PRINT October 2006


Dak’Art 2006

JUST OPPOSITE DAKAR, off the coast of Senegal, lies the island of Gorée. A rocky mass with a small harbor at one end and high cliffs at the other, it has no natural springs and precious little vegetation. The sun shines hot. Despite these inhospitable conditions it is covered with colonial buildings of undeniable charm. Some are grand but derelict; many more are small but well kept. The majority, it seems, are the property of absentee owners who make seasonal visits. Artists also number among the inhabitants, notably the late Mustapha Dime, the creator of elegantly raw wood and metal sculptures, an example of which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The rest make handicrafts and acrylics for the tourists who swarm to Gorée on ferries from the mainland.

Besides its markets, restaurants, and striking landscape, the main attraction is a small compound on the west side of the island. For well over a century countless men, women, and children were delivered to this building by their African and European captors, and from its dismal quarters they were shipped across the Atlantic and sold into slavery. A small oceanside door in the bowels of this structure was the gateway to exile and servitude. But for the dazzling light that plays on the water below it, looking through that door is akin to looking into the ovens at Auschwitz. Yet thousands flock to the House of Slaves at Gorée to do just that, many of them African Americans. This infernal portal, a point of terrible endings and beginnings, and the curved staircases that bracket it are the spool from which a thread that can never be rewound leads into the immense maze of the diaspora.

While there, I was surrounded by a group of black women from the American South, all but one of whom stared with palpable emotion through the opening at the horizon as if imagining the deportation of their ancestors. The woman who looked the other way may have been balking at such prospects, but it seemed that she was not so much turning her gaze away from retrospective horror as toward the commotion of the compound and the vitality of Africa beyond it. Her concentration on what was going on immediately around her made me think that, for Americans black, white, and every mixture between, the difficulty “we” confront in grasping Africa’s actuality is in being able, for a moment at least, to look at it from the near rather than the far side of that small aperture—that is to say, without telescoping everything through the optic of Gorée’s door and the enmeshed legacies of anger and guilt that entangle everyone who has grown up in a New World built on bonded labor. The suggestion that such new perspectives might somehow be possible is not to deny the suffering and shame of “our” past, but rather to encourage attention to other pasts and other presents without filtering everything witnessed through conditions that specifically apply to the Americas.

Those pasts and presents include many equally terrible things: the winner-take-all wars that stocked the House of Slaves; the long, variably harsh, always soul-eating saga of colonialism; the revolutions and wars of the postcolonial period and the cruel realpolitik of neocolonialism. But they also encompass the rich heritage of great empires and tribal cultures along with their interaction; the rise of Islam and its pervasive influence in North and West Africa; and the multifarious music, dance, design, theater, literature, and visual art that have flourished during modern Africa’s “short century,” despite scarce resources for their creation, unstable structures for their dissemination, and all-too-frequent repression.

Dak’Art 2006, the seventh installment of the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary African Art—this year’s theme was “Africa: Agreements, Allusions, and Misunderstandings”—offered just such a vantage point to anyone willing and able to make the journey. Besides the artists, organizers, and local dignitaries, the majority of those on hand for the opening festivities and panel discussions belonged to the community of art professionals and collectors already focused on the contemporary African scene, but—no doubt due to the increase in Afrocentric exhibitions in recent years—these were numerous. That the event mattered within Africa itself was signaled by opening ceremonies that featured Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, who gave a welcoming speech and participated in bestowing juried prizes on several of the artists. With multiple thematic essays and substantial space devoted to each of the participants, the thick exhibition catalogue also testified to the importance of the event’s public profile to the powers that be. That the practical support available for the arts in Senegal falls far behind the prestige officially accorded the biennial was plain on opening day, when curatorial teams were still scrambling to install works in scattered spaces with only the barest necessities for the art’s display and protection.

Nevertheless, the basic solidarity among organizers and participants (including frustrated artists whose videos weren’t fully functional for the opening or whose work remained in crates after detours back and forth across the ocean due to airline and customs mix-ups) and between them and the expectant, generally patient spectators said much about the shared desire to foster such showcases until they receive the full sponsorship and attention they deserve. So too did the panels I was able to attend. They addressed the biennial’s theme with considerable candor and a minimum of friction, which, given the range of actual or potential misunderstandings among those speaking and listening, likewise attested to mutual trust. Among the challenges advanced was a proposal that, rather than continuing to be the “object” of study by outsiders, Africans should devote greater attention to social-scientific research of their own, including a new, table-turning anthropology of the West.

