Out of the fire

El Hadji Malick Ndiaye

Senegalese art historian El Hadji Malick Ndiaye on curating one of the two longest-serving biennales on the African continent.

Susana Pilar before her performance in the ancien palais de justice. International exhibition, Dak’art 2022. Courtesy Malick Ndiaye.

Interview by
Riason Naidoo

Entitled, The Wake, the 15th edition of the Dak’art biennale (initially scheduled from May 16 to June 16, 2024) has now been postponed to November, due to “political unrest” in Senegal, after the election of Bassirou Diomaye Faye as President in April 2024.

The Dak’art biennale is one of the two longest-serving biennales on the African continent; the other is the Bamako Encounters Photo Biennale in Mali, launched in 1994. Building on the idea of the First World Festival of Black Arts (Premier Festival Mondial des Arts Noirs) held in Dakar from 1–24 April 1966—a project initiated by former president Léopold Sédar Senghor and featuring literature, music, theater, visual arts, film and dance—Dak’art was conceived in 1989, as a biennale alternating between literature and art. The first edition in 1990 was focused on literature and in 1992 on visual art. From 1996 Dak’art was specifically devoted to contemporary African art. This year’s theme explores the relationship between art, society, the climate, and history, particularly in the context of Dakar. 

It has been the tradition that three curators are invited to adjudicate the call for artworks. In 2016 and 2018 Simon Njami broke with tradition and unusually was the exclusive curator of the respective 12th and 13th biennales. For the first time, he invited many artists from the African diaspora to participate. In addition to the open call for entries, Njami handpicked several established artists, such as El Anatsui, Mary Sibande, Godfried Donkor, Meschac Gaba, Moshekwa Langa, Kudzanai Chiurai, Ghada Amer, etc., who made up half of the main exhibition and raised the standard of the biennale.

Senegalese art historian El Hadji Malick Ndiaye curated the 14th edition of the biennale entitled Ĩ’Ndaffa / Forger / Out of the fire, which took place from 19 May–21 June 2022. He is also a researcher at the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa (IFAN) and curator of the Théodore Monod Museum of African Art in Dakar, Senegal.

Riason Naidoo interviewed Malick Ndiaye. The interview was conducted in French.


How did the theme Out of the Fire come about? Does the selection of works necessarily reflect this theme?


When I was entrusted with the artistic direction of the biennale, I wanted to think about a theme that would be supported by an action verb meant to project Africa into the future while being anchored in traditions and knowledge related to indigenous knowledge. After several reflections with colleagues, it seemed that the verb that was most suited to this posture is “forger” in French, for all the dynamics it supports, and its history on the continent (i.e, the tradition of working with metal objects, often cast in bronze, brass, etc). Later, I discovered that Africa mastered the technique of metallurgy several centuries before Europe. Following my research, I realized that the space of the forge is a place of transmission of knowledge in Africa where the concept of laboratory obeys a different logic than the model that dominated in Europe and which was later popularized. The forge is also a laboratory of ideas. With the call for applications, artists were therefore invited to respond to this concept with proposals rooted in questions of a social, economic, cultural, political nature, etc. Thus, the selected works go beyond the flat idea of ​​the forge in the material or the theme with quality works.


What is the process of selecting artists? Were you satisfied with the entries? Were they of a sufficiently high standard?


The artists were selected in 2019, but since the biennale was canceled in 2020 (due to Covid), the same selection of artists was maintained. From that moment, it was a question of working with them to redefine certain projects and review others that had to change. Some works were maintained even though they were made in 2019 with a signature date that seemed far off compared to the exhibition date of 2022. Because I found them to be appropriate, others even seemed premonitory of this post-pandemic biennial. Moreover, the originality of this selection is its heterogeneity. Above all, it was necessary to avoid a biennial solely devoted to the stars of contemporary art from the continent. I thought that made no sense. 

The selection therefore sought to return to the fundamentals of the Dakar Biennale, as a space for the legitimization of practices or artists who have not yet had certain recognition. We had to give the chance to a new generation of artists alongside the established ones. This selection has obeyed the title of this edition (the forge) by resisting the spirit that wants to make the biennial a forum of artists only sanctified by the establishment. If we don’t have the ability to bring out new paths and the direction we want to give them—no offense to those who consider the Dak’art as a simple grafting—if we are afraid to leave the ranks, we fail in our mission. And it is with this conviction that the selection has established a dialogue between generations of artists and practices from the most established to those who are less so.

Abdoulaye Konaté. Etude de Vert Touareg n.4, 2018. Textile, 288 × 218 cm. Photo © Coralie Rabadan. Courtesy Abdoulaye Konaté & Primo Marella Gallery.

A tribute was paid to one or two artists from the older generation, such as Abdoulaye Konaté (Mali) and Soly Cissé (Senegal). How important was this focus?


