The opening of the exhibition
Dakar, the 10th of may 2002.
At the esplanade of CICES, a conference centre just North of Dakar, the crowd is dense. In a minute the large hall will stage the opening of Dak'art 2002, the fifth biennial of contemporary African art, traditionally organised by the Senegalese department of culture. Visitors and officials come and go, as eight ethnic dance- and percussion groups are working very hard to present an overview of Senegal's cultural diversity. However, there is so little space left between the different groups that they are forced to just give it all and hope for the best. Due to a lack of coherence, the innocent listener is at risk of drowning in a cacophony of sound. And this makes a good impression of the days to come; many and much, and much at the same time. Sometimes a first impression is a good one.
The big shots are well represented at the opening of Dak'art. Amadou Tidiane Wone, minister of culture, is sided by his colleagues from the department of foreign affairs and commerce, and also present are the ministers of culture from Togo, Cape Verdian Islands and Mauritius, high officials from the EU (European Union) and the UEMOA (Economic and Monetary Union of West-Africa), diplomats and other guests. We are obviously dealing with a mainstream event here. The same conclusion can be drawn from the VIP treatment that is lavished on the foreign biennial guests, most of whom are staying at the first class Novotel. For one week they are carried from one cultural event to the next in a large bus preceded by a motorized policeman whose lights and siren assure a free passage.
World White Walls
Where the manifestation of Dak'art might give the impression to be somewhat detached from the African reality, the massive overview exhibit that forms the hart of the biennial, testifies to a large commitment to this reality. Past the economic art project of the Senegalese Mansour Ciss - a money exchange where Euro's can be exchanged for Afro's- at the entrance of the exposition, visitors reach an installation from Emeka Udemba. Udemba, a Nigerian, created two transparent corridors that refer to the public world of airports and customs. The left corridor is wide and lavishly decorated with roses, and it is meant for US and EU citizens. The right corridor, reserved for 'others', is narrow and paved with shattered glass. These World White Walls look very imposing, and the message is clear.
Engagement also seems to be a central theme in the work of Ndary Lô, the Senegalese artist that gets to go home with the most important award of this biennial event, the Grand Prix Léopold Sédar Senghor. The winning piece is called 'La longue marche du changement' and consists of a large group of tall, thin figures, made out of metal, that wade their way through a bedding of sand and old plastic toe-slippers on to a better future. After the handing out of the award Lô is ambushed by the press and other media, so it takes some journalistic skills to get him to spare a few minutes of his time to comment on his work. 'After a lot of war and misery the time has come in this new millennium for Africa to change it's direction. An artist is a visionary that can point out new roads. My aim is to motivate people into action, in a manner of speaking.'
Art critic Wouter Welling is one of the Dutch guests on this fifth edition of Dak'art. According to him international biennials are getting to be more of the same. 'Whether you go to Venice or Havana, you get to see the same thing'. This biennial stands out though because a major part of the selected work refers to an African setting, according to Welling. We can differentiate between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa: 'In general, North-African art is more refined and meditative, where as art from sub-Saharan Africa often carries a more direct character.'
When asked, Welling explains that he thinks that Ndary Lô's work is absolutely relevant. But had he been in the position to donate this award, it most probably would have gone to the Algerian Mouhamed Ounouh. He is intrigued by Ounou's installation 'Ecoutez moi et tout ira bien'. Suspended over the floor is a real to life clay doll, surrounded by headless figures made from barbed wire and transparent plastic. The work is serene and terrifying at the same time and it shows surrender as well as threat. Welling: 'Of course I don't know the intention of the artist but I suspect that the clay doll refers to the African tradition.'
Quality and innovation
It's remarkable that of the 42 pieces of this exhibit, Senegalese artists have made no less than 13 of them. Of course this is largely due to the fact that a lot of the entries are from Senegal (108 out of 352 portfolios), but these statistics inevitably hurt the Pan-African character of Dak'art. However, Ery Camera, chairman of the Dak'art jury feels that in this aspect a lot has changed already since the earlier biennials. 'For instance, we used to have relatively many South African entries, but the entries have become much more divers. Now it's just Central Africa that's underrepresented, but that's largely related to the quality of the work from there.'
Quality has been the key word in selecting the works on display. Ery Camara: 'We also look for innovation. With every piece, we examine to what extent it can enrich the vocabulary of contemporary African art. We don't want to be repeating ourselves. We also have more variation this year because the selection is much larger. And there is more variation in the applied techniques, for instance the phenomenon of video-installations.' Especially North-African artists have adopted this genre, as has the Algerian artist Zoulika Bouabdellah with 'Ecran'. Her video shows shots of a television screen that's permanently showing the head of an Arabic man. Next to the television stands a woman. Piece by piece she is covering the screen with black paint. To look and to be looked at, to unveil and to cover, truth and projection, man and woman.
