Guest Author of February 2011
Thomas Fillitz is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna; in 2010, we invited him as a guest speaker the Global Studies Summer Academy, where he held a very insightful talk about the recent Dak’Art, the major art Biennale in Senegal. For our Monthly Guest Author column in February 2011, we would like to present his essay on the topic – under the Title “Worldmaking – The Cosmopolitanization of Dak’Art, the Art Biennale of Dakar”, Thomas Fillitz discusses the history of the Biennale as a narrative of questions on whom this art event represents, and who is to be seen as its intended audience. Originally established as an international Biennale in 1992, subsequent iterations where caught in the crossfire of criticism for being either too exclusive, or lacking a distinct profile; while Senegalese artists felt under-represented in several cases, a bias toward the local art scene or Francophone countries undermined the Biennale’s ambitions of being a Pan-African (or global) exhibition. This issue also affects the venues themselves and a distinction between an open “OFF” programme for local galleries and art spaces, and an “IN” section curated by Dak’Art officials; a distinction that obviously touches not only questions of “local”, “global” or “professional” audiences, but also issues of institutional – and economic – power, which in fact are not always in favor of the Biennale’s organizers.
Worldmaking – The Cosmopolitanization of Dak’Art, the Art Biennale of Dakar*
It is only some twenty years by now that discourses of globalization opened-up new perspectives, and conducted to an acknowledgement of the global art world. Applying this notion, I would like to refer to cultural flows in the field of art which include plural phenomena such as blockbuster exhibitions, the transnational loan of art works between major art museums, practices of the art market, new academic art programmes, museum strategies, and in particular the production and dissemination of contemporary art at a global scale, in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Oceania, and Europe. Still, speaking of the global art world does not imply that art and art institutions from all regions of the world are included within it and participate in a similar way. Considering thus the global art world from the viewpoint of the concept of “worldmaking” (Goodman 1978), the cultural flows, and global art events show the formation of new complexes, of new connections and disconnections. The global art world constitutes cultural, political, and economic realities, and for sure it does not imply a symmetrical reciprocity among the many centres, be they São Paolo, Dakar, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Tokyo, London, Paris, or Los Angeles.
In this contribution I would like to focus on a particular phenomenon of such a ”worldmaking” – namely the development of the art biennale system, and in particular the art biennale of Dakar, Dak’Art. The years between 1984 and into the 1990s, have witnessed a plethora of newly founded art biennales, which have subsequently gone on to establish themselves as special places of meeting and discourse for the global art world and, in being interconnected, likewise for global culture. Today, there are well over hundred such spaces around the globe, more than half of them are in centres outside of Europe and North America, and quite a large number of them is organized each year. René Block, a prominent advocate of the biennale format, considers it the most important institution within the global art world for shaping contemporary art production. A striking feature of art biennales is the intentional interconnection of art works, which have thus far seemed entirely unconnected or disconnected.
Following this line of thought, we may consider art biennales as spaces, which allow for greater reciprocity between different art worlds: they are potentially more inclusive in their representation, and each biennale may adopt particular forms of relationship for diverse, globally produced contemporary art. Zones of Contact was the title of the exhibition adopted by the Biennale of Sidney 2006, and the name made reference to contemporary cultural intersections as challenges to contemporary artistic production. I would like to use the notion “contact zone” for characterising each art biennale in the very construction of its global connections. The notion was introduced by Marie Louise Pratt (1992). She refers to contact zones as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination …” (Pratt 1992:4). Pratt asserts, above all, the relationality of these interactions. In our context, the contact perspective emphasizes how works of art, global encounters between artists, art professionals, and art institutions are constituted in and by their relations to each other in terms of coevalness, interaction, flows of understandings and practices, within relations of power in particular metropolitan spaces.
This is precisely how I imagine art biennales within the global art world, an art system I would designate as a global culture (Hannerz 1992:237). In a general way, the concept refers to the intensification of global connections in a particular field, and the organisation of diversity. The global culture of art biennales is not organised by a specific centre or a regional art world (e.g. the European-North American one), but develops by biennale activities in any part of the world. The organisation of diversity, then, is a product of these histories of local creation, and of how each of these biennales produces its exhibition space as transnational encounter.