To say that the exhibition itself was a mixed bag is simply to say that it was true to its genre. In some ways the raggedness of the presentation made one more sympathetic to the unevenness of the work on view. That unevenness also highlighted differences in perspective among the eight curators who comprised the team headed by Abidjan-based Yacouba Konaté, as well as underscoring the staggered assimilation of contemporary ways of working across the continent. Some of the work was richly inflected by tradition, notably that of the venerable, formally inspired, and by turns lyric and witty Frédéric Bruly Bouabré of Ivory Coast. And some of it was awkwardly so, as if the artists were caught between a self-conscious desire to affirm their roots and an anxious will to give inherited forms and symbols a stylish look. But such transitional aesthetic misalliances are to be found in Latin America, in the South Pacific, and wherever indigenous cultures were glossed on the way to making new modernities. And if the results fail to convince, the seriousness of the enterprise does not.

The accent on roots as an explicit subject was clear in the installation by the prizewinning young Senegalese Ndary Lô. The main elements of his room were chains of bones and metal hanging from the ceiling (slavery of course is very much a part of African consciousness, though, as goes without saying, the vantage point and resonance are distinctive) and drawings of African and diasporic icons from Haile Selassie to Harriet Tubman, but the density of visual and historical information and the force of the artist’s draftsmanship were compelling beyond the obviousness of the work’s basically hagiographic premise. Another prizewinner, Moroccan-born Mounir Fatmi, crossed the Atlantic in the opposite direction and crossed into postmodernism as well. His installation centered on video footage of a recent interview with former Black Panther Party leader David Hilliard. Although the piece might be misread as latter-day Black Power agitprop, its poignancy had everything to do with the unabated fervor of the aging speaker, the youthful attentiveness of his interviewer, and the mythical afterlife in Africa of the Panthers’ bitter experiment in transposing “third world” revolution to the “first world.” Another work that invoked—or rather played with—the tropes of “blackness” was a video by the Senegalese Serigne Mor Niang. It consisted of egregious puns superimposed on images of the famous. Thus the faces of Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Africa’s first black Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Wole Soyinka, appear above the texts TIGRE TU DIS? (Tiger you say?) and NEGRE TU DIS? (Nigger you say?), respectively, satirically echoing Aimé Cesaire’s concept of negritude; while the Gubernator appears with the label SCHWARZENNEGRE, reminding one, if such a reminder is needed, that, with schwarz meaning “black” in German, the name of this paragon of Aryan strength carries a double hint of racial ambiguity.

There was much more media-based work, including the contributions of South Africans Robin Rhode and Berni Searle, both on the biennial and survey circuits elsewhere, and both good. Unfamiliar to me, though, was Zambian Annie Anawana Haloba, whose close-up video of a woman licking a mound of salt was arresting in its sensuous directness. In other idioms, the large iconic drawings of Pélagie Gbaguidi of Benin stood out, as did the fluent charcoal-and-collage figural compositions of Senegal’s Soly Cissé and the fabric abstraction of the host country’s Souleymane Keïta. The scintillating bottle-cap-and-copper-wire curtains of Ghana’s Brahim El Anatsui, one of which is prominently on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, were the freshest of the abstractions. Finally, another newcomer worth watching is Valérie Oka of Ivory Coast, whose deft fabric appliqué riffs on Pop themes and pop music yet again underscored the new transatlantic traffic linking the African continent to its worldwide sphere of cultural influence.

During the opening days, the most vivid impression of those ties and of the contrasts they accent was the way-past-midnight set played by singer and bandleader Youssou N’Dour in his hometown club. Preceding his exuberant two-hour performance before a packed and equally upbeat house, big-screen projections of hip-hop videos featuring gangsta attitude and gangsta violence dressed up in million-dollar production values played to a handful of habitués. The difference between the slickly packaged aggression of the American product and the spontaneous verve of the local event could hardly have been sharper. Moreover, driving through Dakar’s streets on a Saturday night, one saw none of the signs of rap’s celebration of death and dollars, despite the poverty of the city and the scars of history. Perhaps I missed them. Or perhaps there are places where something vital resists America’s too often monocular vision of reality.

Robert Storr is dean of the Yale School of Art and director of the 2007 Venice Biennale.