Dakar, Senegal

Dak’Art 2002

Various Venues

The exhibitions and publications of African curators and critics like Olu Oguibe, Okwui Enwezor, or Salah Hassan, to name just a few, have shown the cliché image of “authentic African art” to be an illusion and have countered it with more differentiated viewpoints. But the higher profile of African artists and increasing authority of African curators in the Western art world are changes that have taken place outside the continent. In the ten years of its existence, Dak’Art, the Biennale de l’Art Africain Contemporain, in Dakar, has established itself as one place where a certain continuity in the intra-African exchange of artistic and theoretical positions can be found. Still, one could not overlook the fact that various aspects of this problem of authenticity were also present in Dakar. The relatively small main exhibition at the Centre International du Commerce Extérieur de Sénégal, which is far from the city center, exhibited works by around forty artists, who, with few exceptions, were from the French-speaking countries of northern and western Africa. On the other hand, it was a very heterogeneous gathering of aesthetic concepts and artistic practices. Figurative sculptural works were well represented; these could take the form of a drastic expressionism (Joel Mpah Dooh of Cameroon or Mamady Seydi of Senegal) or symbolism—thus La Longue Marche du changement (The long march of change), 2000–2001, by biennial-prize winner Ndary Lô (Senegal), whose Giacomettiesque figures of thin iron walk toward a better future across a carpet of plastic sandals, or G8 promène son chien (G8 walking his dog), 2001, by Dominique Zinkpe (Benin), an installation showing Africa as a dog on the leash of the economically powerful countries.

These works employ an aesthetic of materials, of recycling and bricolage, quite different from the kind of internationalist media language that was favored by Enwezor at Documenta 11. Is it merely a matter of the selection criteria that a lot of art in the traditional genres could be seen in Dakar, but only a few video works (two very good ones by Zoulika Bouabdellah, of Algeria, and Moastas Nasr, of Egypt)? Or is it a question of money and technical opportunities? To answer this question we have to address at least two points. The first is largely technical in nature and has to do with the concept of the Dakar biennial. It understands itself as a broad forum for African art which shouldn’t be restricted by the curatorial authority of any individual or team. Thus it adheres to the much (and often correctly) criticized model of open competition and selection by committee. This process is supposed to guarantee variety, but tends instead to produce a mixture of divergent pet preferences. The resulting differences in quality apparently make Dak’Art less attractive for artists already established in international circles. Certainly a comparison between the inconsistent main exhibition and the professionally executed “Expositions individuelles,” with themes like “Diaspora” or “Memory” and curated concurrently by Ery Camara, Bruno Cora, and Ngoné Fall in different parts of Dakar, makes a rethinking of the selection process seem urgent. The second point is that there was also a debate here, aired at the interestingly contentious panel discussions. The question is how efforts for the greater integration of Africa into the “international” (Western-dominated) art industry can be reconciled with the preservation of an African cultural identity. What this identity might be was also a matter of debate. And it became apparent that most of the diasporic Africans present had very different interpretations of it than those who spoke from the perspective of day-to-day artistic life in Africa. Present-day discourse on cultural self-understanding is dynamic and inherently contradictory. So is the role contemporary art has to play in this discourse, as was evident in the countless exhibitions and events of “Dakartoff,” which took place throughout the city outside the official program. The creative potential that could be seen there, in nearly a hundred places, guaranteed “variety.” The official exhibition could therefore have risked a more decisive position.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.