Art biennales resemble each other. They are conceived by globally acting curators (e.g. René Block, Okwui Enwezor, Achille Bonito Oliva, Hou Hanru, etc.). They are cooperating with intercultural curatorial boards (see Mosquera), as the load of the regional knowledges on art may not be administered by just one specialist; and there are these travelling artists, critics, gallery owners, and cosmopolitan elite art audiences.
However, they not only have the benefit of being global contact zones that highlight changing global relations. They differ profoundly in the way each constitutes its particular place within the global art world. Whereas it may be true that the institution of the art biennale helps cities to change their global status and compete at the global level, there are many other aspects that provide each biennale with a particular trajectory into this global culture system. The Bienal de la Havana in 1986, for instance, situated itself at the centre of art discourse outside Europe and North America as the Third World Art Biennale. The Biennale of Gwangju in South Korea goes back to the upheaval of students in 1980 against the dictatorship of Chyu Doo-Hwan, and the brutal oppression by the South Korean army; it became a symbol of Korean democracy. Johannesburg’s Biennale (1995) was institutionalised along the first free elections in South Africa in 1994, and after the times of boycott against Apartheid it was intended to reintegrate the city back into the cultural arena, and to position it on the political and economic map of world cities (Stallabrass 2004:36). It nevertheless was abrogated by the City Council during its second venue in 1997.
The global culture of art biennales nevertheless is not one of reciprocal flows, and egalitarian relationships. There are, for instance, huge differences regarding local budgets, influencing therefore the power of exhibition of each biennale institution. “Within that kind of framework, the scale of the works are usually more modest, portable and intimate, …” (Enwezor 2002:47). Moreover, major institutions as the Biennale di Venezia, or documenta in Kassel are considered as centres of this global culture. Each of these venues determines which art forms will be dominant in the global art world – an important aspect regarding the global art market. Considered from such a vantage point, art biennales in the South rather are understood as sites of intercultural communication, as “signs of the postcolonial world family” (McEvilley 1993:8).
In the following contribution I shall turn towards the art biennale of Dakar, Dak’Art. In the first part, I shall briefly give an overview of the history of the institution, and its organisational structures. I shall then consider Dak’Art’s latest venue of 2010. In the second part, I deal with the arena of recent politico-cultural discourses. I adopt the notion of “arena” of Turner, a scene or explicit frame where controversies meet and possibly clash (Turner 1974:134f). In the third part, I will discuss the biennale’s “contact zone,” focusing on the interconnections produced between the works of art, and the artists.
A brief historical overview
In the early 1980s, under the new President Abdou Diouf, cultural politics were severely transformed in Senegal. While under President Senghor the State of Senegal operated as main patron, consolidating arts in a first period, and thereafter organising major travelling exhibitions, financial means, and spaces of art were abrogated in these latter times. The early 1980s however were also a period, in which a young generation of visual artists distanced themselves from the Senghorian ideology of Négritude and redefined their artistic endeavour (Harney 2004; Konaté 2009:43). During this process, and in order to gain more public power, this younger generation founded in 1985 the Association Nationale des Artistes Plasticiens du Sénégal (ANAPS) and organised their first venue, the Salon National des Artistes Plasticiens (Konaté 2009:43f).
At the occasion of the Salon’s second edition in 1986, ANAPS placed this exhibition in a politico-cultural context and gave it the title “Art Against Apartheid.” It was also the time when Abdou Diouf started giving more attention to the arts. He attended the opening of this event. At this occasion, El Hadji Sy, then President of ANAPS, addressed the artists’ “determination to become more involved in our country’s artistic and cultural life” (El Hadji Sy 1995:235), and confronted Diouf with the artists’ structural claims. These claims were more concrete at the fourth edition of the Salon in 1989, when ANAPS expressed among others the artists’ desire to interact with international art production (Interviews with Viyé Diba and Amadou Sow, February 2008). In the same year, President Abdou Diouf announced the creation of a biennale of arts and writers for December 1990 (Konaté 2009:45).