Ndary Lô tries to become human
TI think that Camara and his team have put together a beautiful and significant exhibit but there is some criticism to be heard.
Lô's day is made however. His work 'Marche du changement' is doing well in every aspect. One day after the award ceremony his exposition 'Nitëntu' will open at Studio Eberis, a gallery in down town Dakar. 'Nitëntu' is a Wolof term that doesn't translate easily into English but it would mean something like 'To try to be human'. Once again we see tall, thin figures that often find themselves under excruciating circumstances. A group of marching skeletons stands out but also other statues seem to balance between life and death. Lô presents an intense oeuvre with a powerful story, but one may wonder about the originality of his visual language.. Didn't we see these statues with Giacometti? ' I'm not going to answer that one' says Lô. He rolls up his cuffs and shows me his tall, skinny limbs: 'Look, I'm from the Sahel!' In other words, Ndary Lô's human being isn't a Giacometti figure but an inhabitant of the Sahel, a human being that tries to be human in the vast savannah of Western Africa.
The vernissage (preview) at Studio Eberis in no way reflects the struggle that's so omni-present in Lô's work. The exhibition hall breaths space and distinction. Eat fancy hors d'oeuvres and drink as much as you fancy, a camera crew recording the event for the grandchildren and the viewers at home, and prissy French ladies in designer cloths floating around with an air of knowing it all. This is not Dakar, the capital of Senegal. This is the international space of art and culture where members of the high society (is it imagined or real?) meet up and then trod on again. An airport. The corridor leading from the gate to the exit is wide and lavishly decorated with roses, and now and again some shattered glass. In this setting the difference between EU citizens and 'others' is not quite clear.
The trap of identity
The donation of the "Prince Claus Fund", one of the sponsors, was supposed to be used for the 'Showcasing African Art Symposium'. This appears to be some sort of working title for an event that is called 'Rencontres et Échanges'. Three days in a row there are lectures and forums on 'Contemporary art production and new identities'. Indeed, that's a very wide, if not unlimited subject, on which much has been said and written.
Ngoné Fall, a young Senegalese member of the jury, takes her stand on the identity of contemporary African artists in an exposition that she put together at this biennial. Fall made a remarkable choice in selecting her three artists. Berry Bickle is from Zimbabwe and white. Aimé Ntakiyica is from Burundi but lives in Belgium. And then there is Amahiguere Dolo, a Dogon from Mali, who wasn't really supposed to become a sculptor because he comes from a farming tradition. These three artists do not have an old tradition, neither a new one, according to Fall. Theirs is a tradition of innovation.
In the following discussion the issue of an African identity gets related to the globalisation that is rapidly taking place. It's important that African artists venture into the international art circuit without drowning in it. Cultural diversity is a worldwide fact that cannot be ignored. Ngoné Fall: 'In a sense all Africans are hybrids but at the same time we have to calculate on not being seen by others. Sooner or later you will run into the stereotype of the friendly African. I am not African, I am Senegalese! And I'm not friendly at all! What binds me to these three artists that I have selected? That's the first question that comes up.'
In his lecture, Yakouba Konaté, philosopher from the Ivory Coast, takes up the position that the choice to present oneself as an African or not, is up to the individual artist. Take Manu Dibango. When he wakes up in the morning he says to himself: I'm going to make music. He doesn't say: I'm going to make African music. However, in reality it's hard to forget the African part of your identity, it haunts you, in a sense. Konaté: 'We're not born as Africans; to be African is a cultural effect.'
Following the trail of the minister
The first week of the biennial, which lasted until the tenth of June, has one formula: Much and many. After a day of conferences and discussions the evenings are filled with more vernissages than one can attend to. There is a retrospective of the highlights of ten years Dak'art. There is an exposition of sous-verres (paintings on glass) from the late Senegalese artist Gora Mbengue, a design salon and solo-exhibits. And I didn't even get to Dak'art Off, the unofficial part of the biennial. Artists and gallery owners take their chances all over town, to keep open house, to organise expositions and other presentations. If during the last biennial there were some fifty of these private initiatives, this year the number has more than doubled. In other words, the impact of Dak'art on the cultural life of the Senegalese capital is enormous.
One evening I visit three vernissages. The opening of Gora Mbengue, part of the official program of the biennial, and two expositions of the Off part: An exhibit by Ousmane Ndiaye Dago, a Senegalese photographer specialised in nudes of mud-smeared women, and a group expo in which several artists from Ivory Coast show their best under the motto 'Là terre est a nous'. The artists from Ivory Coast (en)charm me the most. Their work makes a fresh, somewhat trendy impression, for a change there is no recycled material involved, and there are hardly any earthly colours used. Yakouba Konaté, who has organised the exposition, is very proud of the fact that no subsidies were involved: 'We did it all with our own means'.
