PRINT September 2016

Cheryl Finley

Youssef Limoud, Maqam, 2016, mixed media. Installation view, Palais de Justice, Dakar. From “Réenchantements,” Dak’Art. Photo: Ricci Shryock.

WHEN PIONEERING CURATOR and editor Simon Njami was named artistic director of the twelfth edition of Dak’Art, the biennial of contemporary African art held in the Senegalese capital of Dakar this past spring, the art world took notice. Njami is a cofounder of Revue Noire, the influential art magazine published in Paris from 1991 to 2001, whose founding mission was “to show that there is contemporary art in Africa.” He is also well known for his curatorial debut, the Ethnicolor festival in Paris in 1987; the blockbuster exhibition “Africa Remix,” which toured Europe, Tokyo, and Johannesburg from 2004 to 2007; and the exhibition “Check List Luanda Pop,” curated with Fernando Alvim, a reflection on fifteen years of contemporary African art from the Sindika Dokolo collection, for the first (and only) African pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. He also served as artistic director of the African photography biennial Rencontres de Bamako (Bamako Encounters) in Mali from 2001 to 2007. Njami was determined to revamp this year’s Dak’Art and strengthen the biennial’s ties to cosmopolitan art centers globally. To do this, he designed a robust program of official venues and events and solicited a more expansive series of satellite exhibitions called “OFF.” Thus, he produced a comprehensive biennial with nearly three hundred venues for art and performance at city landmarks, cultural centers, galleries, and museums but also at such unexpected sites as hotels, banks, restaurants, bookstores, and a car dealership. Even in an era when it’s par for the course for biennial organizers to explore exhibition spaces outside the white cube, the use of eccentric venues has been one of the hallmarks of Dak’Art from the start.

Dak’Art is the oldest, largest, and most important biennial on the African continent, far surpassing both the short-lived Johannesburg Biennale (1995–97), presented a year after the first multiracial elections were held following the dismantling of apartheid, and the Cairo Biennale, which has struggled to reemerge since the events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Conceived in 1989 as a cultural festival alternating between literature and art, the Biennale de Dakar debuted in 1990 with a focus on literature. The second edition, in 1992, presented visual art, and in 1996, Dak’Art was rebranded to focus exclusively on contemporary art, with a logo designed by Senegalese painter Amadou Sow that is still in use today. (A review of the 2014 edition appeared in Artforum’s October 2014 issue.) This shift in the biennial’s program signaled a heightened interest in postcolonialism and an increasing global concern regarding contemporary African art led by critics, intellectuals, art historians, and curators from Africa and the diaspora, including Njami, Okwui Enwezor, and Salah Hassan. These figures sought to take control of writing African art history in response to exhibitions in Paris, New York, and London that often reified painful colonial legacies by defining and categorizing African art in monolithic and stereotypical terms (“Magiciens de la terre” [Magicians of the Earth] at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1989; “Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art” at the Center for African Art and the New Museum, New York, 1991; and “Africa: The Art of a Continent” at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1995).

Dak’Art is indebted to the legacy of Senegal’s first democratically elected president following independence from France in 1960, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a celebrated poet and champion of the arts. Senghor was famously motivated by the anti-imperial philosophy of Négritude, which he theorized in the early 1930s in concert with fellow poets Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léon-Gontran Damas of French Guyana. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, Négritude sought not only to combat racism and colonial domination but to forge and assert a uniquely African identity on the global stage. In 1960, Senghor established the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Dakar, which institutionalized the ideals of Négritude in a school modeled after the Academié des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Six years later, at the height of the Cold War, his visionary Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres (World Festival of Black Arts) brought more than two thousand artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and poets from thirty-seven nations on the continent and among the African diaspora to Dakar to showcase traditional and contemporary black art and culture as a manifestation of the potential and achievements of Négritude.

Njami, himself a novelist and biographer, found renewed inspiration in Senghor’s pioneering example of fifty years ago, and an excerpt from Senghor’s influential poem “Au Guélowâr” (1940) informed the biennial’s overarching theme, “La cité dans le jour bleu” (The City in the Blue Daylight). The excerpt reads, “Your voice tells us about the Republic that we shall erect the City in the Blue Daylight / In the equality of sister nations. And we, we answer: Présents, Ô Guélowâr!” Describing the bravery of Charles de Gaulle by way of reference to the fearless precolonial warriors of the Senegambia region of West Africa, the poem—which Senghor wrote in a German prison camp in occupied France—posits the revolutionary idea that France and its African colonies will stand on equal ground following the war, and that Africa and Europe will be best served by working together for a better future.