In 1992, Dak’Art was opened as a biennale of exclusively visual. Following the intentions of the artists, this venue was an international one, bringing together works by artists from Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia (see catalogue 1992). The international format nevertheless was not convincing, and specialists opted for a continental African perspective with pan-African connections, in order to position the biennale within the global culture of biennales (Konaté 2009:52f; see Deliss 1993 below). Dakar was to be the showcase of visual arts of Africa for the global art world. The years until the next edition in 1996 were used to reconfigure certain structures, like the creation of the General Secretary and the Scientific Committee. Above all, the reorientation was introduced with the new name Dak’Art: Biennale de L’Art Contemporain Africain. Not all artists from Senegal actually welcomed this reorientation. Several artists who had prepared the creation of the art biennale in the late 1980s told me that the event “had been stolen from us by the government” (discussions February/June 2008).
The following venues served to strengthen and refine the particularity of Dak’Art within the global culture of art biennales, as James Elliott, President of the selection committee of the 2000 edition formulated: “ … manifestations such as the Dakar Biennale of Arts … need to accumulate time and confidence to find their own paths and not become just one more Biennale on the international circuit which shows the same things as anywhere else; neither should the discussions which they generate be completely co-opted by the critical theory industries of the all-knowing West” (Elliott 2000:15). A broader range of artists was selected, in particular more African artists living in the Diaspora. The pan-African dimension was further enhanced in the forthcoming venues, as Sara Diamond, President of the selection committee of the sixth venue in 2004, clearly states in her welcome address (Diamond 2004:15).
A major instrument for these developments was the nomination for the selection committee. From 1996 on, great care was taken to nominate international art specialists (curators) among African local ones, and to create an “international” committee of selection. Presidents of these committees were: in 1998 Achille Bonito Oliva (Italy), in 2000 David Elliott (UK-Sweden), in 2002 Ery Camara (Senegal-Mexico), in 2004 Sara Diamond (Canada), in 2006 Yacouba Konaté (Côte d’Ivoire) – the first President from an African country –, in 2008 Magueye Kassé (Senegal), and in 2010 Marylin Martin (South Africa).
The integration of personalities from the global art world, as well as the enhanced focus on the whole African continent and the pan-African dimension of course produced frictions. First, there was a certain danger of producing a European-American definition of contemporary art of Africa, and second, Dak’Art was no more an exclusive one for Senegalese artists, the exhibition space actually allowed only for few of them to be selected. Between 1996 and 2008 art works of six to ten Senegalese artists were shown in the international exhibition space, but in 2010 works of only two of them were exhibited. Many Senegalese artists felt excluded from the official venue, although they had fought for this forum of international interaction (Konaté 2009:63f). Still in 2010, several artists expressed their dissatisfaction with this situation, claiming that the Biennale was useless for their own artistic endeavour and their international standing (interviews May 2010).
From 1996 on, the developments of the international (African) exhibition however were accompanied by other activities. Artists started exhibiting their works in public spaces in Dakar, be it newly founded galleries, international cultural centres, private houses, etc. These activities were based on personal impulses, and furthered another institutional development. In 2000, these exhibitions were united in the so-called Dak’Art “OFF” space. The Secretariat’s role was to produce an official brochure of all these activities and to inform the local and international art audience about these events – when and where in Dakar they were taking place. This forum became extremely important in the landscape of the Biennale in Dakar (see below).
The organisational structure of Dak’Art
From 1996 on, the Biennale had three main structures: the General Secretariat, the Scientific Committee (in 2010 re-named Committee of Orientation), and the International Committee of Selection. The General Secretariat would be responsible for the overall organisation of each venue. It is an institution subsumed to the Senegalese Ministry of Culture, with, as head, the General Secretary. The Scientific Committee / Committee of Orientation was nominated by decree for each venue by the Minister of Culture. It is responsible for the administrative aspects of each venue, deciding the topic of each venue, matters of budget and sponsors, exhibition spaces, the various side activities backing the venue (workshops, distinguished lectures, etc.), the printing of the catalogue, etc. It is chaired by a President who acts as main interlocutor for the General Secretary. Finally, there is the International Committee of Selection, which should be nominated by the General Secretary and the Scientific Committee / Committee of Orientation. Its size may vary, and the General Secretary as well as the President of the Committee of Orientation are members of it. This latter committee is fully responsible for the criteria and the process of selection. Regarding this latter, artists have to apply with a portfolio, and the committee would meet in Dakar a few months before the opening of the Biennale to scrutinize and discuss the submitted proposals.
