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Dakar’s Vibrant Art Biennale: Beyond Exhibition as Display

The travel restrictions have been lifted in most parts of the world. The wearing of masks is slowly becoming an aberration found only in certain vessels of public transportations such as planes and buses. Although travels were, nevertheless, possible for a selected few even in the thick of the pandemic, for the majority, the mental reset necessary to offset the inertia induced by the imposed sedentary life of the lockdown period is only kicking in.

The Dak’Art Biennale, which takes place every two years in Dakar, a coastal city of Senegal,  is arguably the most famous art event on the African continent. Initially slated for 2020, it was postponed to this year due to the pandemic. Like many colleagues whose lives are underscored by constant travel, I see 2022 as the year we get back on the road. Yet, I was not prepared for the surge of faces – both old and new – of artists and creative professionals I encountered during my eight-day stay in Dakar. I dub this phenomenon “the post-covid reunion”. I say this not only because people visited from far and wide, but there was also a contagious atmosphere of conviviality and a concerted effort to foster a kind of warmth and freshness that mirrors the pleasant climate of Dakar; shored up by the hospitable temperament of the Senegalese.

The last time I visited Dakar was in 2014. On arrival, the changes were apparent right from the port of entry. The airport is a new one, at a location 67km away from the city’s centre. As Konte, the taxi driver, drove me into town, he doubled as a tour guide, pointing out some of the new infrastructures: the new stadium was beautifully lit at night with colours of the Senegalese national flag, which also reflects the Pan-African colours. He speaks of the stadium with pride, given that Senegal is the current champion of the African Cup of Nations. The rest of our conversation and Konte’s demeanour were dotted with this sense of hope and optimism peppered by enthusiasm, like when he said: I am confident that Senegal will, sooner than later, move away from France. I believed him.

Dakar has undergone a sizeable infrastructural change judging from what I could recall of the city. Besides the airport and the stadium, hotels and leisure spots have sprung up along the coastline. While much of these changes replay the narrative of a burgeoning metropolis in which the main interest is capital and extraction of cheap labour, the newly built train station and intercity trains point to a more progressive future. I was elated to see a speed train infrastructure in a West African city. More impressive is how structured and well-run the facility is. The fares are affordable, unlike in South Africa. The relaxed temperament of the passengers is reassuring and void of the kind of tension we see in the transient nature of anything without a sustainable foundation, unlike in Nigeria.

The Dakar Train Station, Dakar 2022.

These changes dotting the city, almost in an infectious way – and perhaps extending to other places in Senegal – indicate a historical turning point. We’ve seen the telltale sign with the erecting, in 2010, of the African Renaissance Monument at the Collines des Mamelles in Dakar. This statue, commissioned by the former president, Abdoulaye Wade and built by a North Korean Company, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean from a 100-metre hill at 49 metres tall. My reading of the changes unfolding in Dakar considers this monument a totem of the future’s destiny. We see in Dakar a moving away from the Senghorian era, which doubles as an epistemological delinking from a Senegal entrapped in the shadows of France and the obsolescence of Leopold Sedar Senghor’s concept of Negritude. Nothing can be emblematic of this shift than a monument overlooking the Atlantic, towards the Archipelagoes of the Americas, as if to reorient the continent’s energy towards a vantage point from which came Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, as well as the Fanonian disposition. To understand the cathartic currents flowing through the crevices of such places as Dakar, one must reread – and take as a premise of enquiry – the meticulously delineated processes in the works of Glissant and Fanon. It seems that what was set in the realm of theory 50 years ago is now sifting into the core of a people’s temperament, moulding their way of being.

Rightfully so, the theme of this year’s Biennale is  Ĩ NDAFFA # – Forger – Out of the fire. Initially slated for 2020, the Biennale was postponed to 2022 due to the pandemic. Although the proposal as put forward by the Artistic Director, Dr El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, did not change, the post-covid temperament (especially in the aftermath of the public assassination of George Floyd) has added weight to the exigency of the theme. Coined from a Serer verb, the word Ĩ NDAFFA, which means to “To forge”, is a literal reference to the transformation of the resistant quality of matter, often metal. Conceptually, NDAFFA embodies a multilayered proposal.