My tour turns out to be the same as that of the minister of culture Amadou Tidiane Wone. I run into him at every vernissage, surrounded by the same camera crew looking like they might collapse any time. Dak'art is a cultural circus and the media is right there to participate. The RTS, the Senegalese public network, gives coverage almost every evening, and the newspapers also give substantial reports on the biennial. The organisations own Dak'art- bulletin, some sort of information booklet coming out daily, deserves special attention. The production is in the hands of the participants of the workshop 'Journalisme Culturel'. The bulletin is a collection of useful background stories and interviews of mediocre quality.
The international market
The biennial may have grown into an event of respectable size, organisation wise there are some flaws. The program of 'Rencontres et Échanges' is a downright mess, especially on the first day. It is totally unclear who will speak when and where, but it gets worse. Even at the press table and at the reception no one can tell us more. Workshops and forums are not what they promised to be. The workshop on digital art - a very interesting newcomer on this biennial- takes off two days later than scheduled because the Internet connection didn't get realised on time. Guide Karen Dermineur works very hard on keeping her spirit up. 'Maybe on the last day things will work out perfect' she says optimistically.
Ousseynou Wade, director of the biennale, is the first one to admit that the organisation of Dak'art could be improved. According to him most problems have to do with communication, technique and transportation. He says that more money would be an important part of the solution, but there are rumours that the logistic flaws are a result of the fact that the director of the biennial gets resistance from his own staff on political grounds. Whatever the reason may be, publicly Wade keeps it all to himself. He remains charming under all circumstances and he is very generous with his time.
Between one of his many meetings and another opening Wade tells us that Dak'art 's orientation hasn't always been toward Africa: 'The expo of 1992 contained a lot of art from the different continents, but the satisfaction of putting something on display that could be seen elsewhere was very little. Also, there was the danger of African art succumbing altogether due to the lack of a clear focus. Then we decided to use the biennial as an instrument to promote African art and bring it to the eye of the public.'
Wade has no fear that this approach might result into artistic ghettoization. Admitted, the large overview exhibit is a strictly African matter, however the composition of the jury is international. And a lot of the specialists that have been invited to partake in the discussions and in the forums are not from Africa. Wade: 'Furthermore we give a lot of attention to the position of African art in relation to the international market. As far as I'm concerned one of the main objectives of the biennial is the improvement of this position.'
Art and development
On the 15th of may, Abdoulaye Wade, who has just returned from the UNESCO summit, will bring an extended visit to the CICES. The president is specifically moved by the work of an artist from Benin. Dominique Zinkpè. At this biennial Zinkpè was given an award by the UEMOA (Economic and monetary union of Western Africa). Zinkpè's installation shows a real to life figure made out of jute, positioned in a hospital bed and attached to all kinds of IV's, with names of the different developmental agencies on them. You may have guessed already, the figure represents Africa. Zinkpè: 'Somehow the giving party and the receiving party seem to benefit from the continuation of the present situation. As long as I can remember aid has been given to Africa, and as long as I can remember I haven't seen any change.'
It makes sense that Zinkpè's work appeals to Abdoulaye Wade. As one of the shaping forces of NEPAD, a new pan-African cooperation whose aim is the development of the continent, this work is the visualisation of how it should not be done. Personally I find the work of Zinkpé, who's coming to Holland next year for another art project, a bit too common.
I agree that art and development are related, the way Dak'art and NEPAD are related, but a work of art is not the same as an image with some explanation and a cultural manifestation is not a pre-election meeting. The relationship between artistic expression and the reality that feeds the expression is per definition ambivalent. In a sense the same goes for Zinkpè's hospital bed! An artist should relate to his environment, but at the same time he should keep his distance. He is continuously in dialogue, but at the same time he is forced to proceed in total autonomy. The question imposes itself in how far the world is ready for Africa as an autonomously shaping force. I have concluded that this biennial of Dakar is somewhat elitist, and in a way lost touch with the African reality. This observation reveals more about my own discomfort than it reveals about the importance of Dak'art as an international event. Why shouldn't Africans be elitist? Why shouldn't they be abstract, theoretical, sophisticated at the risk of losing sight of life at the bottom. Development doesn't only take place at the roots of society; it also affects the top of society. One of the roads leading there passes through a wide corridor filled with red roses. Now and again you see a shattered piece of glass.
This report was written by order of Prince Claus Fund