A second organisational specificity of Dak’Art is the production of various spaces of exhibition, or what is since 2000 Dak’Art “IN.” The main field is the “International Exhibition” subsumed under the selection committee. Artists selected in this space are subject to the allocation of prizes. The two most important ones are (a) the Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor (in former venues the Grand Prix du Chef de l’État), offered by the President of the Republic of Senegal; (b) the Prix du Ministère de la Culture du Sénégal. Other prizes were allocated in following venues – as the one by the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, or by other (international) foundations, and institutions. Another space is the “Salon of Design” (suspended in 2010), which is dedicated to applied arts of African designers. The most important prize in this field was the Prix de la Créativité. Third come the “Solo Exhibitions” which are under the responsibility of particular curators. This space allows for presenting works of art of artists who have no citizenship of an African country. In 2002 for instance, one such solo exhibition, “Seeds of the 21st century: from one to several” (curator Bruno Cora), was dedicated to a small show with works of Jannis Kounnellis, Jaume Plensa, and Franz West (see catalogue 2002).
As mentioned earlier, impulses of gallery owners, of international cultural centres, or of artists to exhibit during the time of the Biennale in different spaces of Dakar, started to be coordinated by the Biennale Secretariat, in particular by the artist Mauro Petroni, under the label Dak’Art “OFF.” Following Mauro Petroni, it was a former Scientific Committee, which recognised the capacity of this field of presentation, and therefore opened the Biennale’s Secretariat to convey more visibility to it (personal information, February 2008). These activities are not subject to central selection by the Dak’Art committees. Artists, gallery owners, cultural centres (French, German, etc.), the Village des Arts, and other local institutions wishing to participate in the “OFF” platform are invited to inform about the times and the location of their interventions. They just would have to fill out a form with these data, and send it to the coordination office of the “OFF.” The Secretariat’s work would fundamentally consist in producing a guide des exposants as orientation for the interested audiences.
From a few events between 1996 and 2000 (sixteen to fifty), the number of these exhibitions increased in the following years – well more than a hundred after 2002, reaching nearly two hundred in 2010, while the official exhibition of Dak’Art “IN” remained largely restricted – eighty-four artists selected in 2004, thirty-eight in 2008, and twenty-five in 2010. Some professionals of the global art world criticized that there were too many of these interventions, and that their quality was very uneven. This was also acknowledged by the coordinators of the “OFF,” and by other officials of the Biennale. On the one hand, some local artists in the “OFF” are well acquainted internationally, gallery owners prepare their exhibits with much care; also, prominent international curators may be invited to conceive shows. The “OFF” however also enables shows of lesser international standing. This mix gives this space a particular horizon. According to the local organisers, it by all means should be retained (discussions in February and June 2008, April-May 2010).
For many local artists, this huge number of exhibitions in the “OFF” corresponds to their re-appropriation of the Biennale (discussions May 2010; see also Konaté 2009:79). The freedom they experience in this space stands in contrast to the control by State functionaries of the “IN,” where they have no influence on selections and important decisions, and where they are banished to a secondary stage.
Some critiques blamed the so-called elitist character of Dak’Art (meaning the “IN” space), as it is mostly oriented to the global art world, and disregards the interests of Senegalese artists and of the local population. Considering the “OFF” space as integral to what the Biennale is nowadays, the perception is transformed, and the image of Dak’Art appears as well implanted within the cultural and popular landscape of Dakar. Mauro Petroni, one of the promoters of the “OFF,” insists on this popular character, so does the General Secretary (May 2010). Truly, at openings of events in popular districts of Dakar, one could see local people mingling with art experts and interested art audiences – although many of these locals would not visit Dak’Art “IN.”
The arena of discourses
a) International critiques
First, it seems useful to recall some of the critiques, which went all along the various venues of Dak’Art. Discussing the venue of 1992, which was the first Biennale of visual arts exclusively, Deliss criticized the prominence of French cultural brokers in the decision making, and the bad organisation, which conducted to the loss of works of art (Deliss1993:137). She concludes that the 1992 Biennale was in the spirit of a “misguided faith in international art circuit,” that the artists were pushed to a secondary floor by State officials, and that only Senegalese artists were exhibited among the ones from the Diaspora (Deliss 1993:138f). Deliss’s vision however was to adopt a pan-African approach, which would be free from any European or North American ideas about what contemporary art was to be in Africa (Deliss 1993:138).
