The 10th edition of Dak'Art: Biennale of Contemporary African art opened on May 10, 2012 at the newly completed Grand Theatre, a walking distance from La Gare, the official biennale village. Established in 1989, Dak'Art takes into account the Senegalese government's desire to promote culture as crucial to its national development agenda, and the importance of creating a sustainable postcolonial pan-African cultural institution with a global frame of reference in Africa. With over 400 official and independent exhibitions in Dakar, its suburbs, and the city of Saint Louis, Dak'Art 2012 gives vent to exciting prospects in the field of contemporary African art. At the same time, it underscores the challenges facing the state of being of the 22 year old biennale.
Works in the recent edition of Dak'Art mirror the diffuse repertoire of media, artistic forms and concepts which constitute contemporary artistic practice such as photography, sound, video, performance, object installations, etc., as well as conventional paintings and sculptures. Under the curatorial direction of Christine Eyene, Nadira Aklouche-Laggoune, and Riason Naidoo, the official international exhibition at Theodore Monod Museum, Dak'Art's traditional venue, drew artists from the five geographical regions of Africa, its archipelago and the Diaspora. The curators attempted to find the right balance of artists with name recognition, mostly those who have exhibited in previous iterations of the biennale, and emerging talents. They include Mounir Fatmi (Morocco/France) and Mamady Seydi (Senegal), and Chika Modum (Nigeria), Younes Baba-Ali (Morocco), Hervé Youmbi (Cameroon), and Lerato Shadi (South Africa) respectively. Mounir Fatmi's Burn Baby Burn (2011) explores popular culture and revolutionary ideology, specifically that of the legendary Black Panthers. The work consists of Burn Baby Burn boldly written on the wall with yellow and black paint, readymade branded bottles of spicy sauce, arranged in a plexi-glass shelf, a light box and a photograph of the branded spicy sauce bottle, combines elements of Warholian pop culture and new media savoir-faire in Fatmi's edgy and conceptual style. Mamady Seydi's undated Celui qui ne sait pas où il va, doit retourner d' où il vient? (The one that does not know where he goes, must return where he comes from) is an installation consisting of a gas pump and grotesque figures with animal heads and human torsos, numbering about 30, either riding bicycles or seated and kneeling in animal-drawn carriages and wheel barrows. The well-crafted figures are assembled in queue-like formation on a cloud of cotton wool placed on a green rug. Largely inspired by a fuel shortage crisis in Senegal in 2008 which resulted in endless queues at gas stations, the installation explores humanity's animalistic instincts when dealing with existential struggle for survival. The installation appears to also engage the symbolism of archaic modes of transport to address contemporary fuel-dependent means of human transportation.
Chika Modum's Isi Aka (2010) is a hanging string sculpture of braided hair made out of re-purposed black cellophane bags. Modum, a recent émigré to Canada, chooses a potent form of cultural identification, the African hairstyle, to open up a conversation on fixed and received notions of cultural roots, belonging, colonization, and globalization. Younes Baba-Ali's work addresses the perception of otherness in Horn Orchestra (2009). The sound installation, which won the biennial's grand prize, consists of 10 suspended car horns enclosed in an intimate white cube. Its deafening sound is triggered by the presence of viewers as a result of wired motion sensors. The absence of responsive political leadership in Africa which often results in African dictators clinging to power or handing over to their sons is addressed in Au Nom du Père, a painterly photographic installation by Hervé Youmbi. The work captures the most recent spate of political crisis in Africa beginning with the revolutions in North Africa to recent attempt by Senegal's former President Abdoulaye Wade to perpetuate himself in power. Lerato Shadi's Tlhogo is a live performance of the artist squeezing into crocheted hand-spun wool with a tiny entrance and lying still for close to 2 hours. The tiny entrance is stitched close from the inside with the only sign of live being the artist's short gasps of breathe, upon closer inspection. These works draw upon the specificity of personal and collective experiences to explore the broader contexts of African and global realities, which is embodied in the biennale's theme of Contemporary Creation and Social Dynamics.
Tributes, two monographic exhibitions, celebrate pioneer Senegalese modernist Papa Ibra Tall and avant-garde artist Issa Samb aka Joe Ouakam at Place du Souvenir and Samb's personal home, respectively. Guest Artists at National Gallery showcase works by octogenarian Peter Clarke (South Africa), Berni Searle (South Africa), and late Goddy Leye (Cameroon). The two exhibitions which help to bridge African modernist practices and its contemporary equivalents, in addition to the international selection, are the main shows of Dak'Art 2012.
There are exciting independent exhibitions under the auspices of Dak'Art OFF. Bruce Onobrakpeya and the Harmattan Experiments at Kadjinol Station presents experimental works by Onobrakpeya, a doyen of Nigerian art modernism, and younger generation of African artists who attend his annual artists' workshop in Nigeria. Ndary Lo's Windows, an experimental exhibition of hanging ropes and wall formations made from plastic bottle caps and containers of beverages and bottled water. Lo's exhibition at Biscuterie le Medina, a former biscuit factory in the industrial section of Dakar, points toward a new direction in the oeuvre of the artist who is better known for his steel schematized human forms. Other interesting OFF events include the many solo and group shows at Biscuterie le Medina, Making Douala, 2007 - 2013 at Raw Material Company, AfroPixel 3 festival by Ker Thiossane, and Burundian Serge Alain Nitegeka's solo exhibition Structural-Response 1 at Galerie Le Manège, among others.
Over the years, Dak'Art has provided a crucial platform for encountering and gauging the topography of current artistic practices and art discourse in Africa. It has showcased more than 500 artists in its official and fringe exhibitions, launched the careers of emerging artists, and served as a venue for networking among artists and critical constituents of the international art world including curators, gallerists, collectors and audiences. During the 10 year presidency of Abdoulaye Wade, the biennale competed at a disadvantage with the many prestige projects created in the image of the former president. With a newly installed presidency comes the dialectics of fear and hope that the new regime may either decrease funding or provide better institutional support for the biennale. However, new President Macky Sall whose presidency was inaugurated a month to Dak'Art 2012 reiterated the commitment of the Senegalese government to the biennale as the engine of cultural development in Senegal and Africa at the opening ceremony.
The recurring question about the autonomy of Dak'Art is a sore point that needs to be addressed effectively. After many evaluation reports, the general verdict is that the biennale must renegotiate its relationship with the Senegalese government in order to attract more international funding, and to deal with bureaucratic machinations that continue to act as a stumbling block to the success of the biennale, among many other issues. It is unfortunate that after 10 successive editions, Dak'Art continues to struggle with basic logistic and organizational challenges. Yet, the biennale needs all the support it can muster to thrive and fulfill the task of serving as a major forum for the transaction of international contemporary art from an African perspective.
Artist and art historian. Currently completing his Ph.D in Contemporary
African and African Diaspora arts at Emory University, Atlanta, USA.