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Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi - The Artists and Dak’art : Competing or Consensual Agenda ?

Since 1992, Dak’art has grown into a dominant biennale in Africa, a must see for the international art audience who follow developments in contemporary art on the continent. Framed as a pan-African biennale by its organizers/sponsors and for the primary reason of projecting the African voice in the international art space, the biennale showcases only artists of African descent. Yet, Dak’art’s important ideological framing as a pan-African biennale would seem to work at cross- purposes with the agenda of the artists who see the biennale not necessarily as an African biennale, but as an international biennale in Africa. The biennale is viewed as a crucial mediating platform that helps to launch artists from Africa into the international mainstream. It brings artists in contact with critical constituents of the art world such as curators, critics, gallerists and collectors, and also helps them in thinking on how to negotiate the reified terrain of the international art system. In this light, how does the biennale address artists’ expectation while remaining committed to the ideology of pan-Africanism ? Dak’art 2010 provided a context to pay close attention to how the biennale’s overarching ideology is shaped by both the artists and the organizers.

The 9th edition of Dak’art from May 7 – June 7, 2010 was a moment for critical stock taking on the biennale’s impact on contemporary art in Africa since the last twenty years. [1] Devoid of the hustle and bustle that characterized previous iterations ; Dak’art 2010 seemed low-keyed. The recurring problem of paucity of funding almost jeopardized the staging of the biennale, resulting in the scaling back of programming. The “IN” exhibition titled “Retrospectives – Perspectives,” was a two-part interconnected exhibition with fewer artworks than preceding biennales. While it lacked a curatorial direction, the exhibition produced a forum for dialogue between artists who are past winners of the biennale’s Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor, artists who were exhibiting for the first time in the biennale, and the viewing public. This dialogue was mediated thematically and in the exhibition design. It allowed the two exhibitions, placed in the two separate buildings of the Musee Theodor Monod d’Art Africain, to feed off each other.

Although its relevance in the biennale scheme of things has been criticized, the design exhibition component, a key feature of the “IN” exhibition in previous biennales, was a noticeable absence. This absence, however, was mitigated by the in-house exhibition of minimalist furniture and lamp shades, and photography at Sene Studio Architecture office space at Point E, as part of the OFF exhibitions. The biennale’s OFF exhibitions have increased exponentially to over 200 from about 100 in the 2008 biennale. They also showed tremendous improvement in their organization and quality of some of the works. Situated in public buildings, government and private offices, private galleries, private homes, curio shops, restaurants, embassies and cultural centers in Dakar and surrounding cities, the “OFF” exhibitions brought local and international publics in close interaction with an impressive array of photography, performances, video installations, mixed-media, easel paintings, sculptures, animations and functional designs.

Yet, another plausible reason for the low-keyed nature of Dak’art 2010’s may be connected to the coincidental fiftieth anniversary of Senegal’s independence, and for most countries in Africa. Hence, the biennale provided a contemplative space to reflect on the highs and lows of Africa’s independence trajectory, a point, arguably, not lost on both the organizers and participating artists. In the related themes and ideas explored by artists in both the IN and OFF exhibitions, an emergent sense of collective consciousness was perceptible and which fed into the ideological thrust of the biennale. [2] Embedded in this idea of a collective consciousness are a set of inter-related questions : is there a Dak’art aesthetics which can be read as a pan-African ? If so, do artists consciously tap into this aesthetics in order to be selected to exhibit in the biennale ? Or, can this aesthetics be viewed as a prevailing consciousness which defines contemporary art in Africa given that this consciousness was equally visible in the OFF exhibitions ?

Ndary Lo’s solo exhibition “Taking Off” at Eiffage, Hervé Youmbi’s installation “Ces Totems qui hantent la mémoire des fils de Mamamdou” at the LSS French Cultural Institute, and Bakinado Boucoum’s “Appel a la resistance No 3,” which was part of the Retrospective-Perspectives, all addressed fifty years of independence in Africa, colonialism, and the broader pan-African history of black resistance. [3] Lo’s trademark metal sculpture installations of human figures reflected a consistency about his aesthetic vocabulary and intellectual engagement with history. The exhibition space, an old airy colonial building, was central to the message the Senegalese artist wanted to convey in terms of its history and architectural design. The mass of figures in various frozen poses of mobility - some suspended in the air and others walking and kneeling - covered all the corridors and the central rectangular space of the one-storey Eiffage building. For Lo, the exhibition was a call for Africa to move beyond the failures of fifty years of independence and begin to fulfill its immense potentials. An important highlight of the exhibition was Lo’s inclusion of a massive acrylic painting of historical leaders of Black resistance. This was also the focus of Boucoum’s “Appel a la resistance No 3.” In the large scale painting which included portraits of Angela Davis, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jnr., Patrice Lumumba, and Nelson Mandela, the Senegalese painter paid homage to a pan-African memory of Black resistance.

Unlike the focus on renascent Africa and the celebration of Black heroes by Lo and Boucoum, Youmbi’s multi-media installation cast a critical gaze on neocolonialism, Africa’s culpability in its underdevelopment and continued dependence on the West in the last fifty years. The installation, which works on multiple levels, included photographic portraits of some of the artists who participated in Dak’art 2010, and the ubiquitous woven cheap plastic bags found across Africa. The Cameroonian artist stacked them on top of one another to create totem poles. His interrogation expanded to include the artwork as an object of consumer culture, and the power dynamics that define the contemporary global art system through the art markets (both local and international) and institutions such as museums, auction houses, festivals and fairs. Youmbi examines the delicate position of the artist from Africa in this complex matrix.