The failure to realise a pan-African approach was on the agenda of the 1996 venue; so was the claim of giving a central role in the event to the artists. Though this Biennale was focusing on art of Africa, there seemed no critical assessment visible of the diversity of art practices, no curatorial logic, and a much too strong emphasis of artists from Francophone African countries (Biggs 1996:83f). Similar critiques were expressed for the 1998 venue, in particular the major interest in bringing in critics and curators from the global art world, while African critics were not able to voice – “the spectre of colonialism cast a sombre shadow” (García-Antón 1998:87).
In the following venues African art specialists are better integrated, with the highlight of the appointment of Yacouba Konaté as general curator for the 2006 edition, an “important political statement” (Ugiomoh 2007:94). Nevertheless, curatorial incongruities continued to be mentioned, as well as the strong impact of State care and of its functionaries (see Silva 2000-01; Vogel 2008).
In 2003 Rasheed Araeen launched a critical assessment of Dak’Art’s achievements since 1992. According to him, the main problems since the Biennale’s beginnings are still there. To name but a few: mostly artists from Francophone African countries are exhibited, there is no critical evaluation, no framework for the exchange between African artists, no effort to address the city’s public, no works in public spaces, and any spirit of struggle against the dominant Western centre is absent. He questions: “Can Africa assert its independence or develop its own direction and vision within this context without critically confronting the dominant structures of art around the world today?” (Araeen 2003:100). From his viewpoint of radically fighting the European-North American art world, Araeen considers Dak’Art a postcolonial | postmodern double of art institutions of the former (see Hanussek 2004:85).
Araeen however considers the creation of the Biennale as an important, although “small start,” but the institution has to go further and should be backed by the foundation of a specialised institute of contemporary African art, which could act as framework for the Biennale (Araeen 2003:104f). Olù Oguibe in a similar way sees the greatest problem in a “crisis of purpose:” “its organizers no longer have any idea why it is there” (Oguibe 2004:83). He suggests a forum to discuss the Biennale, led by African art specialists, with three main questions: “(a) Why do we need Dak’Art? (b) what is wrong with Dak’Art?, (c) what is to be done?” (Oguibe 2004:83f).
For sure, many of the problems mentioned in this short overview of critiques are there. One should, nevertheless, also consider the local politico-cultural situation within which Dak’Art is inscribed, and within which the Biennale Secretariat, and its committees are operating. State institutions like the Presidency and the Ministry of Culture keep a narrow control of the Biennale, i.e. the latter is not autonomous in the management of the venues. Its budget thereafter is only allocated each year, some months before the opening of the event. Small budgets (around 1Mio €), minimal ones in comparison to the ones of Venice or the documenta for instance, make the appointment of the selection committee as well as its work difficult. For years there are proposals that members of the selection committees should have the possibility to travel and to visit artists in their ateliers, in order to improve the exhibitions (personal information, February 2008 and April-May 2010). There are recent evaluation papers with proposals for improving the quality of the Biennale. Neither are they made public, nor are the various measures being discussed, or even adopted (personal information, April-May 2010).
The Biennale’s office, as well as local professionals supporting Dak’Art, moreover are confronted with critiques from the Ministry of Culture, which basically questions at each new venue the role and usefulness of Dak’Art – for Senegalese artists, for the local public, for the cultural politics of Senegal. If there is not enough exhibition space for Senegalese artists, if these artists cannot improve their international visibility by means of the Biennale – as some of them claim –, if the local population is not convincingly addressed, if the global art world is questioning the position of Dak’Art within the global culture of art Biennales, why then this Biennale?
