David Drake attended the opening week of Dak'Art on an International Curators Forum Artist and Curators' Workshop.
As Senegal's first city, Dakar seems to embody the vitality, complexity and contradictions of Modern Africa. The city's parade of striking modernist architecture may be a legacy of the years of French occupation, but the pot-holed streets, ramshackle urban infrastructure and ubiquitous street hawkers are a reminder of the harsh realities of post-colonial existence.
The Mbalax played nightly in clubs such as Just 4 U and Thiossane is a cosmopolitan blend of Western and African melodies and beats tinged with more traditional flavours. The rhythm of the clubs by night is also the rhythm of the streets by day. In the heart of the city, people always seem to be on the move, whether on foot or by assorted forms of road transport. Some cling onto the blue and yellow painted car rapide minibuses, which are reproduced in miniature as toys in the workshops of the central market, souvenirs deftly fashioned out of recycled tin cans. A few miles off the coast lies the idyllic Ile de Gorée, a haven for the many tourists who travel there daily by ferry to escape the hustle and bustle of the mainland. But for over a century Gorée was the island where slaves were delivered and traded by their African and French captors.
Like so many places in modern Africa, Dakar carries itself with beauty, elegance and grace, but also with a certain restlessness and vulnerability, as if haunted by its past. Curator Simon Njami has commented:
"Contemporary Africa no longer refers to a physical or geographic reality. It does not refer to a valid cartography, because the ebb and flow movement are the two constituent elements of this new citizenship. This new citizenship, intangible and fluid, is naturally based on the ripples of history and on memory"
For Dak'Art 2008, the eighth instalment of the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art, the chosen theme was 'Africa: Mirror'. The theme sought to reflect both Africa's presence in the world - the multifaceted realities and issues facing the continent's inhabitants and its diaspora - and also the position of contemporary art and artists in Africa and on the world stage.
Apart from participating artists, curators, organisers and local dignitaries, the majority of those on hand for the opening festivities were a ragbag of arts professionals with a pre-existent interest in African arts and culture. Conspicuous by their absence, the globetrotting elite of international curators and collectors obviously does not consider Dakar on a par with Venice, Miami, Munster and the other must-visit Biennales. The importance of the event to Africa itself, however, was demonstrated by the presence at the opening of Senegal's President, Abdoulaye Wade, and also by the plethora of critical essays by African intellectuals in the accompanying catalogue. In these essays, distinguished writers dissect the issues underlying the 'Africa: Mirror' theme, asserting the need for more contemporary art collectors on the continent and further opportunities to showcase African creativity at home and abroad.
For Dak'Art 2008 to seek to create just such a platform for African contemporary artists is a laudable ambition. It therefore seemed wholly appropriate to roll out the red carpet for a grand opening in the gardens of the National Museum d'Ifan in Place de Soweto. Wearing gold-braided cloche hats and red tunics with sabres tucked under their belts, the ornamental guard of honour stood solemnly to attention as long welcoming speeches were given and various awards were handed out to artists by ambassadors, sponsors and VIPs.
However, the pomp and prestige of the opening ceremony could not mask the sad reality that the Biennale itself lacks the organisational resources and high presentational standards one has come to expect from an international art event of this profile and standing. This inevitably hinders the curators' efforts to present the artists' work in the best possible light. These shortcomings were immediately apparent in the main Exposition Internationale in 'Le Village de la Biennale'. Video monitors faltered, technicians nervously scrambled up and down ladders and artist names were scribbled on sheets torn from exercise books that lay on the floor beside the artworks. This last touch might have been an ironic statement by the organisers on the global position of African contemporary art, but we later discovered that they simply forgot to commission someone to produce laminated display panels.
After mentally adjusting to the somewhat ragged display, it was possible to discern the curators' intention to highlight work that drew on traditional forms to make contemporary statements about African experience. Senegalese artist Ndary Lo's expansive collection of iron trees with outstretched begging hands at the end of their branches offered an earnest protest at the deforestation of the continent. Jems Robert Koko Bi from the Ivory Coast had created a sculptural ensemble Darfur composed of three large, charred wooden figures with expressions of suffering and anguish. Lucas Johannes Van de Schiff's contribution represented racial tensions in South Africa by a head-shaped suspended punch bag with a brown face on one side, white on the other. However well intentioned, works like these did come across as one-dimensional and somewhat hectoring in tone, largely due to the overly literal approach adopted by the artist.
Video and media-based work generally fared better. Senegalese artist Cissé Soly's Union Europeenne had animated stars dancing around the European Union flag to a computer generated riff on integration and exclusion. Achille Komguem Kamsu from Cameroon's engaging installation Precarié featured a video loop of a busy downtown crossroads scene where motorcycles, cars, handcarts and pedestrians converge in the middle of the road, narrowly avoiding collision and serious injury by swerving at the last minute around oncoming traffic. This meditation on the disorder and precariousness of daily life in Africa worked well, on both a visual and intellectual level. South African born British artist Grace Ndiritu's video installation combined performance with historical imagery, juxtaposing references to genocide with images of Egypt and Meso-American civilisation.
