In the age of the biennale, it takes quite an effort to track them all. While the flashy international ones have garnered most attention, there is no shortage of regional versions that focus on specific areas: Manifesta (the European biennale); Borealis (the Nordic Biennale); the Asia-Pacific Triennale; and 'Dak'Art', the Dakar Biennale, which began as an international exhibition, but has since narrowed its focus to become a pan-African event. But what could the notion of Pan-Africanism possibly mean as we enter the last years of the century? Often misunderstood as carrying overtones of a militant, nationalist agenda, Pan-Africanism does have a broader philosophical position that cuts across positions of politics and culture, and, when articulately deployed, is capable of providing a common platform upon which Africa and its diaspora can more effectively engage the world in broader conversation. This was clearly the impetus under which Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, staged the spectacular 'First World Negro Arts Festival' in 1966 in Dakar. Senghor's extravaganza brought together poets, artists, writers, performers, and musicians from all over the black world, from Nigeria to Brazil to the United States. It was unique, invigorating and consciousness-raising, staged in the heady immediacy of post-Independence and the black power era of the 60s. In the shiny newness of the Senegalese state, cut loose from French colonialism, the festival was a utopian project par excellence.
'Dak'Art' is heir to Senghorian negritude and to his brand of Modernism. In fact, nothing in terms of official culture in Senegal has been able to escape his pervasive influence. For places like Dakar, such exhibitions are ways to reinvent and contest the Modernist paradigm. Under a broad platform of the 'plastic arts' this year's Biennale staged exhibitions of furniture design, textiles, fashion and art. While this was a welcome opportunity to chart activities by Africans in other fields, it inevitably proved distracting, and gave the Biennale the air of a market convention. The art exhibition itself appeared uninterested in any curatorial initiative or position: the selection of artists and the works they presented seemed both ambiguous and speculative. This was a missed opportunity since the atmosphere in Dakar was one of the most hospitable and optimistic of all art events related to Africa that I have ever attended.
Despite the paucity of really engaged and innovative contemporary work, the exhibition, though small and often crowded, still presented the opportunity to see new work by contemporary African artists working in the region. The Senegalese artist Mansour Ciss, for example, produced a spectacular installation of light, sound, slide projection and photographs in a space that hauntingly evoked the sense of being caught in a forest of images, while the Cameroonian artist Godfried Kadjo showed an installation of a projected image above a net-covered bed and a small monitor piece. Carrie Mae Weems presented a dreamy installation of banner-like scrims, silkscreened with photographs of herself amid what appeared to be ruined classical Greek temples. The installation was accompanied by a recorded soundtrack of Weems reciting a text or story of passage through this historical ruin, conveying her conflicted sense of place in Africa.
Like Venice, 'Dak'Art' gives out awards to artists. The winner of the Grand Prize was the Senegalese artist Viye Diba, whose work appears to be painting, but he prefers the name 'objects' for the gatherings of clustered stretchers on which he has delicately incised small, ghostly figures on softly painted surfaces. The abstract protruding forms of Diba's work have an enigmatic appearance and are conceptualised around questions of verticality that Diba associates with African sculpture. The objects' weathered and worn appearance also brings to mind the washed-out surfaces of buildings and walls in urban Dakar.
The second prize went to British/Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor, whose painting installation explored the commodification of the black body through sports (especially boxing) and slavery. Donkor's project, a triptych called From Slave to Champ (1997-98), utilised archival photographs of black boxers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, posed against very stark primary coloured backgrounds and standing inside what looks like a slave vessel. Likewise, the photographs and lightboxes of Oladele Bamgboye, who lives in London, depicted densely layered body parts and forms that appear to be computer manipulated but are achieved through different exposures and layered printing.
Small commercial galleries were also very active in Dakar, using the opportunity presented by the Biennale to showcase different artists and projects, and, overall, 'Dak'Art' was a pleasant experience, full of promise. It made tangible the idea that there could be a common platform for African artists working in different contexts, with varying levels of experience on the continent and outside, to show their work in Africa.