Njami found a way to express these ideals by reclaiming abandoned and defunct architectural landmarks and government buildings dating from the French colonial era and repurposing these powerful sites of memory for exhibitions, performances, symposia, and unforgettable open-air concerts. Not far from the Gorée Island ferry terminal, the Gare Ferroviaire— a hundred-year-old-plus train station in the city’s southernmost arrondissement that was scheduled for demolition only a few years ago—was transformed into the Village de la Biennale, a central meeting place featuring media lounges, comfortable conversation pits made of salvaged shipping crates, and a lively bar and concert stage. Just a few minutes away at the century-old Hôtel de Ville, an OFF venue, films were screened and artworks revived the exterior gardens and esplanade, notably the installation L’allée de la reine (The March of the Queen), 2016, by French sculptor Diagne Chanel. A homage to Sédhiou, the birthplace of her father and the former capital of Senegal’s southernmost province, Casamance, the artist’s nearly life-size female figures carved in local wood assumed strategic positions, as if part of a game of political chess. Two figures stood guard on either side of an entrance to the government building, while adjacent figures appeared to face off, their positioning a reference to the civil conflict over secession from Senegal that embroiled Casamance from 1982 to 2014.

Site specificity was equally important to Dak’Art’s “Urbi” program. The projects in this section, which was curated by Njami and Delphine Calmettes, sought to revitalize neglected parts of the city by inviting artists and musicians to propose interventions, mapping schemes, and billboard projects. Among the most original was “Ville en Commun,” the fifth edition of the nonprofit Kër Thiossane’s transformative festival Afropixel. The community-based initiative took place at a neglected ’60s-era housing development and surrounding environs and included public tours, video mapping, studio workshops, and opportunities to reimagine the future of the complex.

François-Xavier Gbré, Salle des pas perdus, Palais de Justice, Cap Manuel, Dakar (Room of the Lost Steps, Palais de Justice, Cap Manuel, Dakar), 2014, ink-jet print, 39 3/8 × 59". From the series “Tracks,” 2009–14. From “Une collection particulière,” Dak’Art OFF.

SOME OF THE MOST RIVETING MOMENTS of Dak’Art transpired at one of the many performances, panels, and symposia organized to debate the state of contemporary African art—its production, exhibition, documentation, collection, and critical analysis—on the continent and around the world. The artist/theorist Barthélémy Toguo of Cameroon addressed a packed audience with “History from Below,” as part of the Decolonizing Knowledge: Artists Talk to Philosophers series led by philosopher and political scientist Seloua Luste Boulbina of the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. The talk was held at RAW Material Company, the popular transdisciplinary space for art exhibition, education, residency, and performance established in 2008 by longtime Dakar resident and eminent curator Koyo Kouoh. Touching on earlier artworks and performances, the presentation debated the relationship between “history from below,” a narrative that privileges the often unspoken and elided experiences of marginalized and underrepresented people, and “decolonizing knowledge,” which uses strategies to dismantle the ideas and knowledge that shape Western societies. Specifically it considered the impact of artists, writers, curators, and intellectuals operating entre les mondes of the postcolonial who still actively adopt decolonizing methodologies in their practice to redirect thought and action.

To be sure, the transformative power of the spoken and written word permeated Dak’Art. At the Institut Français Sénégal, artist Joël Andrianomearisoa’s exhibition “La maison sentimentale” (The Sentimental House), a tribute to Revue Noire, offered a visual history of the influential magazine, and the Village de la Biennale was the site of an ambitious two-day symposium, “States of Opacity: Art, Politics and New Social Imaginaries,” featuring thinkers and artists based in Europe, Africa, and the United States. (I was a participant.) The first-ever African Art Book Fair featured workshops, performances, debates, and the exhibition “How to Show Thought.” It was organized by Pascale Obolo of Afrikadaa, the artist collective and interactive Francophone magazine dedicated to contemporary art and activism and based in France. Panelists debated African art criticism, the artist’s book, conservation, the book trade, new-media platforms, and publishing as activism, evincing the importance of discourse and its circulation through and among artworks.

Bili Bidjocka, Last Supper: “Do not take it, do not eat it, this is not my body . . .”, 2016, performances and mixed-media installations. Installation view, Palais de Justice, Dakar. From “Réenchantements,” Dak’Art. Photo: Margaux Huille.