This approach results in part from what I have just said earlier. This edition of the forge is an appointment with history. It was necessary to balance the generations and that is why I invited Abdoulaye Konaté to exhibit in the middle of this selection of 59 artists. The trajectory of Konaté deserved a special tribute in Dakar in this biennale where he won the President’s Grand Prize in 1996. To be ahead of Konaté is to be in front of history. It is also to resonate two generations of artists and to connect different periods of our art history, which is to be written in its fragmentation and its multiple trajectories. But Konaté is the illustration of a creative genius trained academically, and who has also been able to explore several media while forging an approach that remains connected to nature and to an argument whose socio-political pairing continues to question the world, its injustices, and its follies. As for Soly Cissé, he is part of this generation of artists who have renewed the perception of the visual arts of Senegal. He touches on painting, sculpture, and installations. It questions our humanity, which is confronted with its responsibilities. In this, he has something in common with Konaté and also deserved this carte blanche. Cissé is an example for the new generation of artists who would benefit from being inspired by his trajectory.

Hervé Youmbi. 123 Ejumba – Nyatti ku’ngang masks, 2021-22. Multimedia installation. Variable dimensions. © Axis Gallery, New York & the artist.

You invited other well-known artists (like Hervé Youmbi) as well as  lesser-known artists to interact with the collections of l’IFAN museum (Theodore Monod Museum of African Art IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop), where you are the director. Tell us about the idea behind it and how it came about.


The exhibition project Teg Bêt Gêstu Gi (in Wolof: touching research with the eye) is the result of a partnership between the Nantes Saint Nazaire School of Fine Arts and the Théodore Monod Museum of African Art. The exhibition was co-curated by Emmanuelle Cherel and myself. It is above all an experimental and engaged exhibition, which invests the collections of the Théodore Monod Museum in a critical spirit vis-à-vis the history of the institution. Hervé Youmbi’s work is the best example of what the Théodore Monod Museum wants to do in terms of renewing and reinterpreting objects. Youmbi was invited to work with the collections and was particularly attached to a Diola horn mask (the ejumba mask) from Casamance, where he was immersed a few months before the Dakar Biennale. He put this mask in resonance with other masks made in Cameroon. Through this process, he also shows the affinities and the universal language of these geographically distant masks, which have unequivocal aesthetic similarities. The result was a mix of three protean and hybrid masks and reflections of a creativity that invents new models. 

But the most interesting thing about this story is that the artist reverses the process of heritage recognition of the mask. Indeed, the museum is accustomed to displaying the “ruins” of material culture, that is the masks and other objects already used by society and which bear witness to the survival of cults. Hervé reverses the process: from the hybrid masks made, he invests a ritual in Diola country and gives meaning to artifacts, which were first designed for their aesthetic value. The invention of heritage finds its best illustration. Heritage is created and this is the whole meaning of the theme of this Ĩ’Ndaffa edition that subverts old models and forges new canons while inventing the archives of the future.

Hervé Youmbi. Diola-Bamiléké Ejumba-ku’ngang Mask, Senufo Dagu Crest, Bete Spider Eyes, 2021. (detail from 123 Ejumba, – Nyatti ku’ngang masks) © Axis Gallery, New York & the artist.

The scientific symposium is always one of the highlights of the biennale and very much appreciated. In 2018, Salah Hassan and Simon Gikandi participated, among others. Who/what were the highlights of the 2022 symposium entitled “Creation, bodies of knowledge and contemporary African art”?


The highlight of the scientific meetings was the inaugural lecture given by Gayatri Spivak, who opened a colloquium, convened by the writer Felwine Sarr and which was divided into three axes. First, the “Grammar of Creation” in this axis was a question of forging new methods of the history of art in the 21st century, reconsidering the contexts of the emergence of the knowledge that founded them, and revisiting the institutions that nurture them. It also means considering the heritage of local knowledge in the history and appreciation of aesthetic objects. It was also a question of rejecting discontinuities, of rethinking and therefore of reorganizing the traditional temporalities linked to the history of art, according to African history, to reconcile it with the evolution of its thought on the world. The second axis “The Archive and the Creative Work” leaned on the protocols of the artistic work with archival documents relating to Africa. The processes, the methodology as well as the devices implemented by an artist are different from those that a historian is obliged to apply. Research in art can explore a wider range of tools and go beyond the borders allowed to the historian by playing on the fissures. Finally, the third axis is “Heritage and Human Rights”. The restitution of African heritage coincided with several events relating to police violence (death of George Floyd & Black Lives Matter), the COVID-19 pandemic, and the debate on statues and monuments in public spaces. It arose in the United States, Europe, and Africa where the figures of colonialism persist in the public squares and in street names. However, these artifacts that reactivate racism are also historical figures whose place poses a problem on the status of heritage and its selection with regard to history. The increasingly close proximity between heritage, social justice, and human rights shows that the restitution of heritage objects to nations/ peoples it was taken from acknowledges the freedom of descendants to freely dispose of the objects created by their ancestors.