Arguments of international art critiques are aiming at dismantling the dominant discourses of aesthetic values of the European-North American art world. They consider that Dak’Art could be the African platform for the visibility of an improved diversity of contemporary African art practices, which is determined by African art professionals. These claims partly clash with desires of local artists, who see Dak’Art as a possibility for more international visibility, for more information fluxes, for more interaction with the global art world. The international critiques, however, find a fructuous ground for arguments of Senegalese State institutions. In combination with local claims of artists, with the disregard of the popular dimension of the “OFF” space, and with the unwillingness to hand over the overall management to the Secretariat, they become tools to strengthen their questioning of the Biennale.
b) Dak’Art 2010: the arena of politico-cultural discourses
In the last venue, Dak’Art was strongly influenced by several interconnected discourses. Pan-Africanism – in the form of Négritude – is the first one I would like to mention. Senegal’s President, Maître Abdoulaye Wade, claimed during his inaugural speech (May 7) for more Diaspora to be visible in future venues. At first this sounds curious, as already in 2004, Dak’Art was oriented more importantly towards including artists from the Diaspora by the selection committee, and the 2010 “Solo Exhibition” was dedicated to four Haitian artists, “Présence Haïtienne” at the Galerie Nationale des Arts. This claim for pan-Africanism may be seen in two events. First, Wade’s favoured project is the organisation of the “Third Festival of World Black Artists.” In 2008 and 2009 it was called FESMAN, but for several reasons never did take place. Now, without this acronym, this festival of all arts was realised from December 10 to 31, 2010:
“The annual Festival of World Black Arts takes place in Dakar, Senegal with a significant theme each year for the largest gathering of eminent Black people from the continent and the Diaspora. The programming features vast ranging forms and expressions of art, music, dance, literature, poetry, drama and cinematography.
The modern African cultural beacon, shines a powerful light over the world’s creative landscape. For a month, all dimensions of contemporary Black culture will express themselves in unison, without any restraint. The arts will be celebrated: poetry, sculpture, painting, music festival, cinema, theatre plays, fashion shows, African architecture and design exhibit, and dance performances. Renowned artists will compete for the FESMAN 2009 price, which will be awarded for the most innovative artistic expressions.”
(http://www.kadmusarts.com, accessed on 13.10.2010)
With this festival, Wade decidedly wants to connect his Presidency to the one of the first President of the Republic of Senegal, Léopolod Sedar Senghor (1960-1980), and less so to his actual predecessor Abdou Diouf (1980-2000). Senghor had organised during his times the “First Festival of World Black Artists” (April 1966). This idea was proposed at the Conference of Black Writers and Artists in Rome 1956, and for Senghor, this event would be the materialisation of his Négritude ideology.
The President’s interest in this new festival created some frictions with the Dak’art Secretariat, artists and intellectuals in Dakar. Wade furthermore stated at the inauguration (May 7) that Dak’Art would in the future be a part of this festival, while all others wanted to see the Biennale as a specific global event. “Why can’t a state like Senegal not afford two such festivals?” (Interlocutor, May 2010).
The decision for the “Third Festival of World Black Artists” heavily affected the budget of Dak’Art 2010: no financial application to the ambassador of the EU was allowed by the Ministries of Finances and Culture, as all these possibilities should be saved for this other festival. Dak’Art suffered heavily of a loss of financial funding, which amounts to 40% of its overall budget (around € 400.000; personal information of EU civil servants in Dakar, May 2010). Some consequences: out of 401 applications the curators could select but twenty-six; art works for display had to be chosen according to transport and insurance costs, and for the first time, there was no member from outside Africa in the selection committee. This latter was restricted to only five curators, plus the Secretary and the President of the Committee of Orientation.
Another project dear to the President is “Renaissance Africaine.” It is, first, related to the new movement launched in 1994 in South Africa, and strongly articulated in a speech of President Thabor Mbeki in 1996. Besides the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of these discourses, “Renaissance Africaine” is materialised in a monument, Wade’s project, in the North-West of Dakar, close to the airport. 49m high, made of plaques of bronze, it was planned by the Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby, and executed by a North Korean corporation, the costs exceeding by far those of nearly all Biennale venues so far (around € 25 Mio.). It represents a couple and a baby facing the Atlantic Ocean. Actually, from a formal perspective, nearly no iconographic connection is made to any older artistic tradition of African cultures. The politico-cultural dimension of this monument is manifest insofar as most Senegalese artists refused their participation at the inauguration (April 4, 2010).
Another discourse, opposed to these former ones, and which was embedded within the “IN” space of this year’s venue is the one “Afropolitanism” of Achille Mbembe (2009:19). He formulated this concept against former nationalisms, and the aim to construct national cultures as homogenous entities. Against these local perspectives, Mbembe suggests a more transnational approach, insisting on the historic and recent importance of mobility within Africa, and outward trajectories. This concept actually is an urban one, and Mbembe mentions that it previously was typical for Dakar and Abidjan, today Johannesburg being the best example (Mbembe 2009:19).