THE PALAIS DE JUSTICE, a ’50s-era International Style building along the Corniche, was probably the most dramatic space to be transformed for the exhibition. Abandoned for decades, it boasts tall ceilings, elegant columns, and numerous courtrooms and administrative offices around an open-air courtyard that lets in light and the ubiquitous dust of Dakar. This was the site of “Réenchantements,” the international exhibition curated by Njami, featuring sixty-five artists from twenty-four countries, the majority of them African. It was not difficult to see it as a call to arms of sorts: The section was couched as an effort to revive the hopefulness and enthusiasm of the postindependence era, as artists were urged to seek out new materials and methods, to change the rules of engagement.

The first work to stand out was French-born, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire–based artist François-Xavier Gbré’s installation. Fluorescent-blue Chinese characters spelled out the phrase I AM AFRICAN, while sheets of paper on the floor had words such as WORK, CONCRETE, and STOP, written in French and Chinese, all referencing the growing presence of Chinese laborers and construction projects in Senegal and across Africa. (The Chinese government financed the $2.5 million Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, which remains empty, awaiting a collection.) The work also proposed a more expansive African identity, and indeed it could be read as a critique—or a radical revision—of Pan-Africanist ideology, updating this political project for the interconnected global economy of the twenty-first century.

At a small satellite exhibition at artist Vincent Michéa’s studio, Gbré presented photographs that documented the Palais de Justice before its renovation for the show. One image showed piles of dust-covered furniture in the expansive lobby; others depicted water-stained walls and torn wallpaper. A film of dirt covered everything. In these images of modernist ruin, Dakar’s colonial legacy loomed large, but it wasn’t necessarily all-consuming. It was more of an afterimage—a vestigial flicker or ghost.

The Egyptian-Swiss artist Youssef Limoud was awarded the Léopold Sédar Senghor Award for his installation Maqam, 2016, a miniature city assembled by the artist in a light-filled courtroom. Comprising objects found on-site at the Palais de Justice, including a witness stand and sand, as well as materials sourced from around the city, the work blended seamlessly into the dilapidated courtroom, taking on the same sand-colored hue and integrating the patterned walls. Complete with streetlights, roads, small buildings, and unfinished construction projects, Limoud’s work—whose title is the Arabic word for both “home” and “sacred burial place”—had something to say about the current state of Dakar, itself a kind of modern ruin, where exposed cinder-block facades, heaps of construction materials, and incomplete buildings abound.

Kader Attia’s mixed-media installation Intifada: The Endless Rhizomes of Revolution, 2016, alluding to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept, consisted of metal trees springing from the ground at odd intervals, consistently close together but far enough apart that visitors could pass between them. Interconnected yet independent, these trees also supported slingshots, which have historically served as symbols of Arab resistance to colonialism. A more recent symbol of protest informed Project/Speak2Tweet, 2011–, by Berlin-based, Egyptian-born artist Heba Y. Amin (who gained worldwide attention last year for hacking the television series Homeland). Her installation juxtaposed a grainy black-and-white video projection of an abandoned city with brief snippets of audio captured from a platform called Speak2Tweet during the 2011 revolution. Speak2Tweet, which was developed to avoid government censors who had shut down the internet, allowed people to post tweets by calling a phone number; with Project/Speak2Tweet, Amin literally made the archive talk.

If there was a certain heady thrill expressed in these works by Attia and Amin, political upheaval had a decidedly different tone in the performance component of Bili Bidjocka’s Last Supper: “Do not take it, do not eat it, this is not my body . . .”, 2016, which featured the word REVOLUTION written on the wall in mud. Nearby, Benin-born, Dakar-based Fabrice Monteiro presented a sculpture that slyly mocked the gold-plated throne famously owned by Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the postcolonial dictator who ruled the Central African Republic between 1966 and 1979. The phrase CECI N’EST PAS UN PHOENIX (THIS IS NOT A PHOENIX), written in red spray paint on the adjacent wall, wryly tapped Magritte’s famous Treachery of Images, 1929. An open book called Vox Populi in front of the throne invited visitors to pen their own thoughts about the misuse of power and politics.

In the end, Njami’s show was shot through with optimism. The slingshot, the tweet, the uniformed despot’s perch: These potent symbols of the postcolonial era, with all its hopes and disappointments, were here primed for reinvention. They were held up for inspection and reassessment, to be invested with new meanings and readied for new challenges.

Cheryl Finley is associate professor of art history and director of visual studies at Cornell University.

Read Chika Okeke-Agulu’s review of Dak’Art 2014 (October 2014).