BY Mai Sennaar in Opinion | 16 AUG 23

Dispatch from Dakar: West Africa’s Art Incubator

In the shadow of unprecedented political unrest, the capital continues to galvanize artists around La Nuit des Galeries and introduce audiences to new talent

BY Mai Sennaar in Opinion | 16 AUG 23

I returned to Dakar in March, a day after Senegal’s most turbulent street protests in 30 years were sparked by the detention and trial of opposition leader and 2024 presidential hopeful, Ousmane Sonko. Thousands of young people took to the streets in demonstrations that turned fatal. Despite the uneasy atmosphere, I eventually fell into the familiar rhythm of the city. The sandy streets are marked by a characteristic bustle, a seamless flow reflected in the thousand near collisions between motorcyclists, pedestrians, taxicabs and car rapides. Under the shadow of protest, Dakar’s annual exhibition showcase, La Nuit des Galeries, powered on. 

Featuring galleries and artists that figure prominently in the Dak’art Biennale – one of the largest contemporary art events in West Africa –  La Nuit des Galeries galvanizes the artistic community and introduces audiences to new talent. It is the kind of citywide pop-up party for which Dakar is adored: rich in its local influences while embodying an international sensibility.

Amadou Camara Gueye, La Plage
Amadou Camara Gueye, La Plage 2, 2016, woodblock print, 65 cm × 50 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Atiss Dakar

In this vein are paintings by Amadou Camara Gueye, presented by Galerie Atiss Dakar. A native of Senegal and a major figure of its art scene, Gueye’s practice centres spontaneity and freedom. With vibrant and romantic portrayals of local life and routine, his work reflects the commitment to tradition and community values that sustains Senegal’s sometimes uneasy equilibrium.

Galerie Atiss Dakar also hosted an exhibition curated by founder Aissa Dione, exploring the resonances of Italy’s 1960s and ’70s Arte Povera movement in West Africa. Interrogating the impact of globalization and the adoption of non-traditional artistic materials, Dione highlights the work of Senegalese native Serigne Mbaye Camara.

Serigne Mbaye Camara
Serigne Mbaye Camara, Souvenir Souvenir, 2020, textile, wood, material, 1.5 m × 1.5 m. Courtesy: Galerie Atiss Dakar

The recent protests could have profound implications for the future of the local arts scene. Ousmane Bâ, a Tokyo-based visual artist with Senegalese roots whose internationally acclaimed works occupy a space between painting and digital drawing, told me that, in his view, the next Dak’art Biennale will be ‘more politicized’ and ‘the youth and the artists here have defended democracy and will continue to do so.’ He added: ‘It is very inspiring for me as an artist.’ 

Not only will Bâ be participating in the 2023–24 edition of Kehinde Wiley’s Black Rock artist residency in Dakar, but he is also the latest standout in Galerie Atiss Dakar’s informal home-based residency program. The programme has become a fixture in the international arts scene and regularly hosts the African diaspora’s foremost talents, including Oumar Ball, Themba Kumalo, Patrick Joel Tatcheda and Moussa Traore.

Ousmane Bâ, Les Combattants, 2022, wood panel, Japanese pigment on washi, collage and painting. 2 m × 1.4 m. Courtesy: Galerie Atiss Dakar

The programme and the gallery’s curatorial work have allowed founder Dione to realise her vision of transforming the curation and exhibition of contemporary art across West Africa. ‘I just love to be in touch with artists,’ Dione told me after I accepted a generous invitation to her home. She adds that before she founded the gallery in 1996 ‘everyone was exhibiting at the French Cultural Centre or the Goethe Institute. There was really no [indigenous] option.’

I spot a painting by Congolese artist Ngimbi Bakambana Luve hanging above the stairs. Luve is just one of the many artists Galerie Atiss Dakar has promoted over the years. In addition to Senegal, her gallery represents artists from across the continent including Mali, South Africa and Rwanda. European galleries, Dione points out, have historically been quick to poach artists that she has supported and nurtured. International galleries muscling in on rising stars can undermine the sustainability of the West African art scene.

Beach in Dakar
The Atlantic coast from the back of Aissa Dione's home. Courtesy: Mai Sennaar

To solve this, Dione has been collaborating with art galleries on the continent, including Galerie CHAB in Mali. A 1998 partnership with Cameroon‘s Galerie MAM has enabled them both to become frequent participants at international fairs, such as Art Paris. The two are also engaged in another joint venture to present six of their artists at Art Dubai next March. Other upcoming collaborations include programming with Dr. Jareh Das, an independent Nigerian curator, for Partcours

Dione’s accomplishments are representative of a region that in the last few years has taken great strides to present African artists and those from the diaspora internationally. One may hope that, despite the unprecedented political uncertainty facing Senegal this year, its artists will continue to reap the benefits of prestige and institutional support in the global arts ecosystem.

Main image and thumbnail:  Amadou Camara Gueye, Diar Diar, 2018, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Galerie Atiss Dakar

Mai Sennaar is a writer and creative director. Her debut novel They Dream in Gold (2024) is forthcoming from the Picador imprint at Macmillan in the UK and Sarah Jessica Parker's SJP Lit at Zando in the US.