wax and dye on fabric to create an image or pattern). At 16 years old, he became an apprentice to a master stone carver and exhibited his first work at 17. In 1992 he worked with an artist experienced in batik, but before that he had been dabbling in the art himself. “I started by myself in 1991, and a year later I went to work with somebody who had more experience in it to learn more about the textiles.”
Izo’s first opportunity in the United States came in 1997, when he was invited by the Indianapolis Art Center to show his work along with another West African artist. They purchased his ticket to come to the reception, and he stayed in Indianapolis for a week. He then went to New York for another week and returned home, but the experience stuck with him, “I will never forget that September.” Luckily, he didn’t have to stay away for long.
That next January, in 1998, he received another contract, this time to work with kids in an after-school program in White Plains, New York. He was there for four years, and during that time he became actively involved with the Westchester County Arts Council. He even helped the Arts Council acquire a building by presenting alongside another artist to two U.S. senators. The council received $4.5 million to purchase an old Manhattan Bank building, where Izo rented space to continue working on his art.
After his time in White Plains, Izo was contracted by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which had been given funding by the Lilly Foundation to do an after-school program. From 2001-2005, he was an instructor for that program while also teaching batik and stone carving at the Indianapolis Art Center. As with most artists, at first he found it difficult to make ends meet just from his art-related work, so he also worked at a hotel part time. “I don’t want to say, ‘today I have nothing to do, I’m just going to stay home.’ No, I always be at the [hotel] to help me to get on my feet and pay the bills. Until I said, ‘you know what, I think I can do it now without having another job.’”
In 2004, Izo Batik Art Gallery opened at the Glendale Mall. Within a year, Izo relocated the shop to Lafayette Square Mall, where he expanded the business to include custom oils and soaps. When he decided to move the store to its current location on Lafayette Road, he dropped his art from it altogether, renaming it Oil Palace. Now Izo participates every year in the commercial area of the Indiana State Fair and the Black Expo with his oils and soaps, but doesn’t spend as much time on his art. “The business took over my art, but I’m going to get back to it,” he says.
For Izo, it’s important to be an active member of the community and also to be a faith leader. As a proud member of the Muslim community in Indianapolis, he helps organize a joint celebration that combines five area mosques for an event in August every year that draws more than 8,000 people. However, he doesn’t see religion as a divisive issue, “My faith is not just being a Muslim. Any human being, whether it’s Christian, Jews, Muslim… We’re all one. For me, there’s no division.”
Izo’s art met his love for community and faith in one of his most memorable projects. In 2004, he worked with art students at Cathedral High School to design and build a monument out of stone, honoring the memory of one of their students. The project took three months to complete and the monument remains on Cathedral’s campus today.
Written by Hannah Lindgren