The Exposition Internationale is but the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of work on display at Dak'Art 2008. With 140 'off-site' exhibitions in Dakar and on Gorée it pays to allow several days to sample the fringe programme. Some sites are conveniently located downtown, others are harder to find with exhibitions in private homes, colleges, cultural institutions and various backstreet shops and businesses, including a hairdressing salon. Overall the off-site programme has the feel of a huge artist open studios event cum art trail. Sustained by meal breaks, during which we tasted delicious chicken and fish with onion and lemon sauce and the Senegalese national dish thiéboudienne, we travelled to various off-site locations in search of quality work. More often than not we were disappointed by what we found. Many of the exhibitions had a traditional, 'arty-crafty' feel with batik and glass painting much in evidence, along with wood carving and sculpture using recycled materials. It seemed as if many of the artists were caught in that awkward space between wanting to stay true to their roots and seeking more modern and stylish forms of expression.
There were some notable exceptions. Amsterdam-based photographer Judith Quax imaginatively sited her evocative image and text series Immigration Clandestine in the windows of a downtown Mercedes showroom. The work featured images of empty rooms where young Senegalese men had lived, before they risked their lives trying to reach the Canary Islands in small fishing boats. The texts were based on interviews with the family and friends of the men, explaining why they made this perilous trip and what happened to them. Some died, some reached Europe and for others there is still no news. Further along the shoreline at the Place du Souvenir, a limestone piazza built as a memorial to the 2000 people who died in the MS Joola ferry tragedy in 2002, there was a major retrospective of the work of Iba Ndiaye. Ndiaye is a distinguished Senegalese artist who achieved some notoriety in European art circles in the 70s and 80s. His paintings and drawings of jazz masters, including John Coltrane and Miles Davis, may take us back to the jazz cellars of Paris and an earlier chapter in modern art history, but they are the work of an artist with a strong and distinctive voice. We ran into the exhibition curator Florence Axis outside the gallery and expressed our appreciation of her efforts in bringing his work to wider public attention.
Back at the hotel, we spent an hour in conversation with the curators Simon Njami and Fernando Alvim. As well as hearing once again about the financial and other problems they experienced in curating the African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2007, we learnt that Dak'Art 2008 had also been left seriously under-resourced when the President diverted state funds intended for the Biennale to a major sports and cultural event happening in 2009. Simon and Fernando also suggested that the lack of rigour in the selection of artists and staging of exhibitions was due in part to the appointment of a German Professor of History as the Artistic Director of the Biennale. Later that evening we met Gilles Hervio, Chief Ambassador of the delegation of the European Union, who confirmed that Dak'Art 2007 would have collapsed but for a last minute rescue package of European funding.
We were left in no doubt that better artistic leadership and sustained investment are needed if Dak'Art is to rise above its present hand to mouth existence. These issues are complex and problematic. Increasing state support and involvement whilst retaining artistic and intellectual independence in any situation is a difficult balance to strike. There are also dangers in looking outside Africa for artistic direction. For Dak'Art 2004 Canadian curator Sara Diamond was President of the International Selection Committee. Although she showed her customary sensitivity to the local political and cultural context, aesthetically and critically the work chosen seemed more suited to prevailing Western tastes and less representative of the spectrum of African contemporary art. This is merely an observation on rather than a criticism of the approach adopted in 2004. To truly flourish, Dak'Art needs the moral and practical support of the international art community, but not interference in it or, worst of all, a stance of critical disdain towards the event.
Our last afternoon was spent back at the Le Village de la Biennale. We attended the premiere of Manthia Diawara's documentary film Maison Tropicale which told the story of Jean Prouvé's modernist Tropical House, the prototypes of which were originally installed in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and Niamey in Niger, and were subsequently 'reclaimed' by the Western world. At one level, this is a parable about how modernism failed to adapt to the realities of the African continent. Once removed from Africa, the two prototype houses changed hands for millions of dollars on the international art market before being re-constructed in New York and Paris. The fate of the Tropical House was the subject of the artist Angela Ferreira's contribution to the Portugal pavilion at Venice 2007.
Diawara's film provoked lively audience discussion after the screening. The Tropical House is clearly an important cultural artefact and part of Africa's heritage. On the face of it, the prototypes should have remained in Africa rather than being re-sited in a new context. However, as Diawara's film points out, Africa has an underdeveloped museum infrastructure and a poor track record for conservation. The West, and most crucially Africa itself, mistrusts its ability to value and look after its cultural treasures.
This debate seemed to crystallise my thoughts around what I feel is Dak'Art's greatest challenge. With the right creative and organisational resources combined with renewed conviction and self-belief, Dak'Art can realise its ambition to become Africa's premier contemporary visual arts event. Without these elements in place, the biennale will continue to face an uncertain future.
“Is what you see what I see?”
Waugh Office Productions is an