Other, general and longer lasting metaphors for Dakar and its Biennale are those considering the venue as showcase for the representation of contemporary art of Africa and its Diaspora, of Dakar as a crossroad of cultures, of a window for the cultural politics of Senegal. The importance of these metaphors were repeated by several interlocutors, especially the one about Dak’Art being the place where to get informed about what is going on in visual arts by artists with citizenship of African States – whether they live there or wherever in the world – even though in the mean time other biennales have been founded on the continent, the one of Dar Es-Salaam (2003), focusing on East African art, or the Triennale of Luanda, founded in 2006.
Dak’Art 2010: The contact zone: “IN”/“OFF”
The title for Dak’Art 2010 was “Rétrospectives :: Perspectives.” The former was a space within which all winners of the Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor were invited by the General Secretary to exhibit new works of art, the latter (Perspectives) was reserved for the artists selected by the selection committee.
The selection committee consisted of seven members: Marylin Martin (South Africa) as President, and responsible for artists from Southern and Eastern Africa, Marème Malong Samb (Senegal-Cameroon) for Central Africa, and the South-West, Sylvain Sankalé (Senegal) for Francophone West Africa, Kunle Filani (Nigeria) for Anglophone West Africa, and Rachida Triki (Tunesia) for North Africa. Further members were the General Secretary Ousseynou Wade, and the President of the Orientation Committee Gérard Sénac. Due to the critical financial situation, each of the first five members of the committee was requested to select six portfolios.
The selection criteria were decided by the main five members, and acknowledged by the General Secretary and the President of the Committee of Orientation. These were: (a) to select only artists who had never participated in the Biennale, i.e. only artists of the younger generation; (b) instead of speaking of Diaspora, or of residency in an African country, they had to be citizens of African States, where ever they are living; (c) a so-called aesthetic value, but without relying to Occidental art history; (d) internationality and originality. The criterion of “African essence,” still most prominent in the 2004 event, was not even mentioned.
On the basis of those thirty portfolios, the committee started negotiations. Finally, twenty-six artists were retained from sixteen African countries (eight from Francophone Africa). Among these, there were six South African artists, but only two from Senegal (one living in Japan). Due to the selection criteria, in particular the focus on the younger generation, and on citizenship instead of place of residence, the concept of Afropolitanism became most visualised in these works of art.
In the Perspectives space, the dominant topic was migration. Which migration? Still in the 2008 venue, migration was prominent as well. These artists however referred to the non-documented migration of boat-people, which affected Senegal strongly in the last years. Typically, Viye Diba, a former winner of the Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor (1998), exhibited in the Rétrospectives space an installation, “Mémoire Économique” (2008), which he realised after a questionnaire research among Dakar population, asking why people have interest in emigrating, and would take the risks for such a dangerous journey over the sea.
The young generation of artists considered migration as the possibility for mobility, for interaction with other artists on the continent and beyond. They dealt with borders as barriers to such mobility, the missing of the possibility to exchange, the walls to communication and information fluxes (personal information, May 2010). This has deep consequences for the notion of contemporary African art: while formerly it was a research in expressions connecting with old art canons, in order to find an expression I may call Africanity.
In 2006, under the Presidency of Yacouba Konaté (Côte d’Ivoire), the “IN” space was fundamentally structured with works of artists like Suleyman Keïta, an artist closely connected to what formerly was called the École de Dakar (see Harney 2004), of Malangatana Valente Ngwenya from Mozambique, of the Ghanaan El Anatsui, who accentuates in his work the concept of Sankofa – “to re-appropriate and re-formulate,” or with works of art of the Nigerian Twins Seven Seven, who integrates symbols of different local societies from Nigeria, or with representatives of what is called popular (urban) art.
In the “IN” space this obviously came to an end, as many interlocutors testified. This corresponds to a refusal to cope with interconnections to mainly local cultural traditions, which for long were most important in the creation of contemporary art of Africa. Arjun Appadurai in an article spoke of this constraint as “anxieties of tradition” (Appadurai 1999). Theirs clearly was an intention to deliberately connect with and use artistic traditions of the global art world. Of course, many of these artists are living in countries outside the African continent, such as France, Germany, or even Japan. The winner of this year’s Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor, Moridja Kitenge Banza of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is actually living in France. Afropolitanism, as it was manifest in Dak’Art “IN,” focused on urban, transnational contemporary modernities. This is fundamentally different to older pan-African concepts, or Négritude in Senghor’s Senegal, which highlighted cultural aspects of rural societies in Africa.
