PRINT September 2016

Sean Anderson

Dakar, 2011. Photo: Jeff Attaway/Flickr.

IN 1856, at the height of aggressive empire-building campaigns across Africa, a French official claimed that Dakar would become “the capital of all our African possessions.” The westernmost point on the African mainland, Dakar had much to offer France’s colonial regime: resources, geography, and labor. Indeed, through a complex history of planning, building, and sometimes-deferred development, the city would eventually become both a source for and an image of modernity.

The conjunction of modern design techniques with colonial mandates allowed for a number of French cities throughout Morocco, Algeria, and Vietnam to be organized according to spatial divisions that replicated (or reified) the structure of its “civilizing mission.” Scholars have described this fashioning of urban space as a dialectical model in which the historicized medina, with its dense passages and exoticized image, was mainly reserved for “natives.” Meanwhile, the ville nouvelle, in which new civic buildings were constructed, served as a residential and commercial zone for colonial administrators and other Europeans alike. This racial and economic divide was intensified by a cordon sanitaire, a border zone that promoted division through desire. By contrast, the colonial city plan of Dakar aimed at a more ambiguous mix of renewal and assimilation, with a recoded Haussmannian grid of boulevards and traffic circles cutting through extensive preexisting villages. These, in turn, stood in tension with the offshore settlement of Gorée Island, a disputed edge of the Black Atlantic. The city that emerged is reflected today in a complex staging of an African modernity found not only in Dakar’s access to global markets but also in an ever-increasing movement toward urban and domestic structures that eschew a unified aesthetic or linear evolution.

These incongruities linger, and they are perhaps nowhere more visible than in the architecture that serves as a backdrop to the Dak’Art biennial and its associated events. Regular musical performances took place in the now-disused train station, dating from the early 1900s, in which technological transformations were wrought by a transcolonial infrastructure. Situated in the shadow of the 1914 Hôtel de Ville, gallery spaces reminded viewers of the long arm of the eighteenth century. Venturing from the city’s central square with its long-dry fountain and towering, reticulated Hotel Independence, a project completed by the prodigious Henri Chomette and Roland Depret in 1978, one encounters a fresh set of discontinuities. Former hauntings of the Empire stand quietly next to newer, less considered buildings, informal and otherwise, surrounded by impermeable walls and fences. The hopeful plasticity of once-regal concrete-and-glass structures built in the years immediately following Senegal’s 1960 independence fall away to make room for an unyielding repetition of hastily built concrete housing, stadia, and commercial buildings: a dun-colored social and political urban realm analogous to so many others throughout the world “in development.” Close to the airport and in view of the preposterously scaled $27 million 2010 African Renaissance Monument with the ocean beyond, the Foire Internationale de Dakar, completed by Jean Francois Lamoureux and Jean-Louis Marin in 1974, reads as a manifesto of postcolonial modernism. Audacious yet pragmatic, the structure is formed from multiple triangular volumes that vault from a substantial concrete platform and ramp system, complete with massive triangular doors and heavily incised facades that evoke a will to nationalism and the plenitude of a new era.

Beyond the faded lettering of the signage for the long-abandoned Palais de Justice, the main venue of Dak’Art, one finds a language of (dis)repair in the large interior spaces of the former courthouse. During the exhibition, walls were left untouched and crumbling—opening fissures between spaces (and perhaps ideas) that are being pulled apart by neglect, with paint peeling and windows left soot-covered. The remnants of the building’s former lives were on show as much as the works that were installed—speaking to Dakar’s continual unfolding and of reconstructions yet to take place.

Sean Anderson is associate curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.