The African Renaissance Monument, built by North Korean workers, is an unlikely gatekeeper to the city of Dakar. The three towering bronze-clad figures loom 50 metres high over the suburb of Oukam from the side of the road that leads to the airport; they’re monstrously kitsch, but curiously wonderful, too. A bare-breasted woman is flung forth by a muscly man; in his arms he holds a young child who points to the western sky. From the back of a battered taxi, late at night on the evening of my arrival to Dak’Art, my first sighting of these giants came accompanied by a torrent of bitter criticism from my driver.
The next afternoon, at a press conference for a biennial already a day late to open, a smattering of journalists, artists, curators and students huddled on the Place de Souvenir, another folly of egotism built by Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal from 2000 until 2012. It’s a flat expanse of concrete, flanked by empty exhibition halls that are centred around a colossal sculpture of the African continent, the Atlantic Ocean a glittering frame behind it. I was reminded of Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photographic installation Icarus 13 (2008), in which parallel symbols of independence and state-building in Angola (financed by the Soviets) are represented as relics from a long-abandoned space programme. Amidst the dusty streets lined with fruit sellers and hawkers, these enormous, empty monuments feel utterly alien. Along with the Grand Théâtre National de Dakar (‘a gift from China’), this portfolio of prestige projects was home to the official biennial programme, and for the first three days of my visit – while waiting for the opening of an exhibition beset by delays, or rather, working to its own time – it gave the sense of being an instrument of both proud internationalism and government policy.
Senegal’s beloved first president, the poet, politician and cultural theorist Léopold Sédar Senghor – a central figure in the négritude movement – initiated the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres in 1966. Since then, there has been a long and impressive history of cultural projects in West Africa. The position of Dak’Art, however, which was inaugurated in 1992, has been precarious. This year, the Senegalese government was the event’s major funder, helped by the Algerian Ministry of Culture, the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie and the Union Economique et Monetaire Ouest Africaine. Given the historic funding challenges and poor management of the biennial, each year it returns is both a victory and a new beginning.
In her review of the first iteration of Dak’Art for Third Text, Clémentine Deliss imagined a better future for the festival: That it ‘may well be led by artists, voiced by artists and made visible to the public through channels which once again re-establish the fine wire of communication between the work, the artist and the public.’ The biennial I experienced this year, although still struggling with entrenched bureaucratic problems, made a tangible effort to forge these links in a meaningful way.
The theme – chosen by its three curators Elise Atangana, Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi and Abdelkader Damani – was ‘Producing the Common’. Although it was not always entirely clear how such a broad and theoretically-informed theme linked the works, the main exhibition did – through a mix of hiccups, delays and a pragmatic laying bare of its own processes – explore how artistic engagement can rouse something shared between us, the audience, and also the participants, the state and the locals on the streets outside.
The verb of the title introduced a sense of activity, a collective unfolding of how a biennial might work in the African context and how the format could be meaningful in Senegal. One of Senghor’s legacies is the rich tradition of artistic production – across literature, film and visual art – that exists throughout the country, but at present there is a dearth of institutional support for young artists emerging from the popular National School of Fine Arts. This makes OFF, an open-submission fringe festival showcasing young and ‘outsider’ artists displayed in a mix of restaurants, banks, hospitals, car workshops and bars in over 300 exhibitions across the city, even more important. Also including AfroPixel 4 – a festival of digital art centred around the community space Kër Thiossane – the biennial’s looser structure seemed to encourage a more porous relation between the art works and their various publics. Given the vast intermix of approaches spread across the city in seemingly countless venues, Dak’Art was perhaps better conceptualized as a context for the thriving of multiple and uneven artistic experiences, rather than as an international exhibition alone.