The position of the contemporary artist from Africa in the international art system was equally explored by artists including Mordija Kitenge Banza (DRC), Ike Francis Okoronkwo (Nigeria), and Chiekhou Ba (Senegal). Filtered through the lens of identity, a loaded subject that continues to be examined in succeeding Dak’art biennales, these artists self-reflexively interrogated their being in the world. [4] This focus on identity, however, followed a path different from the racializing discourse that colored African artistic identity in the 1960s and 1970s, and the politics of multiculturalism and diversity the framed the politics of identity in the 1990s. Rather, it engages the multiple cultural references which define the postcolonial subject.

In “Hymne à Nous,” the naked and multiple bodies of the artist, Banza, is arranged as a choir singing a mélange that draws from French, Congo and Belgium anthems, and Beethoven’s Ode an die Fruede. The video installation spoke of the cultural fragments which create the composite identity of Moridja who is Luba from the Congo DRC, a former colonial subject of Belgium now living and working in France. Similarly, in an untitled sculpture installation, Cheikhou Ba multiplied an anonymous Black body to address the ways in which identity works on many registers. The installation was part of his solo exhibition also titled Retrospectives-Perspectives. Although Okoronkwo’s “A Traveller’s Song” lacked technical finesse, it was conceptually accomplished. The collage piece was made of a glut of expended phone cards, airline boarding pass stubs and baggage tags. The work captured the privileged nomadism that trails contemporary artistic practice. In highlighting a link between communication, itinerancy and consumerism, Okoronkwo’s work silently echoed the neo-liberal processes that connect Africa to the globalization grid.

It can therefore be argued that there is a sense of a collective consciousness in the themes and ideas addressed by these artists. If that consciousness translates into a pan-African aesthetic ideology as advanced by Dak’art, remains open for interrogation. Yet, some artists have begun to question the pan-African parameters of the biennale, suggesting that it is restrictive and could stifle further development of contemporary art in Africa. [5] Despite its obvious merits, the problem with such proposition is that it not only fails to contextualize what led to the creation of the biennale ab initio but also recuperates the ghosts of Dak’art 1992 and the Second Johannesburg biennale. [6] Moreover, the biennale’s OFF exhibitions can address such concerns raised by artists because of their independence and openness. In fact, Dak’art 2010 OFF exhibitions included the works of artists who do not have filial connections to Africa.

In sum, it is important to reiterate that each biennale has a reason for its being, a factor that shapes its conceptual and aesthetic frameworks. Dak’art is no exception. It continues to fulfill its core objective of launching contemporary artists from Africa into the international art system. By reflecting the Senghorian twin-concept of enrancinement (rootedness) and ouverture (opening), Dak’art is rooted in its pan-African rhetoric, yet open to present Africa’s own version of internationalism. [7] It is this idea of alternative internationalism that Leopold Senghor speaks of when he argued that cultures should be allowed to contribute their quota to a universal civilization. Both the organizers/sponsors of Dak’art and exhibiting artists contribute to the fulfillment of this Senghorian dictum by helping to shape Africa’s participation in the international art system.

[1] Although established in 1990 as a literary and visual arts biennale, Dak’art shifted its focus to only visual arts in 1992, and has remained so ever since.
[2] Contrary to the Jungian adaptation of collective unconscious in framing African artistic modernism by early interlocutors such as Frank McEwen, I am positing the notion of collective consciousness to capture the ways in which artists in/from Africa engage with similar ideas and realities independent of one another. Most of the works in both the IN and OFF exhibitions reflected this collective consciousness as the exhibiting artists attempted to interrogate Africa as a place (in its multifaceted realities) in a globalized world, and as an idea.
[3] Ndary Lo’s solo exhibition Taking Off and Hervé Youmbi’s installation piece “Ces Totems qui hantent la mémoire des fils de Mamamdou” were OFF exhibitions, Boucoum’s “Appel a la resistance No 3” was in the “Perspectives” component of the IN exhibition.
[4] While Banza’s and Okoronkwo’s works were part of the “IN” exhibition, Ba organized a solo exhibition at Hotel Al Afifa on Jules Ferry Road, as part of the OFF exhibitions.
[5] There is no broad consensus among artists on this issue. While some of the artists believe that the biennale’s ideological framework should be re-visited, others are of the view that opening up the biennale to non-African artists would deal a deadly blow to the soul of the biennale. Personal communication with the following artists, Soly Cissé (May 15, 18 2010) ; Moridja Kitenge Banza (May 19, 2010) ; Ndary Lo (May 22, 2010) ; Chiekhou Ba (May 26, 2010) ; Viyé Diba (May 29) ; and Sy Amadou Kane (June 8, 2010).
[6] See Clementine Deliss. “Dak’Art 92 : Where Internationalism Falls Apart.” African Arts, Vol. 26, Issue. 3 (July 1993):18-23 ; and Araeen, Rasheed. 2003. "Dak’Art 1992-2002 : The Problems of Representation, Contextualisation, and Critical Evaluation in Contemporary African Art As Presented by the Dakar Biennale." Third Text : Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture. Vol. 17, No. 62 (2003) : 93-106. See also Bisi Silva. “The Johannesburg Biennale.” Artnet. Accessed June 17, 2010 ; and Carol Becker and Okwui Enwezor. “The Second Johannesburg Biennale.” Art Journal, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Summer, 1998), pp. 86-107. Accessed June 21, 2010.
[7] The twin-concept of enrancinement and ouverture foregrounded President Leopold Senghor’s cultural policy of drawing from indigenous socio-cultural systems while being open to international cultural frames of reference.

Nzewi was educated in Nigeria and South Africa, and is currently a Ph.D student in Art History at Emory University, USA. In addition to publishing critical reviews and essays in Nigeria and internationally, he has participated, as a visual, in international exhibitions, artists’ residencies and workshops in Africa, Europe and the United States.

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