Another remark concerns the recent African modernities as they are postulated in the official cultural discourses. In the “IN” space, only two works of art referred to rural cultural traditions: the one of Oswald Uruakpa (Nigeria), “Before the Cermony“ (n.y.), and the one of Mwamba Mulangala (Zambia) “Guardians of Tradition” (2008). More typical for this event were for instance the works of Patrick Gaël Wokmeni (Cameroon), “Jeunes Rappeurs de Douala” (photographs, n.y.), or the photograph series of the brothers Hasan and Husain Essop (South Africa; 2009). In these works we find aspects of urban modernity in contemporary Africa, but as visions, visions of youth in Duala, or visions on the values of Islamic practices.
Rather, it was the “OFF” space, not structured by selection, which manifested a pluralism of multiple expressions, stemming from Africanity, to perspectives with rural cultural art traditions, and to art with strong global connections. It was here that one could find very close connections to social realities of present African societies. Pascal Nampémanla (Côte d’Ivoire, lives in Dakar), dealt with the Tabarski, “It is not a question of money” (2009). It consisted of an installation about the Islamic ritual of goat sacrifices, several months after the Ramadan. In the gallery Atiss, Édwige Aplogan (Benin) dealt with politics, culture, and economics of the Republic of Benin in the years 2059 – a critique against the hegemony of the North. “Child Trafficking” (2010) was a work of Nigerian artist Ayno Ayna, directly referring to recent, concrete local social situations. Finally, I would like to mention the connection between the local longing for recognition in the global art world and the asymmetrical power relations within it, by practices of appropriation, circulation and exclusion of art works from the South, the installation at the French Cultural Institute by Hervé Youmbi (Cameroon), “Ces totems qui hantent la mémoire des fils de Mamadou” (2010).
I started my contribution by considering the system of present art Biennales as a deterritorialised global culture. No single art Biennale may be considered by itself. The relationship among all of them is important to see the specific endeavour of creating a particular, dynamic zone of contact. Considering Dak’art in the venue of 2010 within the cultural politics of Senegal, I referred to an arena to show the dynamics of the various cultural and political discourses. Finally, the contact zone, realised between “IN” and “OFF” spaces, articulates new challenges in the production of visual arts, beyond the search for Africanity while accepting the multitude of visual representations ¬– towards transitions in what we may call African modernities at large.
Uncertainties in some way seem to constraint social creativity. Dak’Art, as Gérard Sénac, President of the Orientation Committee stated in his inaugural address during the opening ceremony on May 7 at the Théâtre Sorano in Dakar, is constantly considered moribond. Nearly every two years, the international art critique does no more believe in it – but it occurs, often in spite and because of all problems (Sénac, May 2010).
Within the arena, I firstly showed in a historical perspective international art critique discourses, claims by local artists, and interests of Senegalese State institutions. These frictions keep Dak’Art under permanent threat. In 2010, the asymmetrical power discourses, dominated by the President’s side, led to financial uncertainty. Actually, in February/March 2010 the venue of May-June was not secured, something impossible for European-North American organisational thought. These constraints, however, were enacted in a creative way by the selection committee and the Secretariat of the Biennale, and thereafter opened new possibilities. By this I mean the decision to select only artists who have so far not exhibited in former venues. While this selection was a risk, as a curator told me, and it was critically considered by some European specialists, the selection committee succeeded in as far as most of these artists insisted on mobility and free choice for new trajectories. Uncertainties in this respect gave way to new perspectives, as some Dakar based gallery owners acquainted, namely that Dak’Art may have found a new field within the global culture of biennales, conveying visuality, presence, to newer generations and their visions. The next venue will show whether this route in the search of contemporary art of Africa may be continued, whether it will contribute to a new artistic dimension of Dak’Art, and will allocate it a new position within this global culture of biennales.
- I am grateful to the Secretariat of the Biennale, which allowed the present research.
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