Regardless of its tentative relationship with the rest of the artistic landscape of the city, the centrepiece of Dak’Art – the four-part exhibition ‘Producing the Common’ gathering artists from Africa and the diaspora – was impressive. It was a large, if in places haphazard, presentation of works in hangar-like warehouse spaces on a busy road out of the city. Many prominent names were present: Kader Attia, who displayed a model of Dakar’s iconic Hôtel de l’Indépendance, assembled from metal locker boxes (Indépendance Tchao, 2014); John Akomfrah, who was screening Perepetia (2012), his languorous film inspired by an Albrecht Dürer painting of an unknown black couple; and Candice Breitz who, in a biting film Extra (2011), inserts herself into the popular South Africa soap opera Generations as an incongruous piece of furniture.
As a result of the decision not to include previous participants, there was more space to explore a number of exciting emerging artists. In particular, there was a strong presentation of sound works: Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s LOStlantic (2014) filled a lonely mezzanine in the first hangar with a soundscape from a Lagos street, emitted by a collection of white pillars – skyscrapers from an imagined futuristic city, Eko Atlantic. It is a beautiful, bittersweet piece, a reflection of the rampant hyper-modernity into which super-cities like Lagos catapult themselves with little thought to the delicate ecologies that exist on the streets below. Similarly, Egyptian artist Mohamed Shoukry’s The City The Ghost (2013) addresses the momentous power shift that occurred in Egypt in 2011 via an aural installation suspended, as if weightless, from a grid of speakers, radiating a mass of street noise, music and ambient sounds that weave into a symphony by turns delicate and overbearing. Elsewhere, works that intervened in public space extended the theme of the ‘common’ outwards, gesturing towards art’s ability to upend tacit social structures. The young South African artist Kira Kemper’s sculpture Colonnade Parade (2013) lay across the warehouse threshold; a bulbous, wedding-dress-as-alien-life-form, the remnants of a costume that the artist once wore in Company’s Gardens in Cape Town – a setting first created by European settlers in 1650 and now used as a popular wedding photo backdrop. Nearby, Malawian Samson Kambalu’s films Early Film (2013) and The Last Man in Paris (2013) also took public space as their arena. With Duchampian mischief, Kambalu’s brief ‘rants’ – short, Chaplin-eqsue gestural sequences – showed the artist acting up in public, part of a wider research inquiry into ranting and dandyism as styles that enact a form of dissent.
Throughout the exhibition and across the city, bold photographic works engaged, in many cases quite explicitly, with urgent political issues. Nigerian artist Andrew Esiebo’s Who We Are (2010–ongoing), was presented both at Dak’Art and as part of the landmark exhibition ‘Precarious Imaging’, at Raw Material Company, a beautiful non-profit centre for ‘art, knowledge and society’ run by curator Koyo Kouoh. Also including work by Attia, Jim Chuchu, Amanda Kerdahi M. and Zanele Muholi, the exhibition explored the consequences of visibility in relation to homosexuality in Africa, and the violence and prejudice this incites. Esiebo’s portraits of gay men in their homes, reclining on their own sofas, lent a quiet boldness and courage to the biennial. At a time when discourse over homosexuality in Africa is ever-more violent, and often troublingly posed in terms of being ‘un-African’, both Esiebio’s youthful, warm portraits and Raw Material Company’s courage in engaging with these issues affirmed the exhibition’s potential significance within a wider societal context, beyond the art crowds it draws in. In the second week of the biennial, the facade of the gallery was vandalized late at night, a further reminder that these questions are dangerous, imperative and ongoing.
Given Dak’Art’s attempts to be outward-looking and to engage with the city, it feels disingenuous to write about the art works alone as fully representative of the event. The Kenyan artist, Sam Hopkins, whose work was included in the main exhibition, told me that for the installation ‘there were two drills for 60 artists. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but the process of 60 artists putting up a show in these conditions was itself a kind of “producing of the common”.’ Dak’Art’s search for commonality, exploring (not without mishap) how contemporary approaches to art and its circulation can strengthen a contemporary African landscape of art and criticism, lay in its baring of its own mechanisms, extending process into its curatorial inquiry. As such, the art works were only one part of a wider matrix of questions, for which the biennial proved itself to be an important and engaged platform.