Trouble in the Village

Dak'Art is the only art contemporary biennale of its scope with a mandate to include all artists of African descent.

Dak’ Art 014 is an art exhibition showing over 120 artists of African descent. It opened on 9th May 2014, with a main international showcase at the Village de la Biennale, a television studio along Route de la Rufisque in Dakar’s industrial area. While it is the only art biennale of its scope today with a mandate to include all artists of African descent, a critical tour of the international exhibition at the Village revealed a daunting diversity of artworks, styles and traditions that made one ask questions about what exactly defines contemporary African art, how contemporaneity might be defined amongst artists of African descent at the Dakar biennale, and whether living on or away from the continent of Africa influences the contemporaneity of the art one produces.

While great emphasis was placed on the Village–an ironic title for an international exhibition–where three curators were invited to select artists, respectively, from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the diaspora, the biennale had several other “main” events, including an exhibition of guest artists dedicated to cultural diversity at the Musée de l’Ifan, a clearly unfocussed exhibition with selected artworks reflecting no central theme; the African sculpture park. There was also tribute exhibitions to three Senegalese artists: Mamadou Diakhaté, Moustapha Dimé and Mbaye Diop. In addition, an epistemological exhibition titled ‘Green Art’ on the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University. These latter exhibitions seemed to have a separate, and specific, focus on the local.

A press release on the biennale website from July 3rd, 2013 summarizes a wish by past and present biennale general-secretaries to achieve autonomy for the art exhibition. During some research on the biennale’s history, I found a report in Nka Journal from 1992 written by Octavia Zaya, revealing that the biennale’s financial woes existed from the very beginning, when artists, after failing to settle differences with the biennale office, threatened to boycott the exhibition. These financial disputes emerge directly from the fact that the biennale is registered under the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. This bondage to a government ministry inevitably creates problems. As the art critic Sylvia Sankale articulated in the July 3rd 2013 press conference, “according to the law of public finances, any money given to a department of the state is automatically transferred to the Ministry of Finance and redistributed as needed.”

Financial woes aside, I was concerned by the curators’ settling on a theme whose aim was to “link politics and aesthetics in a vigorous and engaged way” (this, according to the 014 press release), knowing full well the long historical disparities between Senegal’s politics and the art biennale since its inception in 1992. In addition to this, the curators’ decision to present a curatorial statement that spoke above the heads of journalists and the general public–in a highly academic and theoretical language that quoted Eduard Glissant: “our universe that is ever changing yet remains the same”–made it clear that they were not interested in extending an invitation to a specific kind of local: the kind that did not read Eduard Glissant, nor one that (perhaps naively) still believed in the developmental vision of globalization.

The streets of Dakar, today, abound in a frenzy of infrastructural development: outside of the CBD, the city is a cornrow of half finished buildings. Here, the difference between Wolof and French speakers is a marker of class. Evident here, also, is the difference between contemporary artists shown in galleries and the large scale highway murals of graffiti artists, as well as that between the villages of Ouakam and the new imperialist and seafront La Corniche neighborhoods.

In the spirit of placing contemporary African art within the political discourse of Pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness, the outstanding showcase at the Village (international exhibition) was the installation, “72 (Virgins)” in the sun by Mehdi-Georges Lahlou, which captured a universality: parading white flags, each standing freely in the courtyard of Le Village welcomed the audience to envision a post-nationalist world which neutralized nation states into one unknown. Each metal flag pole and the attached piece of cloth, placed on a wooden platform (about seven by five meters in diameter) was painted entirely white, bleaching out national colors and effectively deconstructing the national sense of self. However, some of my close friends and colleagues who saw the title of the work and the Algerian nationality of the artist envisioned the fabled (and scripturally not really accurate) 72 virgins that members of Boko Haram or any other so-called “Islamist” terrorist group in Africa claim that they would receive in paradise.

In the courtyard of Le Village, the photography installation “As god wants and devil likes it” (or O.R.G.A.S.M. Symposium) by Kiluanji Kia Henda redesigned the European Union emblem as a circular twelve star arrangement with the African continent in its center. The artist went on to juxtapose his low-resolution self portraits as the crowned Blessed Virgin Mary with photoshopped images of E.U. Heads of State (notably, an afro-sporting Nikolas Sarkozy made an appearance in one of the portraits). Yet for all his punchy humor, Henda stereotyped all African leaders as “traditional”, illiterate, one-dimensional stooges.

Faten Rouissi’s ceramic toilet basins, wooden microphones and toilet paper installation, “Le Fantome de la Liberté” (Ghost of Freedom), exhibited in the Studio B space inside Le Village, was designed like a conference table that evoked a sense of shared commonality by coloring every object mustard yellow. The piece alluded to, and simultaneously obliterated, the memory of Africa’s partition at the 1900 Berlin Conference. However, one close reading of the art work’s description, as a representation of the Tunis parliament, shows that the artist was not alluding to a global Black consciousness, but was, rather, interested in shaming the local political ironies that enabled civil unrest in Tunisia during the Arab Spring of 2011.

In this way, the show reflected the complications that result for those curating in a global framework: by selecting artworks for their radical politics, the artist’s embedded local context is subsumed. However, the exhibition did successfully convey the themes of unification and edification. According to co-curator Smooth, Glissant’s ideas about “rethinking the values of communality and sacrifice devoid of idealism” came through here. The works, in their whole, redefined contemporary artists of African descent: they could no longer be seen as artists who are disinterested in representing the local, or as artists who solely use radical political methodologies that inevitably subsume their own local context.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.