Installation by Yakhya Ba. Doxantu Project, Dak’art 2012. Courtesy Malick Ndiaye.

Many new initiatives emerged under your direction to bring art closer to everyday audiences. Could you tell us more and if they achieved their intentions and goals?                        


This edition was marked by two exceptional innovations: Synapses and Doxantu. Synapses used the analogy of the city of Dakar as a brain with its different connections. The idea was to weave invisible links between the different points of the city to democratize the experience of the Dakar Biennale. Synapses opened a platform for dialogue between the visual arts and other artistic media that popularize the creative act to a wide audience. It was a set of multidisciplinary events that opened a window to other artistic disciplines with strong community potential such as cinema, mapping, urban cultures, etc. For example, Ciné-musée consisted of a program of short films made either about a visual artist or about the visual arts, or a film in which an artist plays the main role. This makes it possible to better value the profession of the visual artist in a society where the true meaning of it is not understood and considered.

The Doxantu project begins from a simple observation. At each biennial, many Senegalese do not even realize that this event with an international dimension was held in the country. However, the biennale communicates on all media before, during, and after the event. I think the main exhibitions happen between four walls and the rest of the population feels excluded. This is why I proposed the Doxantu project which is an invitation made to 17 artists in the fields of installation, sculpture, and design to exhibit in the urban space in the middle of the parks and roundabouts of Dakar. Several ideas underlie this initiative. First of all, it is a question of popularizing the biennale to a larger public and especially to those who will never come to visit exhibitions in museums and galleries even if access is free. It was necessary to abolish the gesture, which imposes to “open a door” to access the creative act. Then, the Doxantu project was a plea against the privatization of land of the western Corniche that if it goes ahead would prevent public access. Finally, this exhibition contributed to the artistic development of the city dominated by concrete and scrap metal.

Detail of installation by Yakhya Ba. Courtesy Malick Ndiaye.

There was some criticism of the biennale with some individuals saying there was no scenography, that curators and guest artists lacked help with installations, and that generally the biennale needs to be more professional to be competitive. What is your response to this? What are the constraints and challenges of creating Dak’art?


There was indeed a scenography; it manifested itself in a very audacious bias that destabilizes the orthodox visitor. The scenographer chose to move away from aesthetics and artifice for several reasons. He decided not to put obstacles between the works, so no partition, but to use the personality of the works to create a dialogue and play with the singularity of the columns, of the space of the steps, of the old palace of justice. The scenography has been kept to a minimum so that the spirit of the forge can be reflected in the architecture of the palace with its different cells, which lead to the natural atrium that was the small central garden. And I must point out that this is what most convinced the vast majority of visitors who were discovering the old palace for the first time with this completely uncluttered hall. The works could be appreciated from different angles. 

Let us specify, above all, that these are works of very large sizes which require ample openings to breathe and then works of different materials whose dialogue—I would say alchemy and fusion—did not suffer from any obstacle, to respect the spirit of the forge. A scenography is above all a coherence and dialogue between the works and between the works and the identity of the space that hosts them. The scenography is in conversation with the nature of the works and the character of the place. This is not a white cube space and I am convinced that it is a mistake to want to make it that kind of uniform space. The old courthouse in which the main exhibition of the biennale is held is a place that exudes an aura, it is a space that has a singularity thanks to these dozens of columns that repeat themselves and project us into another era. 

Regarding the practical organization of the event by the Secretariat of the Dakar Biennale, my feeling is that there are still many things to correct. However, I reserve the right to record it in the report that I will submit.


What can we expect in 2024?


I have the hope that the biennale will continue to grow, that the next editions will be even better organized, and the exhibitions even larger. The state has provided the necessary means; the rest of the work is up to the General Secretariat and the teams it will put in place. I wish great success to the next director or artistic director. And I pray that the institutional management will take advantage of the feedback from all professionals to improve the mechanisms for the good of all artists.

About the Interviewee

El Hadji Malick Ndiaye holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Rennes II (France). He is currently a researcher at the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa (IFAN) and curator of the Théodore Monod Museum of African Art in Dakar, Senegal.

About the Interviewer

Riason Naidoo is an independent curator, writer, researcher and artist. He lived in Paris for the last 5 years where he curated: the public art project "neuf-3" (2021-2023) in the suburb of Saint-Denis. Naidoo directed the South African National Gallery for six years (2009-2015). Naidoo also directed the documentary "Legends of the Casbah"

Further Reading