On the one hand, it is a call to “refuse Form as a given”, and on the other, to “forge the still shapeless senses”. What is in contestation here is not merely a peripheral transformation of aesthetics and modes of representation. Ĩ NDAFFA as a proposal aligns with the epistemological shift currently underway in the Black and non-Western parts of the world. Yet, the overarching sentiment of the proposal cannot be missed: it is a call to embrace a different way of making knowledge and knowing – an embodied, experiential knowing. Our world is in dire straits, but it is also unhealthy from crust to core. Thus, such knowing is imbued with a living pulse capable of healing and reparation. Art in our time is as much the last line of defence as it is the only means of galvanising purposeful optimism.

This year’s Biennale takes on a rhizomatic character, allowing the event to feed off the convivial nature of the Senegalese and the hospitable aura of Dakar as a host city. The Biennale weaved itself into the pulsating processes in the city. As such, it took on an organic, meandering quality, making the city a breeding site rather than merely a host of an international event. This is one of the ways the Dak’Art Biennale differs from its counterparts like the Biennales of Venice and Berlin.

The main exhibition, situated at the monumental building of the former courthouse of Dakar, features the official selection of works from 59 artists with consideration to geographical balance (all regions of Africa were represented, including the Diaspora). Yet what makes the city of Dakar such an organic tapestry for the performance of togetherness is the hundreds of OFF exhibitions, symposiums and public space projects sprouting around the official selection of the Biennale. It is practically impossible to trace or track down the myriad artistic events in the city. Although there is a brochure listing some of these exhibitions, the artistic impulse of the city outran whatever any booklet could capture.

Alioune Diagne, Lexique des signes inconscients (2020). Acrylic on canvas. 350 x 680 cm. Exhibition view: Ĩ NDAFFA # – Forger – Out of the fire, Dakar Biennale 2022 (19 May–21 June 2022). Courtesy Emeka Okereke. Photo: Emeka Okereke.

These projects indicate the sprawling, tentacular nature of the Dak’Art Biennale that has managed to encourage an organic process of exhibitions/projects scattered across all parts of the city. Budding curators and artists seized the opportunity to render their inklings of the Biennale’s overarching theme. Projects ranged from multimedia installations, sculpture, photography, painting, performance, music and fashion shows. These off-the-beaten-path projects tend to exemplify the most pulsating quality of the Biennale.

Without speaking to the Artistic Director or his curatorial assistants – Anne Karima Wane and Delphine Buysse – one could tell there is a concerted decision to encourage an open-mindedness that lends multilayered wings to the main exhibition through the OFF projects.

On entering the former courthouse, one is greeted by a monumental presence exuding from a building that once was a symbol of State power. As if to respond to this monumentality, the works exhibited near the entrance attempt to mirror the building in size. We are led through the works of such artists as Alioune Diagne, Beya Gille Gacha and Emmanuel Tussore.

The play to power and monumentality was mainly buttressed in the monograph exhibition of the Malian veteran artist Abdoulaye Konate exhibited in the main chamber of them building. Konaté’s works consist of large-scale, colourful weavings of dyed cloth pieces from Mali. They thrive on a detailed replication of intricate patterns that morph into picturesque scenes,

This exhibition also unearths the problematics of a prosaic handling of the politics of representation in this show. Konaté’s large-scale pieces are installed in such a way to fill the large but empty walls of the chamber. Everything about the display was a contrived effort to confer majesty to the artist’s work.

To any critical audience, the intricacies of the works are swallowed by the forced effort to place them on a pedestal, thus ascribing them the status of a placeholder. Yet, I suspect that the display of Konaté’s work in such a manner is not an oversight. If anything, it is meant to serve as an utterance of power – canonisation of a living artist as a continental pride, if you may. The display of Abdoulaye Konaté’s work is supposed to reproduce the same beacon effect as the African Renaissance Monument found in the Center of Dakar. Only that, in this case, the execution is counterproductive. Its failure is in the absence of any attempt to acknowledge the contradictions of scale.

I turn to Think Tea, Think Cup III (2020), an installation by Ngozi-Omeje Ezema exhibited in the courtyard of the building.

Attached to drooping fish lines are miniature pottery precisely suspended to coalesce into a large image of objects. The sculptural piece says something about how things come into being. It draws our interest to the fact that — much like thoughts — all things start out at a molecular level, imbued with the potential to take on a familiar, purposeful form. Yet what I find most intriguing about Ezema’s work is how it fiddles with, and complicates, the notion of scale.

The operative nature of any organic (living) process is premised on the interchangeable relationship between big and small. Sometimes they take on the form of a paradox; other times, they are contradictions. We find these tendencies in the making of potent thoughts as we strive to re-imagine history and rewrite narratives.

If what we do (and make) has any possibility of nurturing life, it must also abstract, if not defy, scale. Because in our time, knowledge has the tendency to be omnipresent and as such, contradicts a sense of physicality altogether.

With that in mind, Emmanuel Tussore’s sculptural installation De Cruce (2022) stands out within the central show. An entire chamber of the building is repurposed into a dystopian landscape consisting of dead tree trunks with contorted roots and branches, mounted on heavy, rusty metal H-beams. The dilapidated ceiling and window panes of the space add to its eeriness.

Emmanuel Tussore, De Cruce (2022) (detail). Installation. Wood, metal, and sand. Dimensions variable. Exhibition view: Ĩ NDAFFA # – Forger – Out of the fire, Dakar Biennale 2022 (19 May–21 June 2022). Courtesy Emeka Okereke

This work embodies a chilling truth about a world of violence—the exact antithesis of the nurturing quality of nature. It evokes myriad emotions associated with our inherent aversion to violence. Moreover, the manner in which the metal beams (some with spiky ends) decapitate the tree trunks is invasive, to say the least.

The floor is of beach sand. Perhaps in reference to the sprawling coastline of Dakar. Or could it be a sarcastic reminder that much more lies beyond the appealing sight of blue seas and ocean waves smashing against shores?

Of great interest is the work of the Senegalese artist, Fally Sene Sow. His work is difficult to replicate or communicate in a medium other than its own (even more so on social media). Yet, this is why it succeeds. It succeeds so much I fear for the longevity of this highly process-oriented artist in an art world that knows mostly reductionism to fit in a vitrine or the storage facilities of the rich.

For lack of a better word, let’s call him a sculptor. But he is much more. What I appreciate most is how Fally’s work engages the visual culture of his surrounding. He is careful to retain all the maladroit and quirkiness that gives urban life its organic, metamorphic character. His characters are present and vivid, making what seems like chaos a chain of symbiosis.

Many of the works on display are bold and audacious in their experimental nature as they flirt, at various gradations, with aesthetics of spectacularisation. That said, of particular interest to me are works that transcend the realm of appearance towards the possibilities of revelation while retaining their areas of opacity within their poetics of relation. Those I found mainly in projects outside the official selection of the Biennale.

The tentacular nature of the OFF exhibitions was overwhelming, if not haphazard, at times. Nevertheless, therein lies the beauty of the experience. The catchphrase for my sense of orientation was “go with the flow”. This feeling of flow is equally intrinsic to the nature of an encounter with impactful artistic manifestations. There is a consensus of intention in the urge to propel the wheels of time towards an ontological shift. A noble intention succinctly captured by an excerpt from the concept note of the exhibition curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim at the IFAN Museum:

“The foundation of Western Cartesian philosophy, “I think therefore I am’ lifts humans above all else as a consequence of their capacity to think and reason, whereas amongst the Akan, for example’ the sunsum that runs through humans, runs through all things, the trees, rivers, oceans, land, and emphasises our co-existence with the earth, our environment and all things.”

From Nkabom: The Museum As Community, curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim. IFAN Museum, Dakar.

Across the board, there is a feverish effort to answer the call “to forge”. The urgency to translate concepts into objects situated in space is palpable. Yet, the emphasis on object-making (the transformation of matter) with often little regard for the relationship to space works against the premise of the overarching intention. If we must speak of an ontological shift, it should be in tandem with the necessity of translating concepts to embodied experiences. In other words, exhibitions must be experiential, not merely visual or sensorial. Exhibitions must invite the audience to partake in an experience wherein they become co-sojourners on the road conjured by the artist’s proposal. This road is one of myriad, rhizomatic strands for which Africa, in our time, is a story of journeys.

Moreover, it is about time we moved beyond the “vitrine” mentality of exhibition-making, which reproduces the Western approach to anthropology and, ultimately, the capturing of knowledge for the eyes, brains and library. When the work of an artist whose process and aesthetics are informed by how he uses his medium to converse and intervene in the communal/public arena is shown in a biennale space, it should not feel disembodied and uprooted as is the case with the photographic installations of the Ghanaian artist, Kwasi Darko.

Installation of Kwasi Darko’s work in the exhibition “Nkabom” curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim.

Out of all the projects I was opportune to experience throughout the Biennale, only a few transcended the notion of “the exhibition as display”.

I am in no way soliciting for a disavowal of the importance of the object. On the contrary, a key component in making aesthetic autonomy in African artistic practices is the need to revive the role of objects as totems of quotidian rituals generated by bodies interacting with matter. For instance, in the Igbo language of Eastern Nigeria, the telephone is colloquially called “Ekwe Nti”, which loosely translates to “(slit) drum for the ear”. Here, a telephone is not a communication device but an object that engages in a sonic-sensorial relationship with a body part. In other words, if we were to say that the telephone is a conduit through which the body absorbs messages by way of sonic vibrations, we won’t be far from fact. However, what is emphasised is a reading that does not alienate the object from an embodied experience. This object-body oneness permeates the belief systems of African peoples in various degrees and connotations. While an object is inanimate, it is almost always totemic.

The work of Tuan Andrew Nguyen exhibited at RAW MATERIAL COMPANY – a space founded by curator Koyo Kouoh and currently run by Marie-Helene Pereira – is exemplary of a project that keeps in view the experiential knowledge of an artistic endeavour. This project looks at the stories of the Vietnamese-Senegalese community through a matriarchal lineage. At the opening, the heads of some of the families Nguyen worked with in Dakar were present. Their stories, acknowledgement of the process, and appreciation was viscerally felt by those present, such that the exhibition itself became a conduit – not a frame or placeholder – for conversations.

Works that succeed in transcending the veneer of appearance towards a form of embodied knowledge make up the interspaces of a display-conscious Biennale. Such works as the video installation of Charlotte Braithwaite, the mix-media works of Charles Okereke, photographs of Laeila Adjovi, Malick Welli and Gilles Dusabe; drawings and the video performance of Bronwyn Katz are consistent, albeit like breadcrumbs, leading one’s curiosity throughout the 17 districts of the Biennale’s locations.

Nested in the fabric of the Biennale is a slew of off-site platforms hosting projects. Many of these spaces are founded, run or initiated by women: The RAW Material Company, founded by the Curator Koyo Kouoh and run by Marie-Helene; Gallery Cecile Fakhoury; OH Gallery by Oceane Harati; Galarie Atiss Dakar by Aïssa Dione; Selebe Yoon by Jennifer Houdrouge, The Third by Monifa Pendelton (repurposed by the British-Nigerian curator, Amina Agoro, for her exhibition featuring multimedia works by Ngozi Ezema and Charles Okereke).

Their presence indicates how much women contribute to the foundation of the contemporary art scene in Senegal. Beyond the Biennale, their platforms are steadily growing into a formidable anchor and robust support system for artists of African descent. These women are as Cosmopolitan as Afropolitan. The network woven by their activities are reliable indicators of sustainable Trans-Atlantic, Trans-African artistic relations – one that would continue to play hosts to future iterations of the Biennale.

Showing at Houdrouge’s Selebe Yoon is an expansive solo exhibition of the veteran Senegalese artist and cultural activist El Hadji Sy, whose works consist of paintings of variable scales. Some of them are mounted on canvas and hung on walls. Many, on dedicated support allowing the works to interact with a good part of the 1000 metre square space. The depth of El Hadji Sy’s artistic practice – spanning over 50 years – is beyond the scope of this article. That said, one could easily see why his practice would be the jewel in the crown, not only to the Biennale’s theme but for such a space as Selebe Yoon. His work is a culmination of the tugging spirit of defiance that has long constituted the rumbling underbelly of post-independence Africa.

Exhibition view: El Hadji Sy, Now / Naaw, Selebe Yoon, Dakar (19 May–30 July 2022). Courtesy Emeka Okereke.

In Wolof, “Selebe Yoon” translates to “the crossroad”. For starters, Jennifer Houdrouge’s life manifests crossroads, having been born to a Lebanese-French parentage with rooted ties to Dakar. Her space – as with her outlook – is a hyphenate, a combination of a residency and gallery “that supports local and international artists and thinkers”. Depending on envisaged projects, it alternates between artists’ studios and exhibition spaces. That El Hadji Sy’s work – whose apparent quality is one of unfixed hybridity – is exhibited at Selebe Yoon is a reaffirmation and an hommage to pluriversality.

Taking everything into account, the 14th edition of the Dak’Art Biennale is ambitious in its positioning. The event succeeds in placing itself at a crucial milestone in our time, thus acting as a platform upon which a not-too-distant horizon of an attainable utopia is visible. Central to the proposal is the call for an “epistemic disobedience” – much like Fanon’s reference to the colonised human’s predisposition “to refuse”, not as a negation nor merely a gesture of resistance. But instead, an affirmation. This form of disobedience veers one away from misplaced priorities and frees up entrapped time for the forging of possible futures.

A shorter and reformatted version of this article was first published at Ocula